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Inside San Francisco

Take it from a local: The best restaurants in San Francisco aren't all trendy, expensive or near your downtown hotel

Harvey Steiman
Posted: June 24, 2002

Executive chef Melissa Perello and pastry chef Shelly Kanduski of Charles Nob Hill are two of the people who are keeping the Bay area food scene up to date.
  Special Occasion Dining
Where you dress up and order the tasting menu
  Bistros and Brasseries
Great food and wine in more casual surroundings
  Bay Area Originals
Unusual places that help make this area special
  Flavors of Italy
Tasting the heritage that made Bay area cooking great
  Dining at the Bar
10 places to consider if you can't plan ahead
  Luxury Hotels
It's a buyer's market for the best lodgings in town

Sweet, smoky, floral and a little bit gamy, the distinctive aroma of Chinese tea-smoked duck rises from the plate. But you know it's not a Chinese restaurant because the juicy pink meat rests on mashed potatoes and is garnished with a chutney of gingered pears and shiso, a piquant herb. Château Simard 1989, a pretty darn good St.-Emilion selected from 400 wines on the list, tastes great with this very San Franciscan mixture of flavors from East and West.

The restaurant is Eos, in Cole Valley. In 1995, it was one of the city's hot new darlings. The novelty seekers have since moved on, but it still has a loyal following -- casually dressed guests from this area and other nearby neighborhoods who know better than to give up on a sensational place just because it isn't the latest thing.

When food-and-wine-loving friends phone to announce a pending visit, inevitably they first want to try the trendiest restaurants. I often advise otherwise. Take it from someone who has lived here for a quarter-century: For all the talk about new places, the savvy dining crowd in San Francisco returns to certain favorites again and again. Sure, we like modern California cuisine and its cutting-edge chefs, but we also enjoy French, Italian, Spanish and Greek cuisines, and we flock to Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, Thai, Cambodian, Filipino, Singaporean and Indian restaurants with equal enthusiasm.

Often, these restaurants lead tourists to neighborhoods where they probably won't be bumping into other tourists. What most visitors think of as San Francisco is basically just the northeast quadrant of the city -- downtown and Nob Hill, where all the fancy hotels are, plus Chinatown, North Beach and maybe the Marina and the Presidio. Explorers have also been spotted in SoMa (South of Market), the SoHo and TriBeCa of San Francisco. But residential sections of the city offer the more adventurous a different picture, including some intriguing restaurant choices, which as a bonus often cost considerably less than the downtown stars.

So instead of focusing on the city's 20 best restaurants, this report broadens the scope to offer a range of choices. These are the first places I would take out-of-town visitors. Each one offers something special. Some are fancy; some are more casual. Some have great wine lists. Others have nice small lists, and most of them welcome wine drinkers who bring their own.

At Delfina, for example, in a neighborhood home to starving artists, Craig Stoll dishes up Italian food that really tastes Italian, and he charges as little as $8 for an entrée. It's on the same block of 18th Street in the Inner Mission as Bi-Rite Market, a good place to stock up for a picnic, with artisanal cheeses, great breads, house-made sausages and a small but well-chosen rack of wines.

A world away is the Slanted Door, where Charles Phan elevates Vietnamese street food to gourmet status and offers a wine list that fits the food like Spandex. Keith Luce is busy redefining the trattoria at Merenda, on a quiet section of upscale Union Street in Cow Hollow. Out in the middle-class Richmond district, Didier Labbé, who lately cooked at Arpège in Paris, has been wowing the neighborhood with his bistro on Clement Street. Someone once figured out that 75 different ethnic cuisines were represented on Clement's 34 blocks. It's probably more now.

Cole Valley, part of the hippie-ish Haight in the 1960s, also has a thriving little restaurant enclave. There's Eos, showcasing the creative food of Arnold Eric Wong, plus several outstanding sushi bars and Ashbury Market, the specialty grocery store. Eos also has a wine bar next door with 400 selections by the bottle.

Any one of these little jewels offers a more satisfying experience than some of the famous names that didn't make the cut for this report. Because we wanted a truly representative cross-section, we left out Campton Place, Hawthorne Lane, Hayes Street Grill, One Market, Lark Creek Inn, Jardinière, La Folie, PlumpJack Café and The Dining Room at The Ritz-Carlton -- all places we praised in our 1996 report on San Francisco dining. Hubert Keller's Fleur de Lys, which Wine Spectator rated as one of the top restaurants in the United States in 2000, suffered a fire in 2001 and reopened too late to review.

I've sorted my choices into four sections: the "big deal" restaurants; bistros and brasseries; quirky spots that make the Bay area so special; and finally, a few Italian restaurants that offer regional authenticity with flair.

The big deal restaurants create a refined dining experience. Men wear coats and ties, wine lists go for the finest and you'll want to order the star chef's tasting menu. Gary Danko at his eponymous restaurant, Ron Siegel at Masa's, Alice Waters at Chez Panisse and George Morrone at Redwood Park all have well-deserved national reputations. Laurent Gras brings his aura from the late, lamented Peacock Alley in New York to his new post at Fifth Floor. Daniel Patterson at Elisabeth Daniel and Melissa Perello at Charles Nob Hill are big-time stars-to-be.

San Francisco also excels in another category: the American version of the comfortable French bistro. Some of them, such as Absinthe, Clementine and Jeanty at Jack's, are exemplars of the genre, right down to the traditional frisée salads and coq au vin. In these places, the atmosphere bustles, open collars are more common and the wine lists often aim for better value. Boulevard looks like an Art Nouveau brasserie, Zuni Café could be a bistro in the French provinces and Rubicon occupies a relaxed exposed-brick space (and it has a Wine Spectator Grand Award for its wine list). The food at these places sometimes rivals that of the big deal restaurants.

The next category embraces quirky, fun spots that also please wine lovers. It would have been nice to include some of the top-notch Chinese, Japanese, Thai and Cambodian places, but they lose on the wine front. One exception is the Slanted Door, which offers a remarkable selection of dry, fruity reds and whites that make convivial matches with its vibrant Vietnamese food. American-born chef David Vardy adds Western touches to Japanese country food at O Chame, a restful oasis on Fourth Street in Berkeley, a popular shopping venue in part because it boasts a rarity in these parts -- free parking.

Despite its "wine list" of exactly five choices (actually it's only posted on the wall), Swan Oyster Depot on eclectic Polk Street earns a spot in this pantheon, if for no other reason than its single-minded devotion to all that is simple and great about West Coast seafood. Maybe a few more wine choices would enhance the experience, but it doesn't get much better -- or more purely San Franciscan -- than perching on a stool at Swan's, sipping Jordan Chardonnay and dipping a plump Hog Island oyster into tangy mignonette sauce. Go there for lunch. When they run out of fresh seafood, they close the doors.

The final section, Italian standards, may come as surprise to some, but much of what we think of as "California cuisine" relies on Italy for inspiration; Italian food has been a key element of the Bay area restaurant scene since Genovese immigrants arrived in the late 19th century. Today, neighborhood trattorias represent every region on the Italian map, from Istria to Sicily. The ones I've recommended get closest to the true taste of Italy and provide ample fodder for wine lovers.

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