There’s nothing quite like the winter months that inspires local restaurants and bars to deck the walls with fairy lights and find new ways to make holiday classics unique to their menu. If you’re feeling festive and want your food to match the mood, check out these San Francisco holiday picks.
Salt & Straw
Salt & Straw’s seasonal flavors are as dependable as the months changing themselves. This December, Salt & Straw is bringing back some classic flavors — apple brandy & pecan pie, peppermint bark cocoa — and changing an old one: Its Cinnamon Chai Spiced Eggnog (originally Cinnamon Coconut Eggnog) carries rum and chai tea from Diaspora Coffee & Chai Co. for a fitting spin on eggnog. But the Sugar Plum Fairy (an assam tea-infused ice cream with bright spurts of housemade plum jam) and Gingerbread Cookie Dough (a simple “royal icing” based cream decorated with crumbly chunks of gingerbread) still take the crown.
Salt and Straw
586 Hayes St., 2201 Fillmore St.
While Dungeness crab might not scream “holiday,” its seasonal harvest is valued annually in San Francisco, with Fisherman’s Wharf and various SF restaurants celebrating the festivities in their own ways. M.Y. CHINA, where internationally renowned chefs Martin Yan and Tony Wu lead the charge, is bringing seven different flavors to Dungeness crab from seven different Chinese provinces in honor of their (you guessed it) seventh anniversary. “It takes a lot of imagination to make this,” Yan says.
Yan’s elaborate Dungeness crab menu is truly one of a kind — stop by before their fish tanks are empty to try one of the seven. Each two pound crab is served at market price and cooked to order. The flavors range from coconut curry to chili pepper (which isn’t very spicy at all — Yan adjusts the levels to cater to an international audience). But the clear winners of the menu are the typhoon garlic dusted crab and the salted egg yolk crab, two dishes that go way above and beyond from your typical salt and butter with their dynamic textures. The typhoon garlic dusted crab overflows with fried minutely-sized garlic pieces, their powerful fragrance matching their flavor. The salted egg yolk crab uses salted duck egg yolks — commonly found in moon cakes — for a crispy breading that packs a savory taste unique to these egg yolks. Eating this crab is like reliving one of the best parts of the mid-Autumn festival in a new method that Yan says has only gained traction in the past three decades or so.
845 Market St.
The Brixton on 2nd and on Union
The Ho-ho Toddy at The Brixton on 2nd really has its stuff figured out. It’s a favorite off their holiday cocktail menu (each drink is priced at $13), probably for its smooth bourbon. The Woodinville Bourbon is balanced perfectly with lemon and chai for a drink that has enough spice and kick to stay interesting while homey. If you’d prefer something a bit brighter, opt for the Benedictine Bender, a sweet and tart cocktail with Bulleit Rye whiskey and chartreuse.
If you’re there for dinner, The Brixton on 2nd also has two stellar seasonal dishes, including the pumpkin ravioli: creamy pockets of kabocha squash and pumpkin that are juxtaposed with candied walnuts for the ultimate cold-weather comfort food. The crispy duck leg also takes an innovative spin on duck skin, baking the leg and then quickly frying it in its own fat for maximum flavor and minimum grease. It’s topped with sweet pickled onion, making every part of this dish exciting to eat.
If you’re looking for a thriving drinks scene though, try the Brixton on 2nd’s sister branch, the Brixton on Union, where holiday cocktails are priced at $14. Up in Cow’s Hollow, the Brixton on Union is decked out with flashing curtains of fairy lights, vintage posters, and wonderfully ostentatious wallpaper. The Brixton on Union has its own spin on a hot toddy — the Chartreuse Blazer, which uses chartreuse for an herb-filled fragrance for a drink that’s meant to be tea-based. Also joining the holiday cocktail menu is the Rudeshein Coffee, where the bitterness from the coffee, sharpness from the brandy, and sweetness from the whipped cream balance each other out for a strong and creamy drink.
The Brixton on 2nd
701 2nd St.
The Brixton on Union
2140 Union St.
The Balboa Cafe
The main theme for Balboa Cafe’s $13 holiday cocktails seems to be warm, cozy drinks, and lots of coffee, cream, and brown sugar. On the menu are the classics: a hot buttered rum, warm eggnog, and a hot toddy. But the standouts are really the Hot Apple Pie (a blend of apple cider and tuaca that’s not overwhelmingly sweet) and the Hot Nutty Irishman (coffee, Bailey’s Irish cream, and Frangelico come together for a highly drinkable cocktail that just tastes like a good cup of coffee with cream and sugar). The Balboa Cafe sources their coffee from Oakland-based roaster Peerless Coffee and Tea, which recently won Roaster of the Year from Roast Magazine. Pair your drinks with the deviled eggs ($11.50), topped with a giant swirl of fluffy egg yolk and sweet bacon jam, or the filet mignon ($33), which comes with pickled cherries and a wonderfully custard-like cornbread pudding.
3199 Fillmore St.
The blistered brussel sprouts ($14) might be the best thing from True Laurel’s seasonal selections. Crispy and tart with green garlic caesar dressing, this dish has cauliflower, savoy cabbage, and a generous helping of cured egg yolk. It’s surprisingly decadent without being too overpowering, the tartness from the caesar dressing cutting through its own thickness. For drinks, try the Giuseppe’s Juice, True Laurel’s spin on a Garibaldi that incorporates cinnamon infused bitter aperitif for a spicy and warm seasonal cocktail. At the end of the meal, opt for their housemade bay laurel ice cream, which sits on a bed of candied beets and pomegranate seeds and is drizzled lightly with olive oil. It’s not a very sweet ice cream, but the flavors from the fruit swirl through, taking the spotlight in this simplistic dessert.
753 Alabama St.