Infinite Appetite, Finite Budget: Nob Hill

From the House of Prime Rib to Buffalo Theory, Nob Hill's food scene might be more diverse than you think.

House of Prime Rib (Photo by Evan Ducharme)

Like most neighborhoods that don’t border water, Nob Hill’s precise boundaries aren’t defined according to universally agreed-upon terms. Street grids and hillsides don’t comport, but no matter how you carve it up, it’s a fairly small, mostly residential neighborhood dominated by grand hotels. As such, the food skews considerably toward the high end — even if you stretch the southern edge a block or two down from California Street to Pine or Bush and extend things west to Van Ness, thereby capturing some of Polk Street’s energy.

Your budget can be finite if you want to eat your way through Nob Hill, but “nominally finite” might be the better way to go. Still, from the Tonga Room to Hot Sauce and Panko, there’s plenty to reward yourself with after an afternoon traipsing around the neighborhood’s secret alleys.

The Heavy Hitters
Normally, we recoil in horror at the sight of trompe l’oeil, but not when it comes to the House of Prime Rib (1906 Van Ness), the undisputed kingmaker of San Francisco steakhouses. Order the monarchical King Henry VIII cut and mop it up with Yorkshire pudding after you’ve downed a gin martini. There’s even a secret menu that includes pickled beet horseradish, baked potato-style fixings for the mashed potatoes, and an “end cut” option for your free helping of seconds.

Two-Michelin starred Acquerello (1722 Sacramento) has been around for close to 30 years, and chef Suzette Gresham has almost never erred in her pursuit of creating the quintessential Italian spot for celebrating a major milestone. The stealth Michelin favorite is unquestionably Keiko à Nob Hill (1250 Jones), an intimate Japanese-New American room with but a single seating every night for its 12-course kaiseki dinner.

Elsewhere, the hilltop hotels retain the grandeur they always had, from caviar and Crab Louie bruschetta at the Intercontinental Mark Hopkins’ Top of the Mark (999 California) to the inimitable Tonga Room across the street, in bowels of the Fairmont (950 Mason). “Grandeur” may not be the operative concept at this 60-year-old tiki palace, but when the thunder rumbles and you take one last glug of your fog cutter, you know Pele the volcano goddess continues to bless it. Don’t overlook the Scarlet Huntington’s hyper-classical Big 4 (1075 California), where you can eat like a railroad baron on old-school dishes like a wedge salad, cioppino, and petrale sole.

Elegance, All-Around
In Nob Hill, even ordinary places are a little fancier than usual, and places that would stand out elsewhere remain something akin to a closely guarded secret — think of steakhouse Osso, cozy French bistro Rue Lepic, brunch spot Mymy, or wine bar Amelie. Many others are considerably better known citywide and beyond, such as the tourist favorite Nob Hill Cafe (1152 Taylor), a lunch-and-dinner pizza-and-pasta spot for out-of-town visitors who can’t stomach a postprandial walk uphill from North Beach. A few notches more upscale is Seven Hills (1550 Hyde), a farm-to-table Roman restaurant with a wine list that’s both extensive and affordable, while across the street, everything at French rotisserie Cocotte (1521 Hyde) revolves around chicken and the casserole dish its sides come in.

A hipper spinoff of Acquerello, 1760 (1760 Polk) under chef Carl Foronda has brought ingredient-driven California cooking to the neighborhood, while Bourdain-approved Swan Oyster Depot (1517 Polk) is one of the hardest places in S.F. to get a stool, even if the crab back is, indeed, “unicorn juice.” And relative newcomer Buffalo Theory (1735 Polk) merges upscale pub fare with Filipino cooking in a seamless presentation that might make you want to get an intentional hangover just so you can cure it, then start the process anew.

About That ‘Finite Budget’ Part
It sounds like a French cooking school, but Cordon Bleu (1574 California) is a savvily branded Vietnamese hole-in-the-wall with terrific five-spice chicken and imperial rolls that are second only to Tu Lan’s. A few blocks north and east, Hot Sauce & Panko (1468 Hyde) is a gruff yet delicious non-restaurant retail store that serves chicken, waffles, and pan-Asian sauces solely to go (with a picture of a young Bill and Hillary Clinton hustling you out the door). If you need to sit, head to the Portuguese-inflected diner Grubstake (1525 Pine), probably Nob Hill’s best late-night dining option, or tuck into matzoh ball soup and a melted pastrami sandwich at the no-nonsense Miller’s East Coast Delicatessen (1725 Polk), probably S.F.’s closest approximation to Katz’s Delicatessen in New York.

While Polk Street and the surrounding environs have innumerable shot-and-beer bars, many of which cater to the popped-collar crowd, the Wreck Room (1390 California) stands out for its many games, including mini-basketball, Skee-ball, shuffleboard, pool, and more. Also of note is The Cinch (1723 Polk) the lone gay bar holding down Polk Gulch’s queer past with cheap beer, a no-attitude atmosphere, and a drawing of a man being mounted by a lion. (It’s a powerful bachelorette party deterrent.)

Lastly, there is Bob’s Donut & Pastry Shop (1621 Polk). This is where the definition of Nob Hill gets a little iffy, in both the letter of the law and the spirit. But tony or not, Bob’s is the zenith of doughnuts, a 24-hour, don’t-tap-the-glass-or-you’ll-scare-the-doughnuts joint where the dough is made from scratch — and the mighty accept the challenge to eat one of the big ones in under three minutes. Fewer than 150 people have ever done it, and the winning time is one minute, 16 seconds.

Check out more stories in our feature on Nob Hill here:

Lights, Camera, Action at the Fairmont Hotel
With more than 10 major films shot at the Nob Hill site, Hollywood has designated it San Francisco’s reigning cinematic hotel.

A Slow But Steady Thieving
Four bronze tortoises regularly disappear from Huntington Park’s fountain.

The Ascent to Jones
Scaling Nob Hill in pursuit of its flattest blocks.

The Gardens of Fairmont
The Nob Hill hotel has a picturesque rooftop park open to locals.

Don’t Miss the AIDS Memorial Quilt Exhibit at Grace Cathedral
By bathing 15 panels of the quilt in light, the stained glass windows sanctify the 20,000 San Franciscans who died in the modern plague.

Nob Hill Has One Grocery Store, and It’s Proudly Independent
Sometimes described as a cross between Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods, Le Beau Market has a rooftop garden.

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