Gluten-Free by the Golden Gate: San Francisco's 10 Best Gluten-Free Restaurants

By Tom Molanphy, San Francisco Local Expert

What's the deal with gluten? For a myriad of reasons, some hard to pin down, this simple protein is getting a bad rap for being the meanest bully on the food block. Gluten-free diets are all the craze: celebrities from Miley Cyrus to Al Roker are forsaking the protein, and there's even a Gluten Free Expo in Sandy, Utah that drew thousands and thousands of eager devotees. 

But for those who have the rare disease called celiac, the choice to go gluten-free has nothing to do with fads, celebrities, or expos. Since their bodies can't tolerate gluten, which is a protein found in rye, wheat and barley, they have to avoid it all costs. And since gluten can be found in almost all baked goods (and most beers..!), locating that expertly made gluten-free chocolate cake to accompany your after-dinner coffee becomes a must.

But since gluten is almost always accompanied by other necessary proteins and vitamins, such as zinc, B12, iron, phosphorous and calcium, those who don't really need to be gluten-free should talk to their doctor. Or approach your "gluten-free" diet the same as you would a vacation: it's a nice place to visit, but you wouldn't want to live there.

10. nopa
Photo courtesy of Nopa

Nopa defies categorization as either old or new because it has some of both. Although it's only been around since 2006, chef Laurence Jossel worked at several traditional and popular restaurants before Nopa and brings professionalism and expertise to every dish. But tradition bends to experimentation, and that wonderful blend creates some of Nopa's most famous dishes, such as Moroccan vegetable tangine and wood-roasted king salmon. What's more, as one of the more popular restaurants in the city, Nopa makes a concerted effort to be a friendly, active, and concerned neighbor. And from Prather Ranch to Balakian Farms, Nopa's dedication to local, organic, and sustainable products is truly impressive.

9. Pacific Catch San Francisco - Marina
Photo courtesy of Facebook

Specializing in fish, Pacific Catch combines innovative cooking styles from Asia, Latin America and Hawaii with fresh, local ingredients to create a California-style cuisine all its own. Patron favorites include the raved-about island fish tacos (also available with chicken or steak), as well as the pan-Asian rice bowls. The signature sweet potato fries are a must-have accompaniment to any of the seafood baskets, which feature Thai coconut shrimp, crispy oysters or a mixed catch. The staff is very responsive to your specific order, including gluten-free options. Locations in the South Bay, North Bay and two in San Francisco - including one right next to Golden Gate Park.

8. Slanted Door
Photo courtesy of Facebook

High ceilings and awesome Bay views establish a unique atmosphere at this well-received waterfront venue. Style and spectacle are grounded, though, by Slanted Door's authentic country Vietnamese dishes, which get a California kick from local ingredients. Taste the results in the catfish claypot, crispy peppercorn duck, shaking beef, spicy squid and mesquite-grilled pork chops. Spring rolls also come highly recommended, and great cocktails and scrumptious desserts are worth indulging in. And with a world-famous chef/owner like Charles Phan in charge (author of the fantastic cook book "Vietnamese Home Cooking"), you'll get quite a crowd. And don't forget to keep an eye out for celebrities!

7. The American Grilled Cheese Kitchen
Photo courtesy of sfeater.com

If you still have savory dreams from childhood of two slices of perfectly buttered toast squeezing out melted cheddar cheese, this restuarant is for you. And, even though the recipe is simple, they take their one product very seriously, with "Commander in Cheese" Heidi Gibson dreaming up delectable sandwiches such as "The Mousetrap," which has an unforgettable mix of Tillamook Cheddar, havarti and Monterrey jack. And since grilled cheese should go hand-in-hand with tomato soup, be sure to order a to-go cup of their house-made Smoky Tomato Soup. If you think you know grilled cheese sandwiches, swing by The American Grilled Cheese Kitchen and get an education about this simple American masterpiece.

6. DOSA on Valencia

Dosa provides some of the finest authentic Indian Cuisine in San Francisco. The restaurant derives its name from its specialty dish, the dosa, which is similar to a crepe, it is made from rice & lentils (no wheat) and served with a variety of fillings. The excellent Indian cuisine is mixed with a casual yet refined atmosphere, making Dosa the perfect venue for a night out with a little bit of international flair. And DOSA was popular even before the recent surge of new restaurants opening up and down all of Valencia Street, so they're more tried and true than some of the more recent arrivals.

5. Roam Artisan Burgers
Photo courtesy of Roam

Lynn Gorfinkle and Josh Spiegelman – the inspired and conscientious owners of Roam Artisan Burgers, with two San Francisco locations and one in the East Bay – have made a hamburger that's a cut above all the rest. Every ingredient on Roam's menu is selected by taking into account what contributes to the long-term well-being of the entire ecosystem. This is not a slap-some-pickles-and-some-meat-on-a-bun operation, in other words. Roam's classic burgers are made with 100% grass-fed, grass-finished beef from Pacific Pastures. And, yes, for those who do not like gluten in their buns, Roam has you covered there, as well.

4. Glutless
Photo courtesy of Glutless

The "gluten-free" craze certainly has its share of cynics. Since gluten has been in food since, well, biblical times, there are naysayers who claim it's just a strange fad and not really based on any true health issues. Those naysayers should take the time to visit Glutless, a modest but extremely thoughtful gluten-free bakery founded by people who suffer from Celiac disease, a real condition that makes gluten consumption a real problem. Although most of the items are for snacking, such as blueberry muffins, banana breads and pineapple cakes, those who want a bigger meal should call and order one of their delicious pizzas.

3. Firefly

Marked only by the image of a firefly, this neighborhood restaurant features a fabric-draped ceiling and impeccable seasonal cuisine. Local, organic ingredients play a major role in the menu, especially in favorites like shrimp and scallop potstickers and scrumptious fried chicken. Richly creative dishes also include roasted duck breast with chestnut bread pudding, slow braised beef short ribs, and cornmeal-crusted rock cod with bacon-braised cabbage. A three-course, prix fixe option is available for $35 Sunday through Thursday and is a great deal. Wonderfully unpretentious and casual, Firefly lets the natural seasons dictate their menu. For example, a summer menu highlight is "Chopped Salad of Yummy Summer Stuff with Fun and Exciting Vinaigrette." Who said eating healthy can't be fun?

2. The Plant - Cafe Organic
Photo courtesy of Pica Pica Maize Kitchen

When a big popular tend like gluten-free comes along, it's definitely important to distinguish the posers from the true believers. If you want to eat where they take gluten - or the lack of it - very seriously, head to one of the Plant's six locations, including three in San Francisco. All of the food served at Plant is organic and locally sourced from some of the best farms in the Bay Area, including Wineforest Wild Foods in Napa Valley, County Line Harvest in Marin and Devoto Gardens in Sebastopol. If you still have room after your heaping plate of organic and gluten-free food, try the signature Plant menu item: the Cleanse, a raw, organic vegetable or fruit juice that will completely detoxify your system.

1. Pica Pica
Photo courtesy of Pica Pica Maize Kitchen

One of three locations, the Valencia Street restaurant in the Mission District is where the magic that is Pica Pica first happened in 2010. Fitting in perfectly with its surroundings full of Latin flair, this Maize Kitchen is open for lunch, dinner and dessert. Most popular on the menu is the arepa (pocket composed of grilled corn and stuffed with vegetables, plantains, beans, cheese or meats. . .your choice). Also sample the ceviche or yuca fries as a starter. Don't leave without having a glass of sangria and a taste of dessert (yuca beignets or coconut quesillo). Bringing pure food, fantastic flavors and environmental awareness, all take-out containers are completely biodegradable.