Clearing the fog on cheap eats in San Francisco

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in September 2016.

Story highlights

San Francisco has food fairs, markets and festivals that cater to smaller budgets

The Ferry Plaza Farmers Market is a hub for great eats and produce

CNN  — 

Finding the best culinary bite for the buck is a challenge in any food-obsessed town with a reputation for toppling even the healthiest dining budget. Take San Francisco.

No surprise that the great foodie mecca is home to a recent over-the-counter restaurant trend (dubbed “fast fancy” by the San Francisco Chronicle) where a casual midday slab of à la carte, self-served salmon might start at $21 sans waiter and before (still expected) tip.

The good news: this city is also home to numerous (relatively) cheaper chow experiences that nourish inner epicures without the hefty outer tab.

From weekly noshing at the Ferry Building and Fort Mason to capitalizing on a culinary walking tour and the myriad annual food fests of late summer and early fall, here’s how to savor San Francisco without forking over a fortune.

Destination: California

Foraging at the Ferry Building marketplace

Culinary nerve center: San Francisco's Clock Tower Market.

Back in the old bridgeless days, San Francisco’s storied Ferry Building was the West Coast’s most recognizable transit hub for travelers reaching the Bay City via boat.

Today, the iconic 660-foot-long, clock-towered building at the foot of Market Street is downtown’s culinary nerve center, filled with sky lit shops and eateries and home to the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market – the city’s flagship outdoor farmers market (in a town bulging with nearly two dozen others at last count).

Run by the nonprofit Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture (CUESA), three weekly markets (Tuesday & Thursday 10 a.m.-2 p.m., and Saturday 8 a.m.-2 p.m.) are loaded with every imaginable homage to Bay Area food culture.

The big day is Saturday when crowds of shoppers and chefs arrive with their carts and canvas bags to load up on organic produce, sample artisan balsamic vinegars and chat with farmers and ranchers in the marketplace’s open-air arcades. What’s the real star attraction here if you’re famished and a sample bit of green zebra tomato or fashion-forward focaccia isn’t going to cut it?

Digging into one of the city’s tastiest Saturday (or Thursday) outdoor brunch scenes.

The lineup of favorite eateries here ranges from Primavera (try the chilaquiles) to Namu (Korean tacos and okonomiyki) to Hog Island (oysters) to Craftsman and Wolves for the famous “Rebel Within” muffin (with – surprise! – an egg in it).

Want more? (Italian doughnuts, porchetta sandwiches, manakeesh, etc.). There’s more.

Come early to dodge the inevitable mid-morning lines and grab a peaceful seat out back by the bay. Stay for the free Saturday cooking demos (near the CUESA info booth out front) – hosted by top local chefs and occasional big-name drop-ins like Jacques Pepin.

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Fine food truck fare at Fort Mason (or the Presidio)

Off the Grid: Pop-up 'n pig-out

2010 was a happening year in San Francisco for the ongoing food-truck-phenomenon – when local street food event producer Off the Grid launched its first pop-up ‘n pig-out gatherings.

Six years and more than 50 revolving locations later, OtG events collectively comprise some of the city’s most followed food gatherings – including its two signature waterfront events at Fort Mason and the Presidio running from spring through mid-fall.

Off the Grid: Fort Mason Center (Fridays, 5 p.m.-10 p.m., to October 28) hosts more than 30 top food vendors (plus three bars and live music) focusing on new and innovative cuisine – and featuring a round of vendor “specialty items” served only here.

Think deep-fried mac ‘n cheese balls with smoked bacon and black truffle (Drewski’s Hot Rod Kitchen). Or smoked ahi tuna fries with chipotle crema and cojita cheese (Fritas Shack). Or torched marshmallow fluff topping (Frozen Kuhsterd). All at digestible food truck prices.

Follow it up on Sunday at the nearby Presidio Picnic (Sunday, 11 a.m.- 4 p.m., co-sponsored by the Presidio Trust) where a fresh lineup of inspired food warriors with equally appetizing names – Cochon Volant (BBQ), Cholita Lina (Peruvian), Fat Face Cart (dessert), Bacon Bacon (bacon), etc. – tend to a hungry audience enjoying free yoga classes on the lawn between bites, with a sweet Golden Gate Bridge backdrop.

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Neighborhood culinary tours

Edible Excursions: Guided gourmet tours

Choosing between all the eating options and great food neighborhoods in and around San Francisco can be overwhelming.

Sure, you can just call the concierge, scroll through a zillion Zagat reviews or retreat to Fisherman’s Wharf for the same old rockfish risotto and chowder in a bread bowl.

A more venturesome option: connecting with a savvy, food-obsessed local who’ll keenly guide your palate beyond the usual Chinatown “find” or essential North Beach cannoli stop listed in every guidebook – all for the price of a moderately nice meal.

Where to meet one? On a neighborhood culinary walking tour. An easy enough find in a city this consumed with food.

Avital Tours explores the tasty backstreets of North Beach or the Mission District, hitting several hidden eateries for a meal’s worth of samplings from aperitif to appetizer to dessert over a two-to-three-hour restaurant hop.

Behind-kitchen-door chats with local chefs included.

Edible Excursions also delves deep into the rich culinary pockets of the Mission District as well as Japantown, Downtown and East Bay artisanal dining hubs like North Berkeley’s Gourmet Ghetto and Uptown Oakland’s Temescal neighborhood.

Culturally infused food jaunts include 7-9 tasting stops, led by guides who call themselves “epicurean concierges.”

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Filling up at the next food festival

Eat Drink SF: A four-day foodie colossus.

Greater San Francisco is gorged with food festivals, honoring just about everything food-related besides Brussels sprouts.

(Sadly, nearby Santa Cruz’s short-lived Brussels Sprouts Festival was sacked years ago because of a complete lack of interest.)

Otherwise – tomatoes, garlic, truffles, coffee, oysters, artichokes, chocolate, mustard, artisan cheese – it’s hard to come up with a locally produced or -harvested comestible in and around the Bay Area without its own annual celebration. Co-starring loads of locally made wine, of course.

Traditionally in August, palates can partake in the summer’s biggest food fests – from the San Francisco Street Food Festival to Eat Drink SF, a four-day, foodie colossus featuring the region’s top chefs and restaurants.

Other options later in the year:

Ghirardelli Chocolate Festival, A Taste of Greece (traditionally in September)
– There’s still Oktoberfest by the Bay (September)
– The San Francisco BBQ Festival (October)

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This story was originally published in September 2016.

Los Angeles-based Jordan Rane is a Lowell Thomas Award recipient from the Society of American Travel Writers. His work on travel and the outdoors has appeared in over 50 publications.