Eating as Religion: Dine at the Altar of Foodies in San Francisco
By Tom Molanphy
San Francisco Local Expert
With a flood of tech funds still rolling in, many San Francisco restaurants are putting their money where the mouths of their patron's are.
Anyone who has read the news about the Bay Area lately knows the biggest topic is the continued surge of tech money into the city's coffers. Although many locals are legitimately concerned about gentrification and the displacement of longtime Bay Area residents, astute and thoughtful business opportunists are taking advantage of this surge of funds.
Restaurants, for example, are doing everything they can to enhance what they are already offering. Whether they decide to expand their wine lists or diversify their organic choices, one thing's for sure: it's a fantastic time to dine out in San Francisco.
Although San Francisco has always been known for its food, now is the time to visit and try out some of the world's best fare. From perfect pasta in North Beach to sizzling Szechuan in Chinatown, the variety and quality of Bay Area dining is incomparable. And just when it looked like dining couldn't get any better, a new wave of restaurants emphasizing local and organic ingredients has flooded the city.
Here's our mix and match of the old and the new tastes of San Francisco.
If you view dinner as an adventure, head to Bar Tartine. Taking a no holds barred approach to cooking, co-chefs Cortney and Nick mix and match as many styles and ingredients the world's cupboard has to offer. Just one meal could have three different cultures mixed in, so set your taste buds on "open-minded" before sitting down to eat. Rest assured that whatever ingredient is used, it's local, sometimes as local as the next room, as is the case with Bar Tartine's delectable cheeses and spices. If you think your mouth deserves a trip around the world, close your eyes and open wide at Bar Tartine's. (4154871600)
Although the locally-loved Red Vic movie theatre is gone, locals and tourists alike have begun gathering next door at the Alembic. A small, intimate space that doesn't take reservations, the Alembic invites you to come early and stay late at this Haight Street hotspot. It's already renowned for its cocktails, from the New Orleans Sazerac to the South American Pisco Sour, but just the superior quality of the snack menu, like honey-cumin glazed nuts, should convince you to stick around for dinner. A recent standout: Caramelized Pork Ribs with a Spicy Green Papaya Salad. If you're looking to start off a memorable night out on iconic Haight Street on the right foot, stop in at the Alembic. (415-666-0822)
Simplicity and authenticity reign at this small, popular restaurant. Zinc tabletops and exotic hardwoods bear this out, as does the incomparable Italian fare with its top-notch local and organic ingredients. Although Delfina has garnered much acclaim since it premiered, the trattoria still delights with casual ambience, friendly service and satisfyingly reasonable prices; all boons to dining aficionados. Delfina is a great example of a restaurant that doesn't just rest on its past success. While the service and quality of some fine dining restaurants seems to drop their popularity rises, Delfina's innovative menu is always searching for that next big and bold taste. (415-552-4055)
This much-loved mainstay has evolved into one of San Fran's favorite restaurants. The warmth, attention to detail and falt-out excellence can be attributed to the passion of its founder, Billy West, who opened Zuni Café in 1979, "with a huge heart and exactly ten thousand dollars." The interior of Zuni features Southwestern accents, but the food takes cues from California, France, Italy, and the Mediterranean. Fresh oysters at the bar make a good introduction, and the Caesar salad is famous far and wide. Other menu staples include duck breast and the signature roasted chicken (prepared to order). You'll also want to try house-cured anchovies and sourdough bread with the rest of the hip clientele. (415-552-2522)
Nopa defies categorization as either old or new because it has some of both. Although it's only been around since 2006, chef Laurence Jossel worked at several traditional and popular restaurants before Nopa and brings professionalism and expertise to every dish. But tradition bends to experimentation, and that wonderful blend creates some of Nopa's most famous dishes, such as Moroccan vegetable tangine and wood-roasted king salmon. What's more, as one of the more popular restaurants in the city, Nopa makes a concerted effort to be a friendly, active, and concerned neighbor. And from Prather Ranch to Balakian Farms, Nopa's dedication to local, organic, and sustainable products is truly impressive. (415-864-8643)
Patrons can't find enough good things to say about La Folie, the small family-run restaurant that mixes sure-handed French cuisine with a refreshing lack of pretense. In the intimate dining room, lush drapery, mirrors and exotic woods impart a note of luxury. The aesthetic is echoed beautifully in the restaurant's artful fare. Chef Roland Passot's joie de vivre shines through in his cooking and is visible in quail and foie gras lollipops, a trio of roasted rabbit with baby vegetables, and sautéed halibut cheeks with tomato confit. Three-, four- and five-course meals satisfy many appetites, as do vegetarian and à la carte options. (415-776-5577)
Restaurant Gary Danko
If you ask a longtime San Franciscan what's the one restaurant a tourist shouln't miss, chances are they'd say Gary Danko's. Hard to knock this longtime favorite off any list. Sleek and contemporary yet warm and inviting, this restaurant showcases classical culinary knowledge, a flair for the creative, and an appreciation for local ingredients. All are in attendance on the restaurant's seasonal menus, which include dishes like mushroom-dusted sea scallops with cauliflower purée, juniper-crusted venison, and Moroccan-spiced squab with orange-cumin carrots. The cheese cart alone, a delectable delight that rolls out up to twenty different cheeses from all over the world, is alone worth a visit. (415-749-2060)
What do you get when you mix Yemenese, French and California cuisines? An unexpected and unforgettable dining experience for the adventurous traveler. Owned and run by husband and wife team Mohamed and Marmee Aboghanem, diners take a tasting tour of the world without leaving their seats. From the popular Saha sampler to the Beef Kibbeh, these dishes are a collection gathered by the head chef's diverse travels around the globe. For those diners looking for a romantic night, Saha's intimate and secluded space creates the perfect atmosphere. And those "green foodies" out there should take comfort in Saha's environmental practices, including biogredable take-out containers and non-toxic cleaning products. (4153459547)
High ceilings and awesome Bay views establish a unique atmosphere at this well-received waterfront venue. Style and spectacle are grounded, though, by Slanted Door's authentic country Vietnamese dishes, which get a California kick from local ingredients. Taste the results in the catfish claypot, crispy peppercorn duck, shaking beef, spicy squid and mesquite-grilled pork chops. Spring rolls also come highly recommended, and great cocktails and scrumptious desserts are worth indulging in. And with a world-famous chef/owner like Charles Phan in charge (author of the fantastic cook book "Vietnamese Home Cooking"), you'll get quite a crowd. And don't forget to keep an eye out for celebrities! (415-861-8032)
Acquerello's mission statement says it best: "At Acquerello, we believe that refined luxury is always in style. Our desire is to provide our guests an experience of classic and contemporary Italian tastes in an elegant dining atmosphere." Elegant and subdued, this intimate restaurant (whose name means "watercolor") exhibits artistry in both cuisine and appearance. Its serene ambience and its vaulted, beamed ceiling evoke Acquerello's former incarnation as a chapel. Contemporary Italian dishes are the main draw, though, and a frequently-changing menu features dishes like parsley-encrusted pork loin, beef carpaccio with hearts of palm and black truffles, and tuna in fennel-dill crust with saffron sauce. The wine list features fine Italian and California vintages. (415-567-5432)
About Tom Molanphy
The only thing that Tom Molanphy loves more than the food, art, music, and culture of San Francisco is sharing it with others. San Francisco never gets old for Tom. Tom has lived in the San Francisco Bay area since 2000. He teaches writing, journalism and literature at the Academy of Art University in downtown San Francisco. His latest book, Loud Memories Of A Quiet Life, is available through Outpost19.
Read more about Tom Molanphy here.