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San Francisco's Best Restaurants

MODERN MED

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.

BONJOUR, SAIGON

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.

THE CLASSICS

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.

MARKET STRATEGIES

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).

LATIN FLAVORS

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.

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