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San Francisco: Bay Area Originals

Unusual places that help make this area special

Harvey Steiman
Posted: June 26, 2002

Guy Spinale, John Sancimino and Dave Sancimino keep a cherished San Francisco tradition alive at Swan Oyster Depot.
  Inside San Francisco
Take it from a local: The best restaurants in San Francisco aren't all trendy, expensive or near your downtown hotel
  Bay Area Originals:  
  O Chame  
  Slanted Door  
  Swan Oyster Depot  

201 Ninth St.
Telephone (415) 255-2742
Open Dinner, daily
Cost Entrées $11 to $18
Note: Minimum age, 21
Award of Excellence

San Francisco has a long tradition of gender-bending showplaces, but the turn-of-the-millennium sensibility here melds the hipper-than-hip South-of-Market bar scene with Asian food far better than anyone should expect in a place where female impersonators comprise the waitstaff.

Purple and gold lighting splashes color on the walls of the long, crowded room. That's your waitress, um, server, prancing down the bar, lip-synching to the disco music thumping in the background. A party mood carries the day. Bartenders -- guys who look like guys -- mix excellent drinks. The mostly California wine list, short but suitably eclectic, has some pleasant surprises such as half-bottles of Renwood Zinfandel Old Vines 1999 and full bottles of Staglin Cabernet Sauvignon 1998, Flowers Chardonnay Sonoma Coast 1999 and Kistler Chardonnay Vine Hill Vineyard 1999.

Chefs Matthew Metcalf and Jen Solomon (who has since left AsiaSF) favor bright, honest flavors in their Asian dishes. Tamarind marinade perks up juicy chicken satay. Beautifully sautéed chunks of orange-glazed lamb come with coconut jasmine rice and a terrific Thai-inspired cucumber salad. Mussels steamed in sake get a jolt from red curry and kaffir lime broth. More timid diners might enjoy a teriyaki-glazed ahi burger and the three miniature ice cream cones for dessert, not to be missed if one of the flavors is buko (purple yam).

O Chame
1830 Fourth St., Berkeley
Telephone (510) 841-8783
Open Lunch and dinner, Monday to Saturday
Cost Entrées $9 to $18

This little oasis in Berkeley's Fourth Street shopping district stands out from so many other intimate Asian restaurants around the Bay area because its wine list has wines we actually want to drink, and because chef and owner David Vardy's food offers something unique. Vardy lived in Japan and married a Japanese woman, now his partner in the restaurant. Like his family, Vardy's food is a comfortable fusion of East and West, not the self-conscious mixtures and layered dishes that so many fusion chefs concoct.

It's worth the trip across the bay to this casual, quiet, country place for the long-simmered short ribs, Japanese and French ingredients mingling harmoniously. Grilled eel on endive uses a sweet sauce to match the slightly bitter vegetable with the sushi-bar favorite. Smoked trout or charcoal-grilled chicken add Western interest to traditional Japanese soups. Whatever Vardy does, it feels natural and relaxed, and it tastes just fine with wines such as Au Bon Climat Pinot Noir 2000 and Domaine de la Beaurenard Ch‰teauneuf-du-Pape 1999 from the small list, at prices that are easy to swallow.

320 Magnolia Ave., Larkspur
Telephone (415) 924-5004
Open Dinner, Tuesday to Sunday
Cost 2-course menu, $25; 3-course menu, $32; 4-course menu, $39

Like most accomplished chefs, Roxanne Klein learned her stuff in top kitchens. Now she has applied her creativity, style and a passion for great ingredients to making raw vegan food that is not only palatable, but just as appetizing as more conventional cuisines. That's not easy when your palette is limited to fruits and vegetables never heated above 118° F. (the point at which enzymes in the food are affected). She's doing OK. Charlie Trotter, the famed Chicago chef, wrote a recipe book with her to be published later this year.

The Marin County restaurant, opened in December, is warm and inviting. The wine list, compiled by consulting sommelier Larry Stone, leans on light, fruity wines from heavy producers such as Zind-Humbrecht, Raveneau, Leroy, Dujac, Dr. Loosen and Ch‰teau La Conseillante.

On a recent visit, spicy dishes such as curried vegetables and pad Thai, the noodles made of shaved young coconut, bristled with pure flavors, and the textures approximated cooked foods through Klein's ingenious use of drying and marinating. Another treat is sushi made of grated parsnip and pine nuts (instead of rice) surrounding avocado in traditional nori. Soups, though lukewarm, offer an arresting clarity of flavor. Asparagus puree gets its creaminess from avocado and coconut milk. Desserts rely on nuts, spices and chocolate, and they're first-class. Her unbaked chocolate layer cake (though to make chocolate it needs to be heated above 118° F.) must be tasted to be believed.

Will it make a meat eater forget spare ribs or foie gras? Probably not, but Roxanne's delivers a mastery of flavor and texture that's worth experiencing.

Slanted Door
100 Brannan St., at The Embarcadero
Telephone (415) 861-8032
Open Lunch and dinner, daily
Cost Entrées $13 to $27
Credit cards Visa, MasterCard

The menu here is different from that of any other Vietnamese restaurant in San Francisco, serving elevated versions of Saigon street food. It's vibrant and creative enough to hold its own against any in its price range, Asian or not. So too the restaurant, temporarily relocated to a scenic spot on The Embarcadero while its permanent home in a Mission District loft space is being expanded into the storefront next door.

On my visit to the old space shortly before the move, chef and owner Charles Phan made all the flavors sparkle, as in an onion and tamarind sauce for roast pork. Organic baby spinach served on the side tasted just-picked. Each flavor was bright and pure in Slanted Door spring rolls, paper-thin wraps holding halved shrimp, minced pork and mint. The fish special was black sea bass, its snow-white interior contrasting with a crispy surface and a spiky vinegar sauce.

Servers know their stuff. After ordering what we wanted, the waitress just said, "No problem. I'll course it out." A 65-wine list heavy on GrŸner Veltliner, Riesling and other fruity choices contains helpful suggestions for matching with the food, such as "fruity, softer, best choice with spicy dishes." Red wines work, too. Domaine Ste.-Anne Côtes du Rhône-Villages 1996 made the grade with every dish.

Swan Oyster Depot
1517 Polk St.
Telephone (415) 673-1101
Open Monday to Saturday, 8 a.m. to about 6 p.m.
Cost Cold entrées $13 to $25 (same menu all day)
Credit cards None, cash and local checks only

It's easy to believe that nothing much has changed here since this San Francisco institution opened in 1912. There are no tables, only a line of 19 rickety stools along a marble counter cluttered with bowls of lemons and oyster crackers, stacks of cocktail napkins and bottles of hot sauce. But the local oysters, $14 a dozen, were in the water only hours before your counterman shucks them for you.

Indulge in a dozen plump and briny Miyagi oysters from Hog Island Oyster Co. on Tomales Bay, maybe the world's finest, or, if you don't believe the Hog Islands are the best, try a little comparative tasting with others from Washington or British Columbia. One of the Sancimino brothers, whose father bought the place in 1946, will be happy to oblige.

Try one of the salads, a plate of sweet iceberg lettuce (talk about retro vogue!) topped with the freshest crab meat, shrimp, prawns and another San Francisco tradition, a ladle of Louie sauce (similar to Thousand Island but zingier). If you prefer, your counterman will spoon a little Dijon mustard into a bowl and whisk it together with vinegar and extra virgin olive oil for a fresh vinaigrette. In season, have a plate of cracked Dungeness crab with a glass of Jordan Chardonnay, one of five wines available by the glass. Or try a bowl of clam chowder, as good as any version on the New England shore. Be prepared to wait in line, with the regulars, especially at lunchtime.

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