Nice to Me(a)t You: An Introduction
Why, hello there. Thanks for picking up this book. You must be hungry, or perhaps looking for somewhere to celebrate your anniversary dinner or host your rager of a birthday party. Well, let’s hop to it.
But first, some backstory. Since I’m the daughter of an amazing cook (my mother) and a former pizzeria and deli owner (yes, my father is Italian, and I’ve got an “i” at the end of my last name to prove it), it would not be an understatement to say my entire life has revolved around food. And even better, good food. Homemade food. Food made with love. A random smattering of childhood memories includes watering our family’s garden full of tomatoes and fava beans, picking olallieberries, cracking crab at grandma’s, coming home from school to a house that smelled of homemade bread (I know, my mother is off the charts in cumulative Mom points), and rolling tiny meatballs for our Christmas lasagna. It’s really no surprise that I figured out how to make a living out of eating.
I’ve been adventuring throughout San Francisco like a culinary swashbuckler for the past fifteen years, and writing about food since 2002. I eat everything, from street food to sweetbreads to stinky fromage, and adore retro diners and four-star restaurants with equal passion. I launched my cheeky weekly tablehopper e-column in 2006 (you can subscribe for free at www.tablehopper.com), and it has since become a trusted insider source for learning what’s new, coming soon, and, of course, delicious in the San Francisco restaurant and bar scene (and beyond). It’s chock-full of news and gossip, covering what’s hot and what’s opening or closing, along with restaurant reviews of both new and established places, mentions of culinary and wine events, weekend getaway ideas, and a very popular section covering star sightings in bars and restaurants. After taking a trip I include write-ups of the restaurants and bars I visited in those cities, from Sydney to New York to New Orleans. I also cover places closer to home, like the Wine Country, for those looking for weekend getaway ideas.
I have been an unofficial concierge for years, recommending restaurants to friends and family since I was a teenager. Once I launched tablehopper, my readers started to ask me for restaurant recommendations, so I launched my “tip please” service, acting as a restaurant matchmaker and answering more than 1,500 dining inquiries. Those recommendations became the inspiration for this book, since I soon realized that both locals and travelers don’t pick their restaurants by category (French, Financial District, $$$), but by occasion: dinner with the girls, first date, lunch with the parents. Diners plan their meals around their lives. Most guidebooks are organized by neighborhood, by cuisine, or even by their rating (and I use them all), but I thought there needed to be a guide organized by how we really eat: by occasion. And based on all the recommendations I’ve made, I think there are some diners who would agree with me. How to Use This Book (Is This Thing On?)
Before we dive in, here’s a little something you should know about me. No, it’s not that I secretly enjoy eating Lean Pockets with ranch dressing (and, for the record, I don’t eat Hot Pockets either). But you may find this tidbit of information useful while reading my recommendations: I’m thirty-eight, which means I can appreciate places that have some style and verve, but my suggestions for date places might veer toward being too hip or noisy for some folks in their sixties (which is why I have special chapters on quiet restaurants, or dining with the ‘rents, or “serious” meals, like business dining). Only you know where you fall on the age spectrum: are you a night owl in your fifties, or perhaps a very serious twenty-eight? Just a little something to keep in mind. Then again, you’re not likely to find me in a restaurant packed with college kids doing tequila body shots. In fact, it’s not likely at all.
I have tried to include a variety of places for everyone, with all kinds of tastes and budgets, but many fall within the moderate to spendy price range. What can I say? I blame San Francisco for having so many fabulous restaurants (even though I love me some cheap eats, too).
Here’s the price breakdown on listings:
$ Thrifty: average main course under $9
$$ Moderate: average main course $9-$17
$$$ Spendy: average main course $18-$29
$$$$ Very Spendy: average main course or tasting menu $30+
NOTE: Restaurants that serve small plates can be a little tricky, so in those cases the price category refers to what you’d spend on, say, a couple of plates.
This is not a guidebook of every single restaurant in San Francisco (which has about three thousand and counting, by the way). It’s more about my choices for what places are appropriate for which occasions. These are places where I like to go and that I think are worth the money--where I’ve had good dining experiences, and I hope you do too. So did some big-name places get left out? Yes. Your neighborhood favorite? It’s quite possible. And some of them may be very good--but just not right for this book--or a place I don’t know very well, or inconsistent. And besides, I have a word-count limit to abide by (trust, this could have been a three-volume set).
For each occasion you’ll find at least a few minireviews, plus a listing of “Other ideas” about where to go. Many of the places listed in “Other ideas” have reviews elsewhere in the book, so be sure to look at any cross-referenced page numbers for their write-up and additional details. You will also see a “TIP” or “NOTE” section following certain reviews, with special hints, such as which table to request or other insider tidbits.
One challenge in writing this book was that we’re in the middle of a nasty recession (summer 2009). It’s a tricky situation, because it’s hard to determine if some places will make it. Time will tell. As a result, I went with more tried-and-true favorites and fewer “fresh outta the gate” or “funky” places, since these restaurants are subject to change (or end) very quickly. Which also means you should call a place before heading over for lunch--who knows, they might not serve lunch anymore, even though this book says they do.
I also opted to not mention a lot of executive chefs or bartenders by name since they tend to move around. (So chefs, don’t get snippy with me if I left your name out, sorry.) But in the case of a chef-owner, I sometimes included a name.
There are so many unique and under-the-radar concepts currently happening in San Francisco, from pop-up restaurants to mobile food carts, so I recommend subscribing to tablehopper (at www.tablehopper.com) if you want to keep up on all the very latest.
I have also included a roundup of destination-worthy locations in the East Bay, the Peninsula, the South Bay, and the Wine Country. And if you’re just passing through and want to eat your way through the city, be sure to take a look at the one-, two-, and three-day culinary itineraries, which were designed both for those who have planned ahead and for those who showed up at the last minute. (Locals will want to peek at these itineraries as well--there’s a lot to chew on!)
Note that many of the places listed in this book have also been written up on tablehopper.com, so if you want even more details (or sass), take a look in the archives under “Fresh Meat” and “The Regular.”
My father’s hilarious Vietnam buddy Bob Jaskolka spontaneously came up with a variety of funny titles for this book when I was trying to nail one down. One of them was You Only Live Once, But You Can Eat a Lot! (I agree), and another winner was Fork Your Way Around the Bay. I couldn’t have said it better myself.
~Marcia FOR THE LADIES
Girls’ Night OutGirls, they wanna, wanna have fun! Fun scene? Yes. Cocktails and wine by the glass? Natch. Food that’s easy to share, even with your picky friend in tow? Sure! Places worthy of your sassy style, kitten heels, and fabulous handbag? Checkity check check! Whether it’s just you and your BFF or a flock of five, here’s where to go hit the town. Beretta $$ 1199 Valencia St. at 23rd St., 415-695-1199, berettasf.com
There’s a bunch of reasons this place has taken off like a casa on fire: impeccable craft cocktails, late hours, heart-of-the-Mission location, and well-priced Italian food you don’t have to think about too much while you’re hanging out with your gal pals (think antipasti like the fave eggplant caponatina with burrata, and thin-crust pizzas). The vittles aren’t perfetto, but it’s one of those places where the raucous vibe, cuties at the communal table, and swish cocktails tip the scale. Speaking of the cocktails, since they take a while to make, let alone order, request your next drink as soon as you get your first one in front of you, no joke. The all-day weekend brunch/lunch is a bonus. TIP
: If your group is big enough (six or more), you can reserve a table and avoid the walk-in madness--but try to get an upstairs table, since the downstairs has less of a scene. If your group is smaller than six people, you can call ahead to get your name on the list while you circle for parking. Dosa $$-$$$ 1700 Fillmore St. at Post St., 415-441-3672, dosasf.com
The second (and newer) location of this South Indian stunner covers all the bases: chic and colorful interior, upbeat vibe, urban crowd, well-composed wine list, inspired cocktails (cardamom and Kaffir lime on the loose), and a unique menu of spiced goodies that’s a pleasure to explore and share--especially if there’s a vegetarian or vegan in the posse. Try the vadas (South Indian crab cakes), Kerala fish moilee (a spicy, creamy, and savory preparation), and the crepe-like dosas (they come with a variety of fillings--the spinach and fennel version is particularly tasty). The tasting menu is also a good way to go. Bonus: The build-out was very eco-friendly (just like the ingredients in the food). TIP:
The Sundance Kabuki Cinemas (1881 Post St. at Fillmore St., 415-929-4650) is right across the street in case you want dinner before catching a chick flick--or you can have a nightcap at Dosa afterward. NOTE:
The original Dosa (995 Valencia St. at 21st St., 415-642-3672) is cozier and more rustic, with wood tables, persimmon walls, dim lighting, and a candlelit bar. This location attracts an upbeat crowd ranging from tattooed vegans to young professionals, so anyone will fit in here. There’s no full bar, but they’ll help you pick out a good wine, like a killer Riesling. Terzo $$$ 3011 Steiner St. at Union St., 415-441-3200, terzosf.com
We know how much the ladies like to drink vino (hic!), and this spot in Cow Hollow is primed to fill your glass with something liquid (and the Euro-heavy list means your vino will most likely have an accent). The daily-changing menu of seasonal Cal-Med-Ital cuisine can verge on the spendy, but eat, sister--we don’t want you falling off your stool when you’re done with your first glass of rosato. (At least tuck into the swoon-worthy hummus with warm made-to-order pita.) Besides, a couple of small plates is all a girl needs when she’s trying to avoid muffin-topping in her low-rider jeans. That said, just in case you’re a bad girl, the crispy onions are delicious. The look is postmodern rustic hip, just like your sexy boots. Oh, and there’s a posse-perfect back corner table with room for seven, as well as a private room with space for sixteen. TIP:
Terzo has a petite front patio (twenty seats in all), and did you know you can reserve a table there ahead of time? Heh, now you do.
The alfresco restaurants on Belden Place and Claude Lane (two pedestrian alleys near Union Square) could be a fun place for a night of touring with a culinary Eurorail pass (of sorts). For example, you could go to Café Claude (p. 31), Gitane (p. 24), and Plouf (40 Belden Pl., 415-986-6491) for drinks and bites (flirting with accented hottie waiters at each destination). Other Ideas:
A16 (p. 58), Bar Crudo (p. 121), Bar Tartine (p. 33), Betelnut (p. 82), Bocadillos (p. 102), Contigo (p. 49), Delfina (p. 137), Destino (p. 24), District (216 Townsend St., 415-896-2120), Farina (p. 127), Florio (p. 57), Gitane (p. 24), Heaven’s Dog (p. 74), J Lounge (p. 15), Laïola (p. 30), Mamacita (p. 16), nopa (p. 17), Oola (p. 55), Ottimista Enoteca-Café (1838 Union St., 415-674-8400), Range (p. 59), RN74 (p. 128), SPQR (p. 51), Umami (p. 57)
Excerpted from The Tablehopper's Guide to Dining and Drinking in San Francisco by Marcia Gagliardi. Copyright © 2010 by Marcia Gagliardi. Excerpted by permission of Ten Speed Press, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.