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San Francisco's Best Restaurants

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.

RAW TALENT

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.

SMALL WONDERS

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).

COOL COMFORT

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.

HAUTE STUFF

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.

RETRO ACTIVE

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.

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