Restaurants

Harvey Steiman

San Francisco offers a variety of dining experiences. At the finest restaurants chefs reach for the stars, wine lists go deep and service and ambience deliver a sense of luxury. Less lavish, but still delightful, eateries go a bit easier on the trappings. Wine lists are less ambitious, service is less formal and the surroundings are often cozier. Then there are the true originals, places with a unique approach to wine or a creative concept. Here, we review restaurants in each category.

Note: Restaurants are scored on a 100-point scale. The final score for each restaurant was based on a weighted average of our four criteria—food, 40 percent; wine, 30 percent; service and ambience, 15 percent each.

Grand Dining

At San Francisco's best wine and food destinations, all the elements come together. The chefs reach for the stars, the wine lists go deep and the service and ambience provide a sense of luxury.

Aqua
Food 94, Wine 90, Service 93, Ambience 92, Weighted average 92
252 California St.
San Francisco 94111
Telephone (415) 956-9662
Web site www.aqua-sf.com/aqua
Open Lunch, Monday to Friday; dinner, daily
Cost Prix-fixe menu $68; tasting menus $65, $95
Corkage $30 France-born chef Laurent Manrique has made Aqua not only the finest seafood restaurant in California, but one of the best French restaurants period. Housed in a soaring space and punctuated with oversize floral displays and gigantic framed mirrors, Aqua takes a contemporary approach to seafood, with a distinct French accent.

Manrique favors bold flavors, but he makes sure nothing overwhelms the main ingredient—the seafood. The Parmesan soufflé with crabmeat was sensational. Two little bowls of zingy yuzu-laced sea urchin sauce and fresh Dungeness meat flanked the subtle-tasting soufflé served in a small copper pot. The flavors spoke clearly without drowning each other out.

Sensuous squares of raw hamachi belly, delicately crusted with black and white sesame, played against a mixture of fresh miniature shiitakes and tiny tapioca pearls that in the mouth felt almost like caviar. Walu, a rich, white Hawaiian fish, arrived on a dazzling plate, three triangles of fillet interspersed with mussels in their shells around a pile of tiny potato sticks. The curried, Chardonnay-infused mussel juices made the perfect sauce for the walu; a waiter poured it tableside. In fact, many of the dishes' finishing touches are done at the table. Such presentations emphasize how coddling and caring Aqua is. The desserts are no letdown, either.

Although the wine list is shy on vertical collections that offer older wines, its roster of almost 600 has plenty of good options from recent vintages. The $80 to $150 range is the sweet spot for wines such as Zind-Humbrecht Riesling Alsace Turckheim Heimbourg 2002 ($86), which matched up well with all the dishes I tried.

Boulevard
Food 91, Wine 90, Service 91, Ambience 90, Weighted Average 91
1 Mission St.
San Francisco 94105
Telephone (415) 543-6084
Web site www.boulevardrestaurant.com
Open Lunch, Monday to Friday; dinner, daily
Cost Entrées $30-$40
Corkage $25
Best of Award of Excellence

This art nouveau gem of a building faces the bay through a wide-open Embarcadero, the view framed by the refurbished Ferry Building and the new Hotel Vitale across the street. That's why the prime tables are at the back of the restaurant, near the picture windows. But no matter where you sit, what's on the plates can distract a serious food lover from what's going on outside. Chef Nancy Oakes' take on what the French would classify as brasserie food celebrates all the good stuff San Francisco takes for granted.

First courses build on freshness, as exemplified by heirloom tomato bisque with Dungeness crab and by one of the better ahi tuna tartares around. Among the entrées, pan-roasted wild king salmon wields its meaty texture and unique flavor against faro (whole wheat berries) cooked as risotto with toasted hazelnuts and baby carrots and topped with salad greens. A wood-oven–roasted pork chop tastes great on its own, but it anchors a plate that also includes clams stuffed with dry-cured chorizo, sautéed Bloomsdale spinach and gigante beans. There's no sauce, just a jus that underscores the pork's sweetness.

Sommelier John Lancaster's wine list of slightly more than 1,000 choices focuses on single-vineyard bottlings from California, France and his native Pacific Northwest, with special attention paid to Alsace and Italian varieties and wines made from Syrah.

The restaurant's design, by Pat Kuleto, creates a bustle—tightly packed tables range from booths in the front to a narrow strip of two-tops behind a curvy wrought-iron divider, which offers a view of the open kitchen. Then there's the cluster at the back, where the picture windows are. Service is crisp but friendly.

Campton Place
Food 92, Wine 90, Service 92, Ambience 92, Weighted average 91
Campton Place Hotel
340 Stockton St.
San Francisco 94108
Telephone (415) 955-5555
Web site www.camptonplace.com/dining
Open Breakfast, lunch and dinner, daily
Cost Prix-fixe menus $65, $75; tasting menus $95, $154
Corkage $30
Best of Award of Excellence

Chef Peter Rudolph combines an adventurous spirit with a classical sense of balance and refinement, both on the plate and in the mouth. The interplay of sweet and tart was joyful in Japanese medai, a fish with an assertive flavor. Wrapped in fig leaves and roasted, the fillet presented beautifully with beets and meaty royal trumpet mushrooms, a tart sauce with verjus providing the counterpoint. A similar sort of yin-yang set off sweet sautéed scallops surrounded by cylinders of tart poached apple and dots of carrot puree against lemongrass sauce.

This sense of balance plays beautifully to wine, including the Chardonnay and Pinot Noir options that are at the heart of new sommelier Shana Dilworth’s list of 1,000 bottlings. She also includes trendy California Cabernets and big-name Bordeaux, but even better are the Rieslings, especially those with a bit of sweetness.

Langwerth von Simmern Riesling Spätlese Rheingau Erbacher Marcobrunn 2002 ($52) was harmonious with an appetizer of seared fluke presented as sushi, the slices resting on a bed of brown rice with avocado. Little dots of Port-and-ginger reduction were so rich they tasted like they had chocolate in them. The wine seemed to work with everything, right through the cheese course.

The style of the food goes with the clean lines and luxurious touches of the decor. Backlit stained-glass squares complement the still-life paintings of flowers. Tables are set far apart from one another to encourage conversation. Service is notably friendly and intelligent.

The Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton San Francisco
Food 91, Wine 90, Service 92, Ambience 91, Weighted average 91
600 Stockton St.
San Francisco 94108
Telephone (415) 773-6168
Web site www.ritzcarlton.com/hotels/san_francisco/
Open Dinner, Tuesday to Saturday
Cost Prix-fixe menus $68–$89; tasting menu $115
Corkage $30
Best of Award of Excellence

Chef Ron Siegel burst into the public's consciousness when he became the first American to beat one of the Iron Chefs on the original Japanese show. For years he couldn’t escape the lobster menu that won; it remained an option on his menu until fairly recently, even after Siegel had moved well beyond it.

He's never lost his fascination with Japanese ingredients and techniques, however, which has informed his basically French style. At a recent meal, for example, yuzu gelée emphasized the ineffable sweetness of a sashimi of spot prawns, still alive shortly before they hit the plate, the dish completed by wasabi freshly grated by the waiter. Toro slices were stacked in a crisscross fashion, the rich tuna playing off a reduction of sweet sake with tiny beech mushrooms. A sprinkle of vanilla-scented sea salt and Muntok white pepper added pop.

Such dishes were so good that the occasional slip was puzzling, as when too much Szechuan peppercorn proved overly bitter for rib eye steak, and a piece of lobster arrived slightly overcooked. On the plus side, the dazzlingly pure flavors of a large English pea raviolo set off seared sea bream as if the pairing were destined to be.

The Dining Room offers a nine-course tasting menu and several six-course menus, one vegetarian. The most compelling, on paper, features a different salt and pepper with each course. The toro dish was a part of this menu, as was a nicely seared foie gras medallion over poached peach with apple reduction—a fantastic flavor and texture extravaganza, especially with fleur de sel and zippy long pepper.

Siegel's menu has become so rich that the best option may be the basic three-course dinner ($68), which starts with three amuses bouches anyway. Keeping the meal simple allows more leeway for picking a wine from the Best of Award of Excellence–winning list, which offers 1,400 bottlings. France-born sommelier Stephane Lacroix loves California's hard-to-get wines, especially Pinot Noirs, and can make big spenders happy with Bordeaux first-growths and big-name Burgundies.

Fifth Floor
Food 94, Wine 92, Service 88, Ambience 90, Weighted Average 92
Hotel Palomar
12 Fourth St.
San Francisco 94103
Telephone (415) 348-1555
Web site www.fifthfloorrestaurant.com
Open Dinner, daily
Cost Entrées $31–$49
Corkage $35
Grand Award

Barely 30, Melissa Perello cooks with a confident skill that belies her age. She has headed the kitchen at Fifth Floor since only 2005, but is the best in a series of chefs that have starred at this Grand Award–winning restaurant since its debut in 1999. She favors bright, clear flavors, finds contrasts in texture and manages to weave it all into dishes of sublime harmony.

A first course featured perfectly shaped Dungeness crab tortellini resting on a bed of asparagus cut into long ribbons, with fromage blanc and delicate herbs forming a light sauce. Each element can be tasted, but the mingling of the flavors also creates something new. Sashimi of Kona Kampachi, a luxurious pale pink fish, was draped atop three little tangles of tart baby dandelion greens, which provided a fine crunch. A drizzle of yuzu-shiso vinaigrette added tang while remaining creamy in texture.

This is brilliant stuff, and it only got better with main courses such as the Sonoma rabbit. Roasted loin meat was sweet and juicy served over a bed of braised leg meat, gnocchi, Meyer lemon and Picholine olive slivers. The breast meat, perfectly cooked, was formed into a tiny crown roast, with ribs the size of toothpicks. This kitchen gets an A for execution.

Wine director Emily Wines has kept the 1,500-selection wine list well stocked with strong verticals of red and white Burgundy, first- and second-growth Bordeaux and California trophy wines. But there's plenty to choose from in the $50 to $100 range, too, and a fine half-bottle selection makes it feasible to match each course.

The Hotel Palomar, which houses the Fifth Floor, strives for a quirky, stylish look and draws a hip clientele. Perello's sense of balance plays against the eye-catching zebra carpeting and geometric room dividers of the dining room. But by the second or third course, the surroundings don’t matter—all that counts is the food and wine.

Fleur de Lys
Food 92, Wine 89, Service 88, Ambience 90, Weighted average 90
777 Sutter St.
San Francisco 94109
Telephone (415) 673-7779
Web site www.fleurdelyssf.com
Open Dinner, Monday to Saturday
Cost Prix-fixe menus $70–$88
Corkage $35
Best of Award of Excellence

Fleur de Lys has thrived for nearly 50 years while many of San Francisco's other venerable French restaurants have closed or faded. Chef Hubert Keller shows a sure hand in all his dishes and a careful touch with rich ingredients and lively seasonings. He has remained true to his Alsatian roots, keeping choucroute garni on the menu (and it’s good), and he has an affinity for vegetables. With every dish, count on the side elements hitting the spot as squarely as the main ingredient does.

Lobster and truffle cappuccino, a signature appetizer, featured a cup of foamy potato-and-leek soup with goodies. A tiny iron skillet holding a terrific corn bread added to the whimsy. A small serving of roast rabbit came with a lovely cumin, mint and honey vinaigrette. Consommé of smoked, spicy pimiento enhanced a tomato filled with small white beans. Boneless quail stuffed with sweetbreads got even richer with roasted parsnips and a small square of seared foie gras.

Dishes this tasty leave a good impression, even if service stumbles, as it did on our visit. Long delays had us drumming our fingers as we waited nearly 20 minutes to order an aperitif, and again between courses. No one came by to explain why.

With its billowing fabrics fashioned into tentlike surroundings, the decor creates an unabashedly romantic space. Mirrored walls make the room feel larger than it is. A honeycomb of wine bins standing outside the kitchen reminds guests that the Best of Award of Excellence–winning list of 900 wines hits the high points of Bordeaux and Burgundy, at commensurate prices. Don't miss the Alsace wines prominently displayed at the front of the book; they cut Keller’s rich food beautifully.

Jardinière
Food 91, Wine 89, Service 92, Ambience 92, Weighted average 91
300 Grove St.
San Francisco 94102
Telephone (415) 861-5555
Web site www.jardiniere.com
Open Dinner, daily
Cost Entrées $24–$44; tasting menus $89, $138
Corkage $25
Best of Award of Excellence

When did petite Traci Des Jardins become the grande dame of San Francisco chefs? Jardinière, her Civic Center–area restaurant, seems as fresh as it did the day it opened in 1997, but it also feels like it has been around forever. A favorite pre- or post-performance spot for culturati heading to or from the War Memorial Opera House and Davies Symphony Hall across the street, it consistently ranks among the best restaurants in town.

Over the years, the excitement quotient of the food has waxed and waned, largely based on Des Jardins' own involvement in the kitchen. She took something of a break a few years ago after becoming a mom, and again when she opened Mijita, an upscale taco parlor in the Ferry Building Marketplace. Whether it’s because she's around more or because chef Robbie Lewis has hit his stride, what's on the plate today has more snap than ever.

The salads are stars here, not surprising for a restaurant that emphasizes ingredients produced under sustainable practices. Radishes, favas and fennel sang a lusty chorus under a snowy pile of shaved dry ricotta. A thick slice of tombo tuna rode on an asparagus salad drizzled with a heady black-truffle vinaigrette. Among the entrées, thin slices of rosy duck breast were draped over Bloomsdale spinach and caramelized turnips.

With the food providing such intense and vivid flavors, the 500-selection wine list focuses on Pinot Noir, Loire and Rhône wines (including a nice vertical of Paul Jaboulet Aîné Hermitage La Chapelle back to 1982) and a healthy scattering of Southern Hemisphere wines. The Bordeaux page may be sparse, but it's a good sign when Domaine Leroy Volnay-Santenots 1998, Henschke Sémillon Eden Valley Louis 2004 and Billecart-Salmon Brut Rosé Champagne NV are all available by the glass. Brazil-born sommelier Eugenio Jardim has a passion for offbeat wines, too.

Pat Kuleto's dramatic design rings the brick-walled dining room with a balcony, its sweeping art deco balustrade following the line of a domed ceiling above an oval-shaped bar. Risers elevate the tables in the corners. Early in the evening, light streams through big windows. A jazz duo keeps the room lively.

Michael Mina
Food 97, Wine 97, Service 95, Ambience 95, Weighted Average 96
Westin St. Francis Hotel
335 Powell St.
San Francisco 94102
Telephone (415) 397-9222
Web site www.michaelmina.net
Open Dinner, daily
Cost Prix-fixe menu $88; tasting menus $135, $220
Corkage $35
Grand Award

The city's grandest dining space boasts soaring ceilings, ivory columns, a staircase leading up to a welcoming host, a view of Union Square through picture windows and a soundtrack of cable cars clanging down Powell Street outside. Chef Michael Mina's ambitious menu surpasses even this setting, and the Grand Award–winning wine list, with its 2,500 entries, completes the impression: This is San Francisco's signature restaurant.

The complex menu takes a little getting used to. Do you go with his plates featuring three, sometimes six, treatments of the same main ingredient, or with a tempting "tableside classic" of a single item? The chef’s menu comprises a mix-and-match extravaganza of both. Staff members glide through the room, helpfully offering advice on the menu and doing as excellent a job with service as Mina does with the food.

The wine list can keep an enophile absorbed for hours. Should you delve into pages of Raveneau Chablis, Coche-Dury white Burgundy, Roty, Jayer and Domaine de la Romanée-Conti red Burgundy? Seize upon deep verticals of every first-growth Bordeaux? Plunder hotter-than-hot new wines from California? You could do worse than to leave the choice to wine director Rajat Parr, who will help you find unexpected treats in any price range. There is no dross amidst the gold in this cellar.

Burgundy and Pinot Noir dominate the list, and for good reason: Their silky elegance best complements Mina's food. On a recent visit, a half-bottle of Bergström Pinot Noir Willamette Valley Shea Vineyard 2004 ($60) from Oregon stood tall against two insanely delicious main courses that demonstrate what it is that’s so great about Mina's approach.

On one side of our table at dinner was American Kobe-style beef done six ways: roasted rare, one pair of small slices rested on artichoke, roasted garlic and morel mushrooms. Another pair was prepared teriyaki-style and came with wasabi-infused garbanzo beans, and a third incorporated horseradish-seasoned fingerling potatoes and homemade Worcestershire sauce. A chunk of melt-on-your-tongue braise received similar flavorings and stood sentry next to every serving of roast. Each pair was headier than the last, showing off the personality of the satiny meat, but also cozying up to everything else on the plate in close-voiced harmony.

Across the table, a server carefully lifted the lid on a steaming ceramic tagine to reveal a veal short rib preparation that evoked osso buco. It was transcendent, having absorbed mild curry flavors in a dark and amazingly concentrated sauce. A minty variation of gremolada added zing, and crisply sautéed sweetbreads provided texture contrast and more richness among the vegetables and saffron risotto.

Mina's inventive mind produces endless variations. Great ingredients excite him—he works magic with fresh langoustines when they are available—and he has a flair for the dramatic, but never at the expense of balance and execution. His black-mussel soufflé is hard to resist, and his sashimi rivals that of the best sushi bars. His desserts deal in intense flavors; the root beer float is the ne plus ultra of that genre.

Restaurant Gary Danko
Food 95, Wine 94, Service 95, Ambience 92, Weighted Average 94
800 N. Point St.
San Francisco 94109
Telephone (415) 749-2060
Web site www.garydanko.com
Open Dinner, daily
Cost Prix-fixe menus $61–$89; tasting menu $89
Corkage $30
Credit Cards Visa, MasterCard
Grand Award

Chef Gary Danko has become a San Francisco classic, one of the wunderkinder who propelled California cuisine into the spotlight in the 1980s and whose food continues to satisfy. At his eponymous restaurant, he presides over a menu of dishes that may not be cutting edge but that look gorgeous and taste even better. The execution is flawless, and the flavors meld together in classic harmony, making perfect foils for the 1,500 wines on the Grand Award–winning list.

The tasting menu has changed little since the restaurant opened in 1999. Danko's signature plate of warm, glazed oysters still delights for the way the dish plays with little spheres of osetra caviar and zucchini pearls. The salmon medallions, cleverly fashioned into spiral discs, were cooked evenly, and the horseradish crust gave them a distinctive lift. An amuse bouche consisted of minced duck confit sprinkled over vegetable puree.

Danko's approach is catnip for wine. A rhubarb-ginger compote under silky slices of roast duck whispered of the spice, allowing the duck to snuggle up to the polished elegance of Papapietro Perry Pinot Noir Peters Vineyard 2003 ($60 on the half-bottle list of more than 150 choices). Sunchoke puree and tiny diced tomatoes made a perfectly juicy soft-shell crab sing with a glass of Champagne.

The wine list bulges with top-tier Bordeaux and Burgundy, without ignoring California's own classics. The servers know how to pamper a guest without overdoing it, moving like dancers between the tables of the two tightly packed dining rooms. Despite the close quarters, this restaurant exudes luxury.

Rubicon
Food 92, Wine 94, Service 91, Ambience 90, Weighted Average 92
558 Sacramento St.
San Francisco 94111
Telephone (415) 434-4100
Web site www.sfrubicon.com
Open Lunch, Wednesday; dinner, Monday to Saturday
Cost Entrées $23–$38; tasting menu $82
Corkage $20
Grand Award

Rubicon remains one of San Francisco's best wine and food destinations. With chef Stuart Brioza flexing some serious culinary chops and a Grand Award–winning wine list, the restaurant delivers a strong one-two punch.

Brioza puts the focus squarely on main ingredients and reveals a refined touch with seasonings. A signature dish of crispy spiced quail toned down the spices and featured the buttermilk-marinated bird in tiny pieces, like a miniature fried chicken. Tart onions and lemon confit with basil played off the richness and made the dish ideal for a crisp white wine. "Cloverdale rabbit in various preparations" offered a lineup of roasted olive-infused saddle, an olive-encrusted leg and a slice of grilled breast meat, with purees of fava beans and eggplant for dipping. We drank a red Burgundy with it, but it was a dish that could make any red wine on the list of more than 1,800 options look good.

California Cabernet classics such as Diamond Creek, Shafer Hillside Select and, of course, Rubicon (dating back to 1978) are the heart of the list, supplemented by impressive, if less-familiar, wines from California, Australia and South America. Burgundy is stronger than Bordeaux, with tidy verticals of Leflaive, Ramonet, Mortet and Emmanuel Rouget the stars.

Rubicon's setting, in a converted brick warehouse, evokes a comfy bistro more than a fancy restaurant, softened by luxurious touches such as a shelf of oversize glass art objects and striking paintings. Service is efficiently friendly, and the waitstaff knows the menu inside out.

Less Lavish, More Relaxed

These restaurants can compete with anything the grand dining places dish up, but go a little easier on the trappings. Wine lists are less ambitious, service is less formal and the surroundings are often cozier. They generally offer great value, too.

A16
Food 90, Wine 88, Service 89, Ambience 88, Weighted Average 89
2355 Chestnut St.
San Francisco 94123
Telephone (415) 771-2216
Web site www.a16sf.com
Open Lunch, Wednesday to Friday; dinner, daily
Cost Entrées $20–$23
Corkage $25

Most of the boisterous crowd at A16 is drawn in by the pizzas, which are something special. A blazing-hot oven blisters and chars crusts that carry flavorful toppings such as spring onions and luganeghe sausage, or anchovies, olives and Calabrian chiles on the Romana version.

Savvy diners focus on the kitchen's soulful renditions of dishes from Campania, the region surrounding Naples, and a wine list that brims with discoveries from southern Italy. Sure, have a bite of pizza, but save room for dishes such as roasted porcini with green garlic, ricotta gnocchi with squash blossoms, or sweet pea ravioli with braised pork, pecorino and black pepper.

Coi
Food 92, Wine 87, Service 90, Ambience 91, Weighted Average 90
373 Broadway
San Francisco 94133
Telephone (415) 393-9000
Web site www.coirestaurant.com
Open Dinner, Tuesday to Saturday
Cost Prix-fixe $75; tasting menu $105
Corkage $20

San Francisco is known for its outspoken radicals, and brilliant if eccentric chef Daniel Patterson is the culinary version. He may be best known for his article in the New York Times last fall needling his fellow Bay area chefs for being too conservative and endlessly copying the style of Alice Waters.

Patterson likes modern techniques and unexpected flavor juxtapositions. He froths a bowl of bright-orange carrot soup and laces it with slivers of pickled mango. He slices raw sea scallops and tops them with shavings of Meyer lemon, avocado and radish. A bowl of lamb consommé sets off pink slices of roasted lamb around a mélange of artichokes, spring onions and lavender. The tastes and textures are rooted in comfort foods, but Patterson raises the stakes with vivid accent flavors and picture-perfect colors.

Comfy, high-backed, built-in banquettes line the modern dining room at Coi, an archaic French word for "tranquil." A small lounge offers single plates and a quiet environment that’s worlds away from the strip clubs elsewhere in the neighborhood.

Patterson hopes to expand the wine list, now at 115 entries, to about 200. It's organized by style ("crisp dry whites, " "earthy, spicy reds") and hits some high notes with the likes of E. Guigal La Mouline 1984 and 1994 (less than $300 each) and Comte Georges de Vogüé Bonnes Mares 1995 ($340), but also has some nice options for less than $50, such as Kuentz-Bas Pinot Gris Alsace Tradition 2004 ($42).

Delfina
Food 93, Wine 87, Service 89, Ambience 87, Weighted Average 90
3621 18th St.
San Francisco 94110
Telephone (415) 552-4055
Web site www.delfinasf.com
Open Dinner, daily
Cost Entrées $11–$24
Corkage $18
Credit Cards Visa, MasterCard

Chef Craig Stoll moves the trattoria genre up the culinary ladder with this buzzing neighborhood restaurant, which has developed a national reputation for its soulful Italian food. Menu stalwarts include roast chicken, spaghetti with plum tomatoes, extra-virgin olive oil and peperoncini, and an addictive antipasto spread of salt cod mantecato. The rest of the menu changes daily.

You won't find another trattoria that grills quail to chin-dripping juiciness and rests it atop spring onions and bread salad, or that assembles a tangy wild nettle ravioli made with Bellwether Farms ricotta. Fritto misto might include tiny sand dab fillets, lemon slices and shaved fennel, and a zabaglione made with prosecco dresses fat, chilled, perfectly tender asparagus spears.

Stoll and his wife and partner, Anne, recently spruced up the dining room, adding glass vaselike hanging lights and a quilted lining around the ceiling. This has cut down on the din and made it nicer to settle back, relish the food and discover a wine from one of Italy's better wineries, such as Anselma's Barolo 1993 ($97) or Le Salette's Valpolicella Classico Superiore Ca Carnocchio 2002 ($66). The short list of California options includes Havens, Ridge and Merry Edwards.

Piperade
Food 91, Wine 87, Service 89, Ambience 89, Weighted Average 89
1015 Battery St.
San Francisco 94111
Telephone (415) 391-2555
Web site www.piperade.com
Open Lunch, Monday to Friday; dinner, Monday to Saturday
Cost Entrées $16–$25
Corkage $20

One of the best bistros in San Francisco, Piperade knows how to make food and wine fun. The restaurant's spirit comes from Basque country, chef and owner Gerald Hirigoyens homeland.

The big square table by the host's stand, under a light fixture made of several dozen empty wine bottles, can seat up to 12 people and seems to be perpetually laden with plates of Serrano ham, squid salad, beans and vegetables and, frequently, an order of pipérade, the Basque dish made from tomatoes, onions, garlic, peppers and eggs.

You can make a dinner out of the small plates, such as haricot vert salad with figs and walnuts, or the odd-sounding but wonderful squid and watermelon salad, both enlivened by handfuls of herbs. Stunning main dishes include halibut fillet over a chowder of corn, orzo and chorizo, and tender veal cheeks braised with fresh garbanzos and nectarines.

Sommelier Emmanuel Kemiji, who owns Miura Vineyards, organizes the more than 200 wines on the list into witty categories such as "The Unusual Suspects" and "Basques From Around the Globe" (international wines made from Basque grape varieties). The list skews toward wines that cost less than $50 and has plenty of nifty options.

Plouf
Food 88, Wine 83, Service 88, Ambience 86, Weighted Average 86
40 Belden Place
San Francisco 94104
Telephone (415) 986-6491
Web site www.ploufsf.com
Open Lunch, Monday to Friday; dinner, Monday to Saturday
Cost $15–$26
Corkage $14

A short, restaurant-lined pedestrian alleyway at the edge of the Financial District, Belden Place draws a lively crowd of casual diners who love the European atmosphere of no-nonsense places like Plouf. The bistros here recall the sort of well-worn spots that France and Italy do so well, with tables arranged so that they take over the sidewalk.

Plouf specializes in Prince Edward Island mussels. Seven different preparations (all at $13.50) offer variations on the classic French moules mariniére (a heaping bowl of mussels steamed with garlic, white wine and parsley). A house version uses roasted garlic and Sherry vinegar; the Bretonne variation mixes in sautéed leeks and mushroom ragout; an Asian-inspired coconut broth enhances the milky-white mussel juices with lime, garlic, cilantro and chile. The same preparations can be applied to clams or a mixed bowl of seafood.

The kitchen excels at potato-wrapped bay scallops and makes a bouillabaisse heady with an intense broth. The short wine list specializes in easy-drinking Alsace Pinot Gris and California Pinot Blanc, but big spenders can splurge on Trimbach Riesling Alsace Clos Ste.-Hune 1997 ($150) or Michel Niellon Chevalier-Montrachet 1998 ($320).

Quince
Food 93, Wine 88, Service 92, Ambience 91, Weighted Average 91
1701 Octavia St.
San Francisco 94109
Telephone (415) 775-8500
Web site www.quincerestaurant.com
Open Dinner, daily
Cost Entrées $21–$32
Corkage $25

Michael Tusk's food earns him the nod as one of the top five chefs in San Francisco—better than several of the Grand Dining options can boast—he just serves it in the casual surroundings of a cozy upscale-neighborhood storefront in Pacific Heights. Shirtsleeves are as welcome here as jackets.

Working at Chez Panisse taught Tusk the importance of seeking out phenomenal ingredients, and his menu credits the small farms he buys from. He draws his primary culinary inspiration from the northwestern Italian region of Piedmont. Tusk's ravioli al plin, fingertip-size and improbably juicy, appear often on the ever-changing menu. The pasta section yields the most consistent treasures, but you’ll regret it if you skip the antipasti. Tusk also has a great touch with fish and seafood.

His wife, Lindsay, supervises the helpful, cheerful, unobtrusive waitstaff, and she can point you to smart choices at all price levels on the 350-selection wine list, including lesser-known offerings from California, France and Italy that won't damage the budget. The tea selection is worthy of high marks, too.

San Francisco Originals

This eclectic list features some of the more distinctive options in San Francisco dining. Each has something that makes it unique, from a special approach to wine to a creative concept.

Ame
Food 92, Wine 88, Service 92, Ambience 92, Weighted Average 91
St. Regis Hotel
689 Mission St.
San Francisco 94103
Telephone (415) 284-4040
Web site www.amerestaurant.com
Open Lunch and dinner, daily
Cost Entrées $20–$36
Corkage $20

Chef Hiro Sone, whose Terra in St. Helena has been a Napa Valley favorite for years, has scored anew with this sleek, modern space in the St. Regis Hotel. His idea of fusion cuisine mostly keeps the Japanese ideas separate, in fabulous raw-fish appetizers and his signature sake-marinated black cod, while dishes such as creamy seafood chowder and heady lamb ravioli in osso buco sauce get the full Western treatment. The hip wine list has 300 selections.

Bacar
Food 90, Wine 91, Service 89, Ambience 90, Weighted Average 90
448 Brannan St.
San Francisco 94102
Telephone (415) 904-4100
Web site www.bacarsf.com
Open Lunch, Friday; dinner, daily
Cost Entrées $22–$36
Corkage $25
Best of Award of Excellence

Wine is king here, with 100 on offer by the glass, 2-ounce pours and 250ml and 500ml carafes, and this list alone is hipper and more exciting than what you might find at many good restaurants. Then there is the big 1,300-selection book: A Wine Spectator Best of Award of Excellence winner, it's heavy on Rieslings and other aromatic whites, but doesn't stint on smart choices from every corner of the world. The Asian fusion food can be stellar, especially dishes like roasted poussin and, when in season, the signature wok-roasted Prince Edward Island mussels.

Bar Crudo
Food 90, Wine 84, Service 87, Ambience 86, Weighted Average 87
603 Bush St.
San Francisco 94108
Telephone (415) 956-0396
Web site www.barcrudo.com
Open Dinner, Monday to Saturday
Cost Small plates $9–$14
Corkage $15
Credit Cards Visa, MasterCard

Sit at the zinc bar and watch the chefs at work at this tiny, casual seafood hole-in-the-wall, or settle into a cozy loft for the signature raw-fish presentations, some of the best in town. Heirloom tomatoes with burrata and lobster takes the idea of a Caprese salad up several levels. There are decent options among the 20 wines (and 22 beers) offered, but it might be best to bring your own special seafood-friendly wine.

Greens
Food 89, Wine 87, Service 89, Ambience 89, Weighted Average 88
Building A, Fort Mason Center
San Francisco 94123
Telephone (415) 771-6222
Web site www.greensrestaurant.com
Open Lunch, Tuesday to Saturday; dinner, Monday to Saturday; brunch, Sunday
Cost Entrées $16–$23; Saturday dinner prix-fixe only, $48
Corkage $15
Award of Excellence

Since 1979, Annie Somerville's vegetarian food has incorporated sophisticated elements of classic cuisine. It is so good it beats the to-die-for view of the Golden Gate from the restaurant's Fort Mason location. Sculptures, paintings and textiles from California artists enliven the big barn of a room, but the real draw is great salads and dishes such as vegetables in Thai curry or mesquite-grilled tofu brochettes. The wine list delivers 350 selections, centering on terrific bottlings at moderate prices.

Hog Island Oyster Co.
Food 90, Wine 83, Service 86, Ambience 91, Weighted Average 87
1 Ferry Building
San Francisco 94111
Telephone (415) 391-7117
Web site www.hogislandoysters.com
Open Lunch and dinner, daily
Cost Entrées $12–$18
Corkage $12

Oyster fanatics perch on stools to slurp the West's best oysters and superb steamed clams while admiring the Bay Bridge and Treasure Island view from dead center in the Ferry Building Marketplace. Good wines are available by the glass; I go for the Sancerres and New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs. Oysters are $1 apiece during the Monday and Thursday happy hours from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. Note that dinner is served until only 8 p.m. Monday to Friday and until 6 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday.

Kyo-Ya
Food 91, Wine 84, Service 89, Ambience 89, Weighted Average 88
The Palace Hotel
2 New Montgomery St.
San Francisco 94105
Telephone (415) 546-5090
Web site www.kyo-ya-restaurant.com
Open Lunch and dinner, Monday to Friday
Cost Entrées $18–$40
Corkage $15

This is the most elegant sushi bar in a city filled with fine ones. Rolls such as hamachi and truffles wrapped in see-through aloe, or toro, avocado and black tobiko with gold leaf don't come cheap, but they are exquisite, and you can drink Pommery Brut NV ($70) or Gérard Chavy Puligny-Montrachet 2002 ($70) with them. Try doing that at your neighborhood sushi bar.

PlumpJack Cafe
Food 89, Wine 90, Service 88, Ambience 88, Weighted Average 89
3127 Fillmore St.
San Francisco 94123
Telephone (415) 563-4755
Web site www.plumpjackcafe.com
Open Lunch, Monday to Friday; dinner daily
Cost $18–$29
Corkage $15
Best of Award of Excellence

The team that owns the PlumpJack winery and retail store, which includes San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom, packs the wine list at the café with more than 400 choices and prices them just above retail. That makes PlumpJack Cafe the bistro of paradise for wine lovers. Chef Jeff Smock serves contemporary California cuisine, such as three variations of Dungeness crab in little cones and slices of seared duck breast over confit. Try Patz & Hall Chardonnay Russian River Valley Dutton Ranch 2004 ($26 for a half-bottle) with the crab; Paloma Merlot Spring Mountain District 2003 ($68) with the duck.

Slanted Door
Food 92, Wine 86, Service 89, Ambience 90, Weighted average 89
1 Ferry Building, No. 3
San Francisco 94111
Telephone (415) 861-8032
Web site www.slanteddoor.com
Open Lunch and dinner, daily
Cost Entrées $16–$30
Corkage $25

In a town brimming with great Asian restaurants, chef Charles Phan's Vietnamese showcase has a great bay view and a trump card: a list of 125 perfectly chosen wines, each seemingly made for his food. Riesling and other aromatic whites from Austria, Germany and Alsace are the stars of the show, but Pinot Noir from Oregon and Burgundy and Cabernet Franc from the Loire add luster to the red side of the list. Nothing is better with dishes such as cellophane noodles with crab, catfish claypot and shaking beef.

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