Cream Rises to the Top: Best Restaurants of San Francisco's Nob Hill

By Tom Molanphy, San Francisco Local Expert

Of San Francisco's seven hills, Nob Hill often gets lost in the shuffle. But the rich residents of this well-to-do neighborhood wouldn't have it any other way ("Nob" comes from the British term for the wealthy). While most neighborhoods will clamor for your tourist dollar, Nob Hill quietly overlooks San Francisco behind the walls of the city's grandest and most expensive hotels: The Fairmont, The Mark Hopkins, The Stanford Court, and the Huntington Hotel. Not even the devastating 1906 earthquake could bring this lofty neighborhood down. Even though the massive fire started by the quake burned the hill all the way down to the stone (you can still find black smoke chars form the 1906 fire on some of the granite in this neighborhood), the neighborhood pooled its considerable resources together to build the area right back up.

Many visitors see Nob Hill by way of passing cable car, whizzing  through on the California line to or from Fisherman's Wharf and snapping a few photos of Grace Cathedral. Don't limit yourself to that, though. If you want a taste of where the elite meet and eat - and San Francisco is one of the richest cities in the world, by the way - hop off that cable car and grab a drink at the Tonga Room and then a juicy steak at the House of Prime Rib. Remember: when on vacation, it's not a bad idea to act like you're filthy rich.

10. Sanraku
Photo courtesy of Sanraku

Cuisine leaps to the forefront of this restaurant's appeal, thanks to raw and cooked options that, without exception, deliver on flavor, presentation, and preparation. Diners can choose from teriyaki, donburi, and tempura dishes and then pair them with a selection from the extensive list of sakes. Maki is a specialty, and resident chefs share their time with the Four Seasons next door. Sanraku also boasts a kaiseki menu, a rarity among Bay Area restaurants. Vegetarian items are available. Besides the Four Seasons location, Sanraku is also located in the newly remodeled Metreon, making a dinner date of sushi and a movie very convenient.

9. Frascati

Warm, intimate Frascati teems with neighborhood folks who appreciate its comfortable ambiance and toothsome cuisine. (For people not so close, the Powell & Hyde cable car runs just beyond the front door.) The menu covers that nebulous territory that unites Italian, Mediterranean, and Californian fare; to wit, lamb carpaccio with minted eggplant caponata, pan-roasted pork tenderloin with Italian sausage and creamy basil farro, and tiger prawn risotto with melted leeks and prosciutto. Cap your choice with artisan cheeses or the restaurant's coveted black and white chocolate bread pudding. Owners Rebecca and Jon Rader are usually on-site and will do their utmost to make you feel at home.

8. Olea
Photo courtesy of Facebook

This Nob Hill brunch spot offers Bay Area diners a comfortable, bistro-style atmosphere and refreshing mid-morning eats. The menu is centered around fresh organic produce, much of which is gathered from local farms, and changes depending on seasonal availability. Olea only uses cage-free eggs from Glaum Ranch in the nearby town of Aptos. You can always find Olea's signature dishes, however, including the challah custard toast and eggs baked in a cazuela. Or try eggs baked in a cazuela with tomato sauce, steamed farro spezzato, diced niman ranch applewood smoked ham and basil-almond pesto. No matter your order, a cup of Blue Bottle coffee makes the perfect addition.

7. House of Prime Rib

Although Bay Area cuisine is all about the latest "foodie" craze, if you're not all that much into someone messing around with your steak, then tuck a white linen napkin into your collar at the House of Prime Rib. The iconic House of Prime Rib serves potentially the highest quality corn-fed beef in the Bay Area. Their meticulously prepared meat is aged for 21 days, making it especially tender, juicy and flavorful. Diners enjoy well-marbled prime rib, carved tableside to their exact specifications, along with sides like fluffy mashed potatoes and creamed spinach. The dessert cart offers a decadent array of sinful sweets, and assorted wines promise the perfect pairing.

6. Venticello

You'll always meet up with a strong contingent of locals at this rustic, romantic haunt. The cable car line runs outside, and inside a wood-burning oven and Bay views impart a special charm. The menu's Tuscan cooking features gnocchi with mushroom cream sauce and gorgonzola, rosemary grilled lamb tenderloins, veal scaloppini, and seared ahi tuna over buttered spinach. End on a sweet note with mainstays like panna cotta, tiramisu, or Frangelico cheesecake. If you find yourself wandering Nob Hill, and something in the air makes you yearn for Tuscany, you don't have to walk all the way to North Beach for an Italian meal. Head to Venticello!

5. Swan Oyster Depot
Photo courtesy of Swan Oyster Depot

For generations, this small eatery has been delighting seafood lovers from all over the city. Distinguished by a marble counter and pull-up stools, the place puts all its attention on fresh shellfish, especially just-shucked oysters. You can also try clams on the half-shell, cracked crab, lobster, and shrimp, along with a few soups and salads. The place doesn't stand out from the street, so keep your eyes peeled. And if you're around during the lunchtime rush, you'll most likely have to wait. If you're in the mood for a throwback kind of seafood restaurant, where simple style counts, then head to Swan Oyster Depot.

4. Flour and Co
Photo courtesy of Flour and Co

The cheery bakery and cafe Flour and Co. sticks out among the upturned noses of Nob Hill's high-end restaurants like an unabashedly happy smiley face. If the gourmands of Nob Hill have you too self-conscious about which is the salad fork and which is the dining fork, head to Flour and Co, where most of the food can be eaten the best way: with two hands. Although it's justifiably known for delicious breakfast treats and munchies, don't discount their scrumptious lunch menu, which features a piping hot chicken pot pie and savory salads made from the best local ingredients. If you need a break for the heavy atmosphere that only comes from too many people concerned about too much money, head to Flour and Co for a reminder of the simple pleasures in life.

3. Acquerello
Photo courtesy of Acquerello Facebook Page

Elegant and subdued, this intimate restaurant (whose name means "watercolor") exhibits artistry in both cuisine and appearance. Acquerello's mission is simple but effective: "At Acquerello, we believe that refined luxury is always in style." Its serene ambience and its vaulted, beamed ceiling evoke Acquerello's former incarnation as a chapel. Contemporary Italian dishes are the main draw, though, and a frequently-changing menu features dishes like parsley-encrusted pork loin, beef carpaccio with hearts of palm and black truffles, and tuna in fennel-dill crust with saffron sauce. The wine list features fine Italian and California vintages. Winner of the prestigious Wine Spectator Grand Award in 2012.

2. Keiko a Nob Hill
Photo courtesy of Keiko Nob Hill

When you mix the lofty expectations of French cuisine with the deep pockets of Nob Hill, you get Keiko a Nob Hill, a rich dining experience in every way. For those who want to experience what puts the Nob in Nob Hill, check your humility at the door and strut with all the swanky style you can muster right into Keiko's. You don't have to go farther than the menu to know you're in the place where the elite meet and eat: "Salad L'Extravagance" and "Cornish Hen Galantine" are just a few of the starters. If you want that big, rich, signature meal that will make your vacation but break your wallet, head to Keiko's.

1. Big 4 Restaurant - The Scarlet Huntington
Photo courtesy of Big 4 Restaurant - The Huntington Hotel

Named after four of the most famous railroad tycoons of the nineteenth century (C.P. Huntington, Charles Crocker, Leland Stanford and Mark Hopkins), Big 4 Restaurant offers not only high-scale dining but a fascinating look into San Francisco's history. Led by Executive Chef Kevin Scott, Big 4 offers meals only railroad tycoons could handle: Seafood Risotto with Maine Lobster Meat, or Rack of Lamb with a Rosemary Rub. Leave plenty of time either before or after dinner to wander the sumptuous hallways of The Scarlet Huntington, and your Nob Hill experience will be complete.