5 Restaurants Near SFO Worth Landing At
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Slowly but surely, the San Francisco International Airport (SFO) dining scene’s improvement is making the airport a slightly less frustrating experience. With recent openings from current and former local favorites like the Manufactory Food Hall, 1300 on Fillmore (which is no longer on Fillmore) and Farmer Brown (the SF sibling is closed), it’s actually possible to have a legitimately good meal past security.
But, it’s still airport dining, which comes with the background soundtrack of “white courtesy telephone” requests and angry passengers screaming at gate agents (and don’t forget the inflated prices). Fortunately for those coming and going from SFO, the surrounding area is filled with outstanding dining choices of all price points and cuisines.
With the holiday travel blitz soon to start and the current runway construction causing hundreds of delays and cancellations daily, now is the time to have a great meal near SFO to take the edge off catching a flight—or give you an incentive to sit through 101 traffic when your roommate asks for a ride.
421 Cypress Ave.
South San Francisco
Only a handful of restaurants in the Bay Area can remember when Herbert Hoover was elected over Al Smith. South San Francisco’s beloved classic Italian destination is one of them.
Since 1928, Peninsula diners have come to this Check, Please! Bay Area-approved venerable address for tried-and-true Italian favorites with a slight Tuscan emphasis, which reflects where the Bertolucci family is originally from. Since 2005, the restaurant has been owned by Peter Sodini (the founder of North Beach’s equally beloved Golden Boy Pizza) after the Bertoluccis retired and sold the establishment.
That connection would explain why Golden Boy pizza is available on the menu, but the rest of what the kitchen produces probably looks much like it did 90 years ago but is far from tired: osso buco, veal Milanese, linguine con vongole, lasagna. Along with the complimentary, generous bread platter of cheese pizza-like focaccia hunks and sourdough slices, most tables start with a Caesar salad that prominently displays tiny anchovy filets draped on top.
Pastas are split between customizable pick-a-style and pick-a-sauce format, or traditional favorites like creamy tortellini Carbonara. For secondi, if you’re a first-timer, it’s all about trying the hardly innovative but perfectly done picatta sauce with salmon, veal or chicken. The silky mashed potatoes with it are particularly special and warrant your own trip. To conclude, biscotti, cannoli and silky chocolate praline (like a chocolate mousse torte) are must-orders, meaning that some additional dessert time should be allotted before catching a flight.
Bertolucci’s certainly falls into that “they don’t make ‘em like this anymore” group.With hulking plates of spaghetti and meatballs, dim lighting, retro Italian posters and art, and plush Rat Pack-era red leather booths, Bertolucci’s isn’t trying to replicate history. It IS history.
Flavas Jamaican Grill
314 Linden Ave.
South San Francisco
With the closings of Isla Vida and Kaya in recent months, the Bay Area’s already compact roster of Caribbean restaurants shrunk even further. Luckily, one of the region’s remaining stalwarts for jerk chicken and oxtails is still going strong—and happens to be right by SFO.
Chef/owner Leroy Douglas started cooking for his family in Jamaica at just 10 years old and after a long, winding career cooking all over North America, he ended up in South San Francisco opening this casual, charming restaurant with a definitive rendition of jerk chicken.
It has the ideal mix of Scotch bonnet peppers, cloves and a host of other spices that strike the right sharp spice/earthiness notes in coating the chicken without overwhelming it. The marinade has an interesting thickness to it that is rarely seen in jerk chicken preparations and must contribute to keeping the meat extra moist.
Guests can order the jerk chicken à la carte or as part of a combo with fall-off-the-bone oxtail or jerk salmon. There’s terrific detail in the cooking—huge depth to the gravy with the oxtail, deft seasoning with the rice and beans, perfectly caramelized plantains.
Outside of a Bob Marley poster and a painting of the Caribbean Sea at sunset, Flavas keeps it low-key on the design front in the tidy dining room. But when diners look at that shimmering Caribbean water and have a bite of the jerk chicken, there’s a special moment where diners have no worries, whether it’s just a quick lunch or dinner before a redeye.
148 El Camino Real
You can count on one hand the number of restaurants between the South Bay and Daly City that San Francisco Chronicle dining critics Michael Bauer and Soleil Ho named to their annual ‘Top 100’ guides in 2018 or 2019. Royal Feast, a relatively intimate 80-seat spot in Millbrae, is one of them—and for good reason.
Chef Zongyi Liu is one of the Peninsula’s most acclaimed chefs, both because of how consistently excellent his cooking is with a roughly 100 item-long menu and because he competed in the Bocuse d’Or global gastronomy competition representing his native China several years ago.
His menu is a mix of Szechuan favorites, seldom-seen royal banquet dishes generally served in large format styles, and the more expected Chinese or Chinese-American fare. The quality is strong, where even the oft-ridiculed kung pao chicken turns out to be a delight of spice, crunch and, yes, plenty of numbness from the ma-la sensation of Szechuan peppers.
Keep an eye out for the mapo tofu, pork dumplings in chili oil or the must-order poached fish fillet in chili oil, along with items in the ‘Chef’s Recommendations’ (the pork belly and sea cucumber won over this jaded pork belly eater) and ‘Royal Cuisine’ sections. For diners in the mood for Beijing-style smoked duck with crackling crispy skin served on a duck-shaped platter (it’s true), this is definitely one of the better renditions in SF or the Peninsula.
Finally, one other recommendation—every table should get at least one order of the scallion pancakes. They arrive scalding hot, slightly doughy in the center and, not revealed on the menu, accompanied by a baba ghanoush-evoking eggplant dip. Use the pancake with everything—spread the eggplant, dunk it in chili oil, use it for the additional duck slices, slather sea cucumber on it. It’s your feast. Enjoy!
235 El Camino Real
While omakase-only restaurants in San Francisco now charge north of $200 for their exquisite offerings, an omakase for sushi or sashimi at Gintei in San Bruno is either $50 or $65 — and generally a dozen of their fish offerings come from the same source: Tokyo’s famed Tsukiji Fish Market.
It’s easy to get carried away price-wise going the à la carte specials route at Gintei when the likes of Hokkaido uni and A5 Wagyu are over $20 per bite. However, an enjoyable bento box lunch or sushi-filled dinner here doesn’t have to focus on the luxury ingredients.
Gintei satisfies that hard-to-find niche where the omakase isn’t stratospheric, the à la carte fish quality is sensational AND the non-sushi or sashimi plates are equally well-executed. Of all the restaurants in the immediate SFO area, this is the one that is the most flexible for all kinds of diners.
Come to the sushi bar, say “omakase” and out comes a parade of minimally adorned, maximum quality shima aji, kanpachi and katsuo. Or, bring the family, sit in the slightly sleek dining room (bring a jacket because the air conditioning can be strangely strong here), and order individual rolls or nigiri offerings from the various specials board or printed menu.
But wait, then there’s the beautifully fried tempura, grilled salmon collar, and a delightful bowl of chilled ankimo (monkfish liver) that tempt from the kitchen. There are lots of choices. The good news? There’s no going wrong here.
Sam Choy’s Poke to the Max
629 San Mateo Ave.
Before celebrity chefs were celebrity chefs featured on gossip websites and Instagram feeds, they were just iconic, game-changing chefs like Sam Choy was (and still is) to the Hawaiian Islands. Along with the likes of Alan Wong and Roy Yamaguchi (the ‘Roy’ of Roy’s in San Francisco), Choy lifted up the ingredient quality and culinary identity of Hawaii’s beautiful and delicious cuisine. Not only that, Choy was one of the first ‘celebrity chefs’ that an airline used to design menus to make airplane food going to Hawaii actually not just, well, airplane food.
Coincidence or not, almost a decade after he began consulting for American Airlines, Choy’s first restaurant outpost is one of the closest eateries to SFO. As the name suggests, poke is the headliner.
Customizable poke bars are becoming as ubiquitous as sandwich delis in the Bay Area, but the shoyu salmon and creamy avocado here are as good as it gets anywhere in the region thanks to the pristine fish quality used. The customizable option comes into play where diners choose between tacos, wraps, salads and rice plates as the base for their poke. Unlike other poke bars, this one doesn’t offer an endless array of garnishes.
Beyond the poke, there are several other Hawaiian favorites like musubis (think sushi burritos) that include the obligatory spam but also branch out to other proteins. Classic Hawaiian plate lunches are served with the signature scoops of macaroni salad and rice alongside hearty proteins like ‘loco moco’ that can be a beef patty or, as is so 2019, a vegan one with ‘Just Egg’ and an Impossible burger patty.
There is a pleasant refinement here in general that makes it more along the lines of a ‘fine fast-casual’ spot than just ‘fast-casual.’ Plants hang from the walls, the poke is nicely plated instead of being just an uninspired scoop on a rice bowl, the scoops of rice sports flecks of umami-rich dried seaweed on top, and sunlight comes streaming in making the place positively glow even on foggy mornings.
It might not be poke on the beach but it’s at least close to the max poke experience.