San Francisco’s best (and worst) restaurants for vegetarians

- - All, California, Food

I’ve been a vegetarian for 17 years, five of which have been spent in San Francisco. On raw ingredients alone, we have it good here in Northern California; because of that, vegetarian-friendly restaurants are everywhere. But great vegetarian-friendly restaurants are harder to find. I think there’s a misconception that vegetarians always want fake meat or the bland cliche that is a portobello mushroom sandwich. Likewise, some of the best vegetarian food isn’t found at vegetarian restaurants. So I’ve rounded up a list of my favorite places to eat in San Francisco — along with some veg-friendly spots that underwhelm, since nobody wants to run all over town for something that’s not phenomenal.

A note on what I mean by “vegetarian food.” To each his own taste, but I prefer vegetable-centric food to fake meat, lighter dishes to ones drowning in mozzarella. Fresh, flavorful, fun. So if that’s the kind of food that you love, too, here you go.

Go here:

Best veggie burger The Plant Organic Cafe wins praise for its beet-based burger, and it’s a pretty good — if expensive — sandwich. But for my money, the best burger-burger is the Earth Burger at Umami Burger. (So much burger in such a small sentence!) The mushroom-and-edamame patty is topped with ricotta, hugged by house-made buns, and delightfully sloppy. It’s not cheap either, but when was the last time a meat eater actually thought your veggie version was superior to his patty? I rest my case.

Best food truck
San Francisco has a strong food truck scene, but unlike Portland’s, it’s all over the damn place. I don’t have time to keep up with trucks on Twitter, with one notable exception: Liba falafel. Wow wow! The falafel has a crisp crunch, which is reason enough to go, but the real draw is the condiment bar. Spicy carrot strips, lemon-thyme beets, and fried pickled onion are just some of the options. Load up your sandwich like crazy, and don’t forget to get the garlicky cilantro-lime sweet potato fries.

Best breakfast
Plow, out in Potrero Hill, makes a damn good egg sandwich and reminds me of that band Plow United. But I’m loyal to Dottie’s True Blue Cafe in Soma. Yes, it’s written up in the tourist guides, but that’s because it’s good. So good, in fact, that I’ll stand in line for 40 minutes while a legion of crackheads ask for money. (You can tell the locals from the visitors by their reaction to this spectacle.) House-made muffins are a big draw, fresh orange juice is available if that’s your thing, and the servers are just so nice. Get the black bean cakes with fluffy scrambled eggs, and get a side of cornbread with jalapeño jelly. Go hungry and leave in a state of bliss.

Best burrito
Taqueria Cancun, followed by the El Farolito on Mission and 24th. But really, go to Cancun first.

Best prix fixe
When was the last time you had a $20 four-course dinner in a former rotisserie joint? If the answer is “never,” get yourself to Mr. Pollo. The food in this hole-in-the-wall spot is as elegant and creative as what you’d find in dozens of more expensive (and less fun) restaurants. Arepas are always part of the meal, but the other courses vary. Expect a soup, a salad, and a beautifully presented main featuring fresh local vegetables. While it’s not a vegetarian restaurant, chef Manny is accommodating to vegetarians.

Best vegan-friendly place I wish I lived near
Outerlands is a few blocks from the Pacific, there’s always a wait, and it’s a pain to get to on public transportation. Those who make the schlep are rewarded with the best little gem salad I’ve had anywhere, sandwiches made with thick, yeasty bread, and an ever-changing menu that usually has a few vegan choices just sitting there. Plus, the weathered wood walls and warm lighting are muy romantico.

Best raw food
Alive used to be a restaurant, but now it only pops up at the weekly Ferry Building farmers market. Which is a shame, because its wraps and desserts are flavorful, creative, and tasty enough that even carnivore Dylan had to admit it was pretty good.

Best pizza
It’s a toss-up between Little Star and Patxi’s. Little Star used to be my favorite — the signature pie with cornmeal crust is the best I’ve ever had — but if you’re vegan or lactose intolerant (hi), you’re out of luck. So now I go to Patxi’s, which is also delicious and offers soy or Daiya “cheese” options.

Best date place
Frances. It’ll take weeks (if not months) to score a reservation, but you can also try your luck at scoring one of the ten seats at the bar. The food is contemporary but non-gimmicky — think chickpea fritters, chanterelles-and-peas crepes — and it’s all wonderfully fresh. Frances isn’t a vegetarian restaurant, but you’ll have no problem ordering straight off the menu. If I could afford to eat here every day, you’d hear no complaints.

Skip these:

Herbivore
All longtime vegetarians fear the proudly vegetarian restaurant that serves bland, soggy vegetables mixed with salty rice. We know that omnivores who eat there will likely cite it as proof that meatless meals are bor-ringggg. This is that restaurant in San Francisco.

Enjoy Vegetarian
If heavy, hit-you-in-the-gut fake meat is your thing, you’ll probably like this place. The faux stuff looks extremely realistic, which is impressive even if you don’t miss actual meat. But I’ve eaten here twice, and both times, I’ve left with a brick in my stomach. Did not enjoy.

Cha-Ya
I hate to rag on a Japanese vegan place, but I just don’t get the hype. Maybe you need to love simple vegan Japanese food? Depending on your perspective, you’ll find the flavors either subtle or bland. You can guess where I stand.

Photo: Amy Widdowson
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Annie

  • Basic A

    Nice list Annie! 100% agree on several of these, but you’ve also listed places I’ve never been, which is exciting.

    I absolutely love the Plant burger, but now I’ll have to try Umami. When it’s on the menu, the battered and fried portabella sandwich at Wexler’s redeems the dreaded portabella veggie option. Totally agree on Liba’s: especially since SF food trucks are often unexciting or not accommodating for vegetarians. And agree on Can-cun as well. Plus, their rice and beans are veggie.

    I actually like Little Star’s cheese-less deep dish pie as a vegan option, though I frequent Paxti’s more often. As for Cha-ya, I’m a fan, but you have to choose the right dish and be in the mood for something akin to raw veggies in broth. And yes, stay away from Herbivore at all costs.

    • Annie

      Adam! We should go to Umami together. They have not one but TWO vegetarian options. Both are good, but the Earth is phenomenal. I haven’t tried the one at Wexler’s (you know how I feel about said mushroom) but I trust your judgment. Anyway, you + me = Umami Burger adventure soon.

  • Eric M

    Wow. You and I have very different taste buds. I pretty much disagree with everything you said except for your burrito suggestion. The mushroom burger at umami is way betteer than the umami veggie. But the best veggie burger is actually at hills tone (formerly Houston’s). Your dis of enjoy and herbivore are way off. Enjoy has some amazing vegetable only dishes if you are not into fake meat and is one of the most reasonably priced. Herbivore suffers from a dated menu and inconsistent preparation but if you know what to get it can be pretty tasty. Try the tacos or the shwarma. I wanted to offer a few more suggestion: great veggie dim sum at lucky creation from the front counter, good but expensive dim sum at yank sing where they clearly mark what’s vegetarian, Dosa has some of the best veggie Indian food I’ve ever had, Thai idea has all veggie Thai food, Saha for a special occasion has some incredible vegetarian and vegan food, jays cheesesteak can do a seitan (or vegetable) cheesesteak. Hope these suggestions help for others that find themselves scratching their heads while reading your suggestions.

    • Annie

      Hey Eric! Thanks for the comment, and thanks a ton for the suggestions. To each his (or her) own, you know? I always like getting recommendations, and I’ll check out the dim sum options you mentioned. I like Dosa; have you had their brunch?

  • Werther deGoethe

    Enjoy Vegetarian was named one of the best Chinese restaurants in the US by CNN not too long ago. It’s one of the few Chinese restaurants where you know there will be no cross-contamination with meat products. Not all their offerings use faux meat, either.

    And, please check out the vegetarian burger KK Cafe on Divisadero. I like it much better than the pricey patties you wrote about.

    • Annie

      Hey Werther! Thanks for the comment and for the KK Cafe suggestion. I’ll definitely check it out, because as you said, the above patties are pricey. (But in Umami’s case, so worth it.) I’m dying to find a good tempeh burger, so if you know of a good one, please share.

      I do like Enjoy’s philosophy and commitment to vegetarianism. I just didn’t feel so hot (same with my beau) after eating there, and half of our food was mock meat-free. Are there any dishes you recommend?

  • jon

    Nice bold write-up! Thanks for some great ideas, Umami just made my list, and who knew Mr. Pollo had veg options.

    I can’t believe you don’t like Cha ya! I didn’t know there was hype around it, but all their udon soups are amazing, try the curry udon, it’s anything but bland. Their sushi rolls are perfect, and everything comes out the exact same every time, very predicable (but potentially bland). Try that soup!

    To each their own though, and thanks for the list! The crust at little star is infinitely better than Patxis, but from the intollerance perspective, point very well taken.

    • Annie

      Thanks, Jon! You know, I didn’t expect Mr. Pollo to have veg options either (hello, it’s named Señor Chicken!) but they’re very accommodating.

      It’s funny that you mention Cha Ya. I had a feeling it would be a controversial pick. I think it really is one of those places that people either savor or shrug at. I’ll give the udon soup a try. Do you know of any good ramen places in town? I’ve been to Genki Ramen and a few other places with veg broth, but I haven’t found that perfect Takayama-style bowl yet.

      I agree with you on the Little Star crust. Magical. Thanks for the comment!

  • ian

    Sunrise Deli has a food truck that offers an excellent mediterranean veggie platter (hummus, baba, falafel, rice+lentils, pita, etc etc) for $9. thumbs up, its a huge portion (rare for food trucks).

    • Annie

      I’ll have to check it out. I’ve been to the brick-and-mortar locations, but I haven’t heard about a food truck. Noted! Thank you.

  • Caitlin

    Annie, thank you for this list, my usual places are probably sick of feeding me. Looking forward to trying some new dishes!

    • Annie

      Hi Caitlin! Thanks for the nice comment. If you go to any of these, I’d love to know what you think — or if you have favorites of your own, I’m all ears. Or mouth, as the case may be.

  • tastr

    I can’t believe you didn’t mention source! They have the best veggie buffalo bites. Their pizzas are great. Everything is vegetarian or can be made vegan. weird fish is also great for vegetarians.

    • Annie

      Source… I haven’t had their veggie buffalo bites or pizza, just the burger (which, in my book, was OK but not mind-blowing). And I haven’t been to Weird Fish since new management took over. Liked it three years ago, definitely did not like two years ago, and should probably get there this year. Thanks for the reminder.

  • jessica

    Hi…you can’t leave off Gracias Madre!! That place is fresh, organic, seasonal, full of heart, and knock your socks off delicious. Off the radar and packed all the time….even though it’s *vegan* mexican food. Sheesh. Only in San Francisco. Muchas Gracias!

    • Annie

      Excellent call. I agree with you on all counts. My omnivorous beau (who objected to being labeled a carnivore in this post!) craves that place like crazy. I’m so glad it didn’t close after the Cafe Gratitude shutterings.

  • Basic A

    I should also mention that you’ve made me willing to give Mr. Pollo another try. I liked it when if first opened, though the veggie options were a little sparse. I just thought it was creepy that when they updated the interior from hole in the wall to some sort of industrial chic, the clientele immediately changed from all Latino to all white. But the veggie prix fixe you described sounds delicious.

    As for a lack of good veggie ramen, that’s not surprising. San Francisco has never had a wide variety of Japanese offerings.

    • Annie

      Oh, let’s go sometime. Cheap friend-date. The on-menu options are sparse, but they’ll gladly accommodate vegetarians. Each time I’ve been, there’s been no problem. The omnivorous stuff is probably more filling (obviously, more food) but I never felt as though the meal was not as good. ¡Vámonos!