South of Market (SoMa): It's Where the Foodie Gems Are Hidden

By Tom Molanphy, San Francisco Local Expert

Although SoMa, or "South of Market," is very popular with the tech crowd and local foodies, it still retains that quaint, village eatery feel that you might find in the countryside.  SoMa is constantly transforming itself, so it has to be constantly rediscovered, which means its fan base will ebb and flow with its highs and lows.

Unlike the pasta joints piled on each other all the way up Columbus Avenue, or the dimsum nooks crammed one after another in Chinatown, restaurants in SoMa are spread apart, so diners will need to walk a few blocks to find that perfect place. Unlike North Beach and Chinatown, though, Soma is relatively flat, and you'll be rewarded on your journey with tranquil views of the San Francisco Bay. Enjoy the space and the walk; it;s the closest the city gets to wide open spaces.

Although SoMa is constantly reinventing itself, one thing remains constant: a youthful, vigorous, 21st century commitment to local and sustainable food practices. Whether it's the full-tilt commitment of Source that offers filtered air or the neighborly-minded activism of NOPA, almost all the restaurants in this region feature cuisine with a conscience. If you're ready to tour San Francisco's village in the city, pick a favorite off our list below, knock the dust off those walking shoes, and enjoy your visit to SoMa.

10. Kokkari Estiatorio
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia

With all the fuss about the French and the Italians and their romantic ways, we shouldn't forget that the Greeks have been in the business of pairing food and love since ancient times. One of the most enchanting dinner destinations in the city, Kokkari Estiatorio offers a refined yet cozy ambiance that sets the mood for a perfectly picturesque evening. Fresh, seasonal ingredients are carefully combined to create Mediterranean delights like moussaka, zucchini cakes and grilled lamb chops. There are plenty of suitable wine pairings, as well, no matter what menu item you choose. The traditional walnut and honey baklava is a must for dessert.

9. HRD Coffee Shop
Photo courtesy of Facebook

If you value food over atmosphere in your dining experience, then HRD Coffee Shop might be the place for you. The location itself is as imaginative as its name, but the food is a daring and delightful mix of Chinese, American, Korean and Mexican favorites. You can try everything from Korean Loco Moco to Mongolian Cheesesteak, all under one old, unimpressive roof. But with all of San Francisco's Soma district waiting outside, from the cheers at AT&T Ballpark to a beautiful stroll along the bay, why would anyone want to be inside anyway? Order that Firecracker Shrimp for the road!

8. Prospect
Photo courtesy of Facebook

With experienced Executive Chef Nancy Oakes at the helm, Prospect has stayed at the top of "Best Of" San Francisco restaurant lists. The restaurant stays aware of the latest trends but keeps deeply rooted in what made them great in their first place: thoughtfully created dishes that are always more substance than show. Visit for brunch and try not to inhale their Peaches & Cream Pancakes, served with Cream Cheese Pancakes, Peach Syrup, Bruléed Peaches, Whipped Mascarpone, and Honeycomb. Or, at the other end of the day, kick back with their signature cocktail, "4 Year Voyage," which includes White Rum, Honey, Lime, and Cayenne.

7. The Butler and the Chef
Photo courtesy of Facebook

The Butler and the Chef has three simple but lovely food principles: mix the best local ingredients with some quality French imports; use only organic bread, pastry and milk products; and offer expertly made French and American beverages. That means you can enjoy a classic Parisien sandwich with locally raised Niman Ranch ham; a croissant made from the highest quality organic flour and butter; and a Macon Villages chardonnay from France. If you're wandering around San Francisco and get that wild lust for a delightful French Bistro, head straight for The Butler and the Chef. You'll be singing Oo-la-la before you know it.

6. Marlowe
Photo courtesy of Facebook

The stylish and intelligent atmosphere of Marlowe comes directly from its stylish and intelligent owner, New Zealand native Anna Weinberg, and Executive Chef Jennifer Puccio. Weinberg has owned several successful restaurants before, including Stella in New York (2001) and South in San Francisco (2007). And Pucio was executive chef of San Francisco's Cortez, where she won three stars from San Francisco Chronicle Food Editor and Critic Michael Bauer. In other words, these ladies really know what they're doing, and it definitely shows. Whether you want the legendary Marlowe burger for lunch or the always popular pan-seared scallops for dinner, you can rest assured that the entire restaurant has been trained to offer you a fantastic and memorable meal.

5. District
Photo courtesy of Facebook

Although it's first and foremost a winebar, District's expertise in nibbles and smaller plates actually makes it a fine option for dinner, too. From cold plates of hand cut steak tartare (violet mustard, fried quail egg & gruyere toasted baguette) to all natural beef sliders (gruyere and mimolette cheeses with red wine-onion jam) to wild mushroom pizzetta (roasted green onion, fontina & fine herbs), this small plate menu is a fantastic opportunity to taste just how many eclectic flavors California cuisine has to offer. And why rush off somewhere else for dinner when you're in one of the hippest and most happening spots in the whole city?

4. Volta
Photo courtesy of Volta

Volta, which means "turning point" in Latin, is the latest creation from San Francisco's dynamic dining duo of Chef Staffan Terje and owner Umberto Gibin. Terje and Gibin have operated Perbacco and Barbacco, two successful Italian restaurants in the Financial District, for many years. Volta's selections share some French influences, and Volta's varied menu of shellfish, salads, meats and vegetables offers something for everyone. The colorful but distinct flavor of the cod roe, however, is definitely an acquired taste. If you'd like the essence of the restaurant, but served in a glass rather than on a plate, order the signature Volta! cocktail: Linie aquavit (a Norwegian spirit famous for being finished off at sea in oak sherry casks), carrot juice, honey syrup and lemon.

3. Benu
Photo courtesy of sjsharktank

The magnificence of Benu begins with James Beard award-winning chef and owner Corey Lee. The best example of how seriously this Asian/American fusion restaurant takes its food is the fact Lee spent over a year just planning the idea of his restaurant with the best purveyors, gardeners, designers, architects and manufacturers he could find. From that high ideal, everything else flows, including the impeccable and knowledgeable serving staff and the inventive small courses, which are delicious on their own and downright unforgettable when thoughtfully paired with each other and the fantastic wine list. If you are ready to eat - and willing to pay for - a meal that is planned from the moment you step into the door to the moment you leave, visit Benu.

2. Saison
Photo courtesy of Facebook

Led by Executive Chef Joshua Skenes, Saison doesn't just follow the foodie trend in SoMa - it has helped establish and maintain it for several years. The principles of local and simply made food aren't just printed on the menu and the website; they are on full display at the restaurant itself, which is one large, cavernous space, allowing everyone to witness what food is available and exactly how it is being prepared. Saison has a deep commitment not just to sustainable cooking but in educating everyone in how important it is to know what you eat. As we all know, we are what we eat. If you choose to eat at Saison, we promise you will be one delicious person.

1. 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. If you want to see why many people call San Francisco more of a town than a city, visit Nopa and soak up our small town vibe.