San Francisco's Best Restaurants
Published: May 2009
By Anya von Bremzen
Never mind the NASDAQ: Postboom San Francisco is still ground zero for America's best food
You know you're in San Francisco when the bartender pours your martini with organic vermouth. When you see Lawrence Ferlinghetti at the Farmers Market, entranced by the beet poetry. When a guy shows up at a four-star restaurant wearing a tie-dyed shirt. But enough with the clichés. True, the spirit of Alice Waters still hovers over every stove, ensuring that the chicken is free-range and that freshness is duly fetishized. Today, however, all this comes with big doses of flash, splash, and cash. You know you're in San Francisco when you see a 22-year-old treat his dad to a bottle of Château Pétrus. "Dot-com dot-gone," you say?Try getting a Saturday-night table at one of these hot spots.
THE NEW GOLD RUSH
BACAR 448 Brannan St.; 415/904-4100; dinner for two $65. Take the essence of Zuni Café and Chez Panisse and release it into a glowingly sleek space perfumed with the seductive aromas of grilling. Cram the wine list with 100 treasures by the glass (tasting portions available). Price it all gently. Invite the cool people in town, and you'll end up with a place like Bacar. How much did I love Bacar?Enough to return three times in six days—for that quirky Muscat from Washington State, for the pleasure of dunking grilled pain au levain into a gutsy California bouillabaisse, for another bite of fiery wok-fried mussels, luscious smoked sturgeon, and blood-orange gelato.
GARY DANKO 800 N. Point St.; 415/749-2060; dinner for two $110. Now here's a chef who knows how to pick his staff. Where else would you see such an assemblage of handsome, convivial, competent men—men you'd trust to handle your money or represent you in court, let alone take charge of your dinner. Not surprisingly, Danko's cuisine is gilded guy food at heart: scallops with puréed spuds and monster shiitakes is basically fish and potatoes; herbed lemon duck breast relates like red meat; lobster risotto is the culinary equivalent of an Armani blazer. All this in a setting that recalls a blond-wood, flower-bedecked SAS business-class lounge. To locals, however, it's the Concorde of restaurants. Reservations?Next week?! Not even Danko's superman team can help out here.
FIFTH FLOOR Hotel Palomar, 12 Fourth St.; 415/348-1555; dinner for two $140. Glamorous hostesses, opulent food, a zebra-striped carpet worthy of the slinkiest Manolos—you're oceans away from Earth shoes and Whole Foods. Arranged on Bernardaud plates, George Morrone's creations combine Vegas showmanship with Catalan intellectual brio. The chef has a knack for transforming a single ingredient or idea into performance art: three-bean soup sharing the bowl with funky ham-hock tortellini and a crisp pancetta basket filled with lentils; suckling pig à l'orange presented as a clever ensemble of pig parts. "This food is like a vacation: you don't want it to end," murmurs a dishy blonde (you'll see lots of them at Fifth Floor) transfixed by her chocolate quartet. And she hasn't tasted the butterscotch pudding.
SWAN OYSTER DEPOT 1517 Polk St.; 415/673-1101; lunch for two $25, no credit cards. Okay, so the battered marble counter isn't the place for sensuous slurping—not with your neighbors' elbows practically in your chowder and impatient hordes at the door, eyeing your seat. But you're here for a different kind of romance: a precious sawdust-floored slice of old San Francisco, with relics like crab Louis dished out by the wisecracking owners, and the best-groomed bivalves this side of Sydney. Even if you have to lap up your Olympias and run.
CÉSAR 1515 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley; 510/883-0222; tapas for two $25. Second home to physicists and philosophers, Derrideans and Darwinians—plus a healthy cross-section of extracurricular types—César is Barcelona in style and Berkeley in substance, a tapas bar as could be conceived only by alumni of Alice Waters. There's a killer list of sherries, to be sure, but also six kinds of pastis, including Versinthe, grower-bottled champagnes, and artisanal ciders to accompany the sprightly salad of shaved cauliflower and anchovies, or the irresistible, soufflé-like salt-cod brandade. Even those who have just overindulged next door at Chez Panisse wind down here, sipping and sniffing their way through a flight of Armagnacs or obscure eaux-de-vie.
CHEZ NOUS 1911 Filmore St.; 415/441-8044; lunch for two $30. Headed for an acquisition spree on Filmore Street?Pencil in a stop at Chez Nous, an artfully plain new café where shopaholics drop in for a glass of Lillet with some spinach-persimmon salad, and where doting dads come to appease their finicky brood with crisp, slender frites. A ditsy but obliging staff delivers tapas-scaled portions of lamb chops with lavender salt, risotto croquettes, Moroccan-spiced duck confit. And if you hopelessly, recklessly, and forever fall in love with the cannelés de Bordeaux—molded little cakes with a celestial custardy heart—they'll reveal the source: Boulangerie Bay Bread, a bakery around the corner (2325 Pine St.; 415/440-0356; box of four cannelés $6.50).
CITIZEN CAKE 399 Grove St.; 415/861-2228; brunch for two $35. A café-cum-bakery-cum—architect's plaything, this is the city's coziest essay in warehouse chic. After the ur-California pizza with arugula and potatoes and the spinach salad with lardons and poached egg, finish up with postmodern snickerdoodles and a big slice of "tropical shag" coconut cake—artist Elizabeth Falkner's designer riffs on bake-sale standards.
CAFÈ MONK 564 Fourth St.; 415/777-1331; dinner for two $55. Thelonious, Meredith, and the Dalai Lama are some of the monks whose images grace this stylish tangle of metal and wood beams. The menu is monastically concise but devilish in content: a minty mélange of feta and tangerine, sassy fried chicken, mesquite-grilled steak with sinful macaroni and cheese. The communal refectory table is the best place to flirt. The monks don't mind.
DINE 662 Mission St.; 415/538-3463; dinner for two $95. The autumnal post-industrial meld of exposed brick, concrete, and candles is a perfect backdrop for Julia McClaskey's soul-warming salad of hedgehog mushrooms, pecorino, and arugula; chicken livers scattered on greens with applewood-smoked bacon; or the neo—blue plate pot roast. And if all that Sinatra and Zinfandel lulls you to sleep, the jolt of sugar in the chocolate brownies will goose you back to reality.
ELISABETH DANIEL 550 Washington St.; 415/397-6129; prix fixe dinner for two $154. The marriage of chutzpah and understatement at Elisabeth Daniel, which opened in January 2000, might not be for everyone. Come in the wrong mood, and you'll gripe about quiet food at loud prices served in a Kleenex box of a room by men parading tiny bowls of compote as if they were the empress's jewels. Well, chill out: Daniel Patterson is creating some of the most refined chow in town. Quail on bulgur seems like an haute-hippie conceit until you sink your teeth into the wondrously delicate bird. Foie gras offset by tart apple and tamarind is the best fate goose liver could hope for. Even the dull-looking pintade tastes like chicken from a superior civilization. By the time you get to the black truffle kulfi (Indian ice cream), the gray walls seem rather endearing.
CAMPTON PLACE Campton Place Hotel, 340 Stockton St.; 415/955-5555; dinner for two $130. Laurent Manrique, the latest in this hotel's lineage of pedigreed chefs, is part Gascon, part Basque. He turns out real food that has 3-D flavor, intricate textures, classical rigor, and cultural grounding galore—the most authentic French cooking in California. True, to delight in his lyrical white anchovies with pistou or his grandmother's poule au pot, elevated by foie gras and truffles, you have to put up with a room about as exciting as a linen emporium, but an upcoming face-lift should improve the surroundings.
BRUNO'S 2389 Mission St.; 415/648-7701; dinner for two $75. When the savvy owners of Foreign Cinema resurrected this landmark forties Italian joint back in 1995, it had everything going for it: acres of red vinyl, an edgy Mission location, cool jazz, and a swinger crowd nursing sidecars in the lounge. But after the chef, James Ormsby, bade adieu, there was nothing worth eating. Now Ormsby's back, and you can taste his playful ice cream cones filled with chili-spiked tuna tartare, his spicy baked oysters and soulful braised oxtail, plus a "baked Hawaii" to die for.
AZIE 826 Folsom St.; 415/538-0918; dinner for two $105. Like shoulder pads and cinched waists, eighties fusion cuisine has been destined for its five minutes back in the spotlight. But at Azie, a deconstructed mah-jongg parlor that opened recently to a tsunami of raves, you can't quite tell whether your tuna sashimi roll with black truffle ponzu sauce is retro or dated. The same goes for the elaborate "nine bites" appetizer tasting, a glorified pupu platter. Sweetbread ravioli needs fermented black beans about as much as persimmon-stuffed quail needs foie gras. You might overlook this lapse after the pure and fragrant halibut in green-tea broth or the dazzling fish tartare parfait capped with wasabi mousse. Or you might conclude that your Thierry Mugler deserves a better showcase for its comeback.
DELFINA 3621 18th St.; 415/552-4055; dinner for two $60. Ironically, since the owners expanded their warmly minimalist Mission storefront last year, scoring a reservation here has become even more of a challenge. What started as a new-wave neighborhood trattoria has achieved cultlike status. Why?The smoke-tinged, tomatoey tripe punctuated by bread crumbs is as good as anything you'll encounter on the back roads of Tuscany. Pastas are simple and impeccably sauced; salads are some of the finest in this greens-obsessed town. When your waiter, far too cute to be so smart and efficient, recommends the blood orange tart, trust him.
KOKKARI ESTIATORIO 200 Jackson St.; 415/981-0983; lunch for two $50. You feel mellow, real mellow, sipping ouzo and swishing grilled pita into the dreamy taramosalata by the crackling fire here. Set on rescuing the reputation of Greek food from the oily clutches of stale moussaka, the owners have sunk $5 million into furnishing Kokkari's three sprawling rooms with Oriental carpets and rustic Mediterranean antiques. The Zorba-goes-to-Hollywood results would have pleased even Mr. Onassis. So would the lamb chops and the charcoal-grilled octopus salad.
RISE AND SHINE
ELLA'S 500 Presidio Ave.; 415/441-5669; breakfast for two $18. It isn't the promise of Zinfandel grape juice or even just-baked sourdough toast that will rouse you at 7 a.m. to claim one of Ella's coveted tables. It's the chicken hash, a feather-light patty of potatoes and chicken under a blizzard of scallions. Come to think of it, the sticky buns—with heaps of cinnamon, pecans, and brown sugar folded in—are also worth missing a few hours of sleep.
TON KIANG 5821 Geary Blvd.; 415/387-8273; dim sum for two $28. On weekends, the entire city is here competing for America's freshest dim sum—a parade of textural masterpieces fashioned from top-notch ingredients. Grab the ethereal scallop-cilantro dumplings and succulent deep-fried crab balls (carried out on trays, not carts), and bid for larger items from the à la carte menu, such as the plush nuggets of Hakka salt-baked chicken or the complex wine-braised cod. The best stuff invariably appears as you're paying the bill—but that's the way the fortune cookie crumbles.
SLANTED DOOR 584 Valencia St.; 415/861-8032; lunch for two $30. If every Viet-namese restaurant that served imperial rolls this crisp and plump also happened to have Niman Ranch meats and Duvel beer on its menu, the world would be a far kinder place. Things get even more satisfying with salads as aromatic as the Gerwürztraminer in your glass, caramelized clay-pot catfish in a sweet-pungent sauce, and profoundly juicy five-spice grilled chicken. As the prime-time crush subsides, you're left with the typical Mission mix of the pierced and the pampered, bemoaning the fate of dot-commerce over cups of white peony tea.
ANA MANDARA 891 Beach St.; 415/771-6800; dinner for two $75. Showbiz lives on in this former theater, recently made over—with serious capital and celebrity clout from partners Don Johnson and Cheech Marin—as a colonial stage set of carved wood, faux shutters, and demi-faux potted palms (real trunks, fake leaves). A jazz band riffs as sweet waiters pull the shell off a showy lobster tower. My advice?Skip the appetizers and go straight for the wok-seared tournedos or basa (a Mekong fish) with greens—unless you'd rather pick on Hanoi-style escargots in the upstairs lounge, surrounded by silk cushions and the sound of trickling water.
CHEZ PANISSE 1517 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley; 510/548-5525; prix fixe dinner for two from $90. High priestess of the northern California food cult since 1971, Alice Waters is now defined more by the edible universe she has created than by the dishes on Chez Panisse's menu. Not that her own shrine to the organic faith doesn't merit another pilgrimage: the redwood-paneled room is as snugly aristocratic as you remember, the service just as smart and relaxed. And on your plate you'll find a sneak preview of next season's couture artichoke or persimmon. A hard-to-come-by reservation for Ms. Waters's Monday dinners—casual affairs that might revolve around Alsatian choucroute or spit-roasted kid from Silver Creek Ranch—gains you entry into the most exclusive foodie club in America.
ZUNI CAFÈ 1658 Market St.; 415/552-2522; dinner for two $60. Zuni is every urbanite's dream, a place with patrons that you want to invite to your own dinner party and rustic Italian-French cuisine that still never fails to surprise. After more than 20 years in business, the restaurant, with its red-brick walls, copper-topped bar and wood-fired oven, has aged better than most die-hard macrobioticians. If you're feeling blue or stressed-out, there isn't a problem in life that can't be solved with a dozen oysters (you must!), Judy Rodgers's legendary Tuscan roast chicken with a perfect little salad, and a slice of nectarine tart. At times I contemplate moving to San Francisco just so I can call Zuni my local canteen.
BERKELEY BOWL 2020 Oregon St., Berkeley; 510/843-6929. Ever written love poetry to a plum or composed sonnets for spinach?You will after you spend an hour—or three—at this former Safeway crammed to the rafters with some of the world's most stunning fresh produce. Andean potatoes that surprise even Peruvians?To your left. A lemon?Choose from seven varieties, organic or not. Eggs?There are duck, quail, and chicken (fed on a vegetarian diet). From striped squash to white eggplant, red bananas to golden beets, purple basil to green ume plums, everything is sold in its absolute prime—and for a pittance compared with Whole Foods. Still fondling that peach?Hey, this isn't a petting zoo!
FERRY PLAZA FARMER'S MARKET Embarcadero at Green St.; 415/353-5650; Saturdays, 8 a.m.—1:30 p.m. You can take part in the insider's routine at this weekly gathering place of city celebrities and the crème de la crème of the local restaurant world: Meet 9:30-ish for cappuccino and croissants at de Stijl (1 Union St.; 415/291-0808). Then buy peaches and tarts from Frog Hollow Farm (Farmer Al can even UPS you his astonishing stone fruit; 888/779-4511 to order); preserves in flavors like rhubarb-rose geranium from June Taylor Baking Co.; aromatic chilies and smoky chipotle jam from Tierra Vegetables; boutique greens from Star Route Farms (these folks started it all); and several Acme baguettes (sourdough is for out-of-towners). End on a BLT made with Hobbs bacon at the Hayes Street Grill stand, and never—never!—walk away without a box of exquisitely artistic chocolates and pâte de fruits created by Michael Recchiuti (415/826-2868 to order).
Before the Mission District was colonized by neo-Dinos and dot-com Grace Kellys, it was home to some of the most diverse and exciting South and Central American cooking in the country. That's still here—for those willing to venture half a block away from the latte pushers. The flamingo-pink LAS TINAJAS (2338 Mission St.; 415/695-9933; lunch for two $20) is where legions of homesick Nicaraguans flock on weekend afternoons for heaping portions of baho (brisket from heaven), soups thick with beef and tropical tubers, and hunks of grilled tenderloin and fried plantains.
Know anything about Guatemalan cuisine?SAN MIGUEL (3520 20th St.; 415/826-0173; lunch for two $20), with its tropical kitsch décor and chirpy marimba sound track, is a great place to learn. Raid the appetizers, which include starkly beautiful and indescribably delicious refried black beans served beside wedges of soft white cheese, and tostadas piled high with marinated beef salad.
Two blocks up, amid the fruit stalls and butchers of the Mission Latin market, you'll find a mini-cafeteria called EL PEROL (2590 Mission St.; 415/550-8582; lunch for two $20) that excels in Peruvian home cooking. You want the fantastic chicharrón (roast pork) and sweet potato sandwich, surprisingly elegant seafood soup, and wonderful potato croquettes stuffed with raisins and beef. One sip of the chicha morada—a punch made with purple corn—and you'll begin to see Machu Picchu.
The national dish and unofficial religion of El Salvador, pupusa is a thick griddled corn tortilla stuffed with anything from chorizo to cheese. You can get decent ones at a number of the Mission's Salvadoran places, but PANCHITA'S (3115 22nd St.; 415/821-6660; pupusas for two $4) serves the tastiest version in a spare, gentrified setting. How gentrified?The owner is even thinking of installing an espresso machine.