San Francisco Eating: In a Nutshell

The final vacation post (about 3 weeks after the fact) is here!  Funny how vacation leads to more work.  If you missed it, here were some thoughts after our trip, and here was the write up on Chicago eating.  I took virtually no notes in SF, so these will be very basic write-ups - hopefully enough for you to get the gist though.  Nearly every place we ate did a great job of listing all of the local ingredients they source - it is very much the norm out there.  Because so many menus have already changed since when we were there, I won't talk much about this because I don't know where things were from now...

Range - I asked the folks whose house we stayed at for a recommendation near their house that we could walk to on the night we arrived in the city (in what I believe is called Corona Heights), and they said Range.  We didn't know until after we'd gone that it has gotten great reviews and would be recommended by so many people.  It's a cozy, well-designed place and we got a table fairly quickly on a Wednesday night.  This turned out to be our favorite of a few places I'll broadly group as "California cuisine" - along with Ad Hoc and Chez Panisse.  We had delicious salmon and ravioli appetizers - both were delicate, savory, and colorful.  Then, because we'd never had so many people recommend roast chicken until we started asking around about SF restaurants, we tried theirs to see what Californian's are doing that others don't seem to be.  And the verdict: that was some excellent bird!  The skin was crispy and flavorful, the meat was moist and fresh, and it came with a "stuffing" with a chevre-esque cheese, large toasted bread crumbs, and chunks of trumpet mushrooms. Maybe it tasted so good because we didn't build it up too much?  But it also set a high bar for the rest of the trip - a bar that frankly, was met less than we'd hoped.  (No pics, it was too dark)
Range on Urbanspoon
Tartine Bakery - This was one of the places people told us to go before, during, and after our trip.  We walked the dog down and ordered a small sampling of options.  Sarah just said "I've been thinking about that lemon tart with the pansy on top.  That was the best tart of the season so far."  That gives you an idea that just thinking about the place, our mouths are watering.  A ham (from Niman Ranch) and cheese croissant was melt in your mouth good.  A fruit tart was chewy and soft and crumbly in all the right ways.  And that lemon tart was, well - I'm not sure how you'd improve upon it frankly.  Sarah also got a cappuccino, and we sat outside and watched the world go by.  This area of the Mission is flush with culinary options, we'd highly recommend you stop through.
Tartine Bakery on Urbanspoon

Ferry Building - Probably the most recommended place of all was this spot.  It's down on the water, near downtown SF, and is full of all sorts of things to make a foodie drool.  We wanted to pick up some food to cook breakfasts (it was kind of exhausting to eat out for every. single. meal.), and we'd heard they had some street food options on Thursdays, so off we went.  There are all kinds of treasures to be found at the Ferry Market, where, in typical SF style, everything is absolutely gorgeous - almost too perfect.  We bought a sampling of cured meats from Boccalone Salumeria to nibble on while driving out to wine country the next day, a cornucopia of mushrooms from Far West Fungi (and cheap too!), and picked up bread, cheese, produce, and more.  The lines for the street food were out of control, so we just walked out back for a bit and took some photographs of the water and bridge.  In retrospect, I wish we would have waited it out because we never did make it to Hapa Ramen - one of the hot street food places that I was really hoping to try.  We also thought about going back on Saturday when they apparently have a stunning farmer's market.  One way or the other, if you are in SF, you will probably want to check out the Ferry Building.
Boccalone on Urbanspoon

Delfina Pizzeria - One person told us that they had better pizza at another spot, but this stuff would sure be tough to beat.  We got a specialty pizza that they don't serve every day at this spot just up the street from Tartine.  It had spring onions and guanciale, but the thing that made it so darn good was the panna (Italian for cream).  It's crust was perfectly bubbly too, and overall this was one heck of a pie.  Our starter was a fresh mozzarella filled with cream called burratta, and it was very good too.  Plus, the server was really nice - she explained the health care tax that was on our bill, and gave us some recommendations of other places to try while we were in town.  Also, if you have a girlfriend who works at Pizzeria Delfina and you are reading this, she wants you to take her to Chez Pannise.
Pizzeria Delfina on Urbanspoon

Omnivore Books - No, Omnivore Books is not a restaurant.  But, it will get you as hungry as one, and will inspire you more than lots of restaurants put together.  I actually stopped in 3 times during our stay in SF - never quite finding the right time to go and stay for a bit until the last visit.  They ship in cookbooks from Britain, and that, along with the owner's excellent taste, leads to an excellent bookstore experience.  I love bookstores, and I love food, so this is an amazing combo.  We bought a couple gifts for folks we stayed with here, and I am definitely going to be placing orders from them in the future because they had all kinds of cookbooks that I have never seen - and I have haunted darn near every local book store's cookbook shelves.

Chez Panisse - This was our most highly anticipated reservation of our vacation.  I kept calling it a pilgrimage, and I don't think that's an overstatement.  Chez Panisse was really, by nearly every account, the progenitor of fresh, seasonal, local foods as a way to be for restaurants in the United States.  It's an institution.  And because of all that, I am very happy to say that I've eaten there.  Now, unless I am blown away by evidence, I find it very unlikely that I'll want to return.  The menu of the night (you don't choose, they do) started us off with a tomato salad with a basil mayonnaise.  It was probably the best thing we ate.  That was followed by shrimp and potato something, and then a main course of quail, succotash, and corn fritters (pictured above).  On all the dishes the presentation was nothing special - lazy even.  The quail was good, but definitely not amazing.  In general, the food was okay, but we really were hoping to be wowed.  The coolest thing?  Eavesdropping on the table next to us (mistakenly at first, but then we couldn't help ourselves).  The president of UC Berkeley was definitely there.  We're pretty sure another guy was a past president.  And one guy who talked the most and the loudest appeared to be a current ambassador (we think from Mexico) and a past Exxon-Mobil exec.  My favorite line was when one of them said that in Latin America when there is unrest with students, they start revolutions - when there is unrest with students in the U.S. they start new classes.  It was part of a larger point about the need for more funding for public education or else there'd be trouble.  Sad but true, on a number of fronts.  Anyway, Chez Panisse was disappointing.  I wish someone out of all the people I told we were going would have given us a heads up, but I understand they didn't want to burst my bubble.  My guess is that they fill the place almost no matter what they do at this point, so they're not hungry (pun intended).  Bummer.
Chez Panisse on Urbanspoon

Ad Hoc - We arrived at Ad Hoc in Napa Valley after a longish, sort of unfruitful day in wine country.  It was also the day after our trip to Chez Panisse, so we were hoping big names (Ad Hoc is a Thomas Keller place) might redeem themselves.  I'd seen the sign before on the website, but had never read what it says above "ad hoc" - "temporary relief from hunger."  It took a second to process that, and then it was clear - we were hoping for way more than temporary relief from hunger with a $50 fixed price/fixed menu.  If we wanted a temporary relief from hunger we'd eat a granola bar or hot dog or something.  Anyway... arriving early, we walked down the street to a wine bar and got a couple of flights.  At 5pm (we didn't want to get back to the city too late) we walked back and were seated soon thereafter.  One thing was clear from the beginning - we were not going to be lingering at this place for hours.  They have plates in front of you and move dishes away very quickly.  Our whole meal ended up being an hour and 15 minutes.  An iceberg lettuce salad was okay, and was followed by the main course - a strip steak with carmelized onions, greens, and baked then fried potatoes with a chili aioli (or mayo, can't remember).  The entree was good.  Huge portions.  We could have made it at home pretty easily, and hoped for more from a place with a big name national chef.  A cheese course came next, and we weren't big fans of how bitter and earthy the soft cheese was.  The dessert was a fruit tart on puff pastry - another huge portion, but uninspired.  By the end of the day, we were just glad to be going home.  It was only okay, and for the second night in a row we couldn't choose our courses and weren't too happy with what was chosen for us.
Ad Hoc on Urbanspoon

Tacubaya - This is a spot over in a outdoor mall-style area of Berkeley that I'd never been to before.  A new place opened by the same people who run the acclaimed Dona Tomas in Oakland, we had high hopes for Tacubaya.  Walking in, the food looked delicious - in true Bay Area style everything was perfectly in place and well put together.  Unfortunately, the food wasn't as good as it looked.  Fortunately, we were there with an old friend and the conversation made up for the tacos, ceviche, sopas, and guacamole.  My favorite taste may have been my horchata, a sweet rice-based drink I'd never tried.  I noticed a big vat of it at Taqueria Mercado 3 the last time I was there, so I'll be drinking it again soon.  The sopa you see in the picture was our favorite choice - it had the most going on with potatoes and chorizo and more.  Everything else tasted fresh enough, but just didn't pop.  Also, it took us about 30 minutes to get a taco they'd forgotten originally - I asked probably 3 times (it's self seating, but they have staff who come around), and finally went straight to the cooks, who looked at me like I was doing them wrong even though I was nice about it.  Oh well, you can't win 'em all.
Tacubaya on Urbanspoon

Remedy - We headed over to Remedy after Tacubaya for a quick coffee at this new spot in Oakland.  This was the old stomping ground of the friend we we met for Mexican, and the current stomping ground of the friends we were meeting for Burmese later that evening.  Not much to say here except this seems like a hip spot and we were all happy with our drinks - a tea, a chai, and an espresso if I remember correctly.  I thought the logo for the coffee brand they carry (Ritual) really stood out too.  Remedy seems to be part of the trend of coffee places really taking their brewing seriously - they had a series of Hario drippers set up, and some other nice looking machinery.
Remedy on Urbanspoon

Pizzailo - We didn't eat here, although this was one of the places that had been on the recommended list by a few folks.  But, we did stop in for some cocktails.  Nearly every place we went had craft cocktail options, something that seems to be making its way to Cincinnati slowly but surely.  I like a good drink as much as the next guy, but I tend to prefer to spend my dollars on food, not beverage.  So, this refreshing orange and whiskey thing I had was notably fun.  We sat out back with our friends Mandara and Jake on a rusty old table next to the kitchen garden and a stone's throw from the restaurant's chickens.  All the locavore places we've been or heard about, this was a first.  I'd love to go back and try the food sometime, it looked very good on our walk-bys.
Pizzaiolo on Urbanspoon

Marc 49 - Our foursome headed over to Burmese Superstar, but there was a 40 minute wait, so we walked down the street to this wine bar.  They were super accommodating, helping us get tables and chairs set up outside.  We ordered a bottle of Flying Winemakers, which Jake had had before and everyone was quite happy.  There was a little chug needed when the restaurant called to say our table was ready, but I don't think anyone was too disappointed.
Marc 49 on Urbanspoon

Burma Superstar - This restaurant was one of several that was noted as part of a new set of excellent places in Oakland we heard from a handful of folks about.  The original is in San Francisco, and apparently it is very difficult to get a table there.  I was a little worried, because I was reading San Francisco Magazine when I got to town and the reviewer was not too high on this new outpost of what sounds like a long time favorite/standard in SF.  But, I gave our hosts a couple opportunities to get out of it and they were confident, so we went.  When you look at Yelp or read other reviews, everyone talks about the tea leaf salad (photo to the left), which I believe won a James Beard Award (for salads?).  That's what we started with - it starts out in parts like you see, and then they mix it up at the table.  It was pretty darn good - not sure if I think it lives up to all the hype, but it was solid.  Then we sampled a few different rice and noodle dishes, with tofu and meat, off the menu.  At some point along the way we ordered 2 very large beers (like the steins at Hofbrauhaus), and got into an animated conversation and capitalism and social security, and so my exact recollections of the dishes are a bit hazy.  I can say I was impressed by the offerings of different kinds of rice - a coconut one and a couple others - which added a nice flavor that typical white or brown usually don't.  I also remember there was a boatload of garlic, and that in general there was a lot of flavor going on.  This was one time where we thought "to hell with all this California cuisine, let's get the ethnic food we simply do not have access to in Cincinnati that has big flavors!"  Big thanks to our hosts, who helped us find a great meal to go with some hearty conversation.
Burma Superstar on Urbanspoon

Yank Sing - I think the best thing to come out of our trip to Ad Hoc was the server telling us about dim sum at Yank Sing.  We almost went to Namu, but they had a breakfast menu and we wanted lunch.  So, we went to Yank Sing, and boy are we glad we did.  Here's how it went down.  It's in a skyscraper downtown - we pulled up in perfect parking and walked into a side entrance into a dead empty hallway.  We turned the corner to another empty hall, but a security guard was there.  We went up and asked where Yank Sing was (we'd seen a sign outside, so we knew we were in the right place), she pointed directly behind us and BAM!  There, in the middle of a food court/atrium of a downtown building were hundreds of people sitting at tables.  We snaked our way into the restaurant itself, where we saw hundreds more people.  The energy was palpable.  We asked for a table for two, but they said we'd have to wait.  Then, some sort of language barrier thing happened because when the hostess told a server to find us two seats at the bar, she took us to a table for two.  We hadn't even gotten settled in our seats yet and someone was pouring us waters and setting our table, while someone else was offering us dumplings of some sort.  Then another person was hawking breaded shrimp on wooden skewers - we took 'em!  Then we took some pot stickers, and then some dumplings, and then ordered some tea.  Within about two minutes we had a table full of food and we'd barely even taken a breath.  It was great!  It didn't hurt that the food was full of delicious flavors and textures, and that there were constantly carts of eye candy making their way by you, with seemingly endless options to choose from.  It was like appetizer heaven.  Even as we were finishing up eating, more new things were coming by.  The only downside whatsoever was that it was more expensive than we thought and we probably should have been asking the prices.  But, we will certainly get better at choosing on future visits, and no matter what, we probably can't go wrong.  I just wrote "too bad there's no dim sum place in Cincinnati!" and then did googled it just to be sure.  And now Sarah and I are excited - it looks like there are some options here.  I'm writing this on Saturday night and we very well may be eating dim sum tomorrow.
Yank Sing on Urbanspoon

Humphry Slocombe - This was one of two ice cream places recommended to us - the other is coming shortly.  It's ice cream, so to say it's bad would be silly.  But, we've had way better.  The ice cream was really waxy, and left your palette with a very odd mouthfeel.  We won't be heading back.
Humphry Slocombe on Urbanspoon

Philz Coffee - Like the ice cream place above, Philz was a spur of the moment stop.  We'd been told this coffee was fantastic and needed a little pick me up.  You go up to order, and instead of them saying "what would you like?" they say "what do you like?"  They caught on quickly that we hadn't been to Philz before, and apparently the Philz coffee experience is different.  "Do you like it dark or light?  What do you like about a latte?  How sweet do you like your mocha?"  I'm not exactly a coffee aficionado, so it caught me off guard a bit - but then my drink came, and it was very, very good.  Sarah's was too.  With so many different coffees, and so many different people with different likes and dislikes, it makes sense that someone would communicate with you to close the loop.
Philz Coffee on Urbanspoon

Dametra - We drove down to meet a long time family friend in Carmel, or officially, Carmel-by-the-Sea.  It's about 2.5 hours south of SF and right on the ocean.  It gave us an excuse to drive even further down the coast to check out Big Sur, as well as to walk on the beach and see a sea otter playing and dolphins swimming in the distance.  And it also gave us a chance to hear Antonio (from the kitchen) singing at Dametra's, a Mediterranean restaurant, as the proprietor played a sitar-esque instrument.  And then, later, they sang again!  Seriously, the people here were very nice.  They went out of their way to thank everyone for coming - it was almost over the top.  But, they seemed genuine and so I think everyone appreciated it.  Carmel is a very wealthy town, so I have to imagine they're aiming for a big score of a tip every now and then, and hey, I can't blame them!  We ordered Monterrey Bay calamari and smoked salmon appetizers, and a Greek platter to share as an entree.  It was a ton of food!  Everything was better than average, but the people were so nice and there was enough food that it was an experience that made us happy in the end.  We'll probably go back if we're in town, if only to be given a hearty handshake and a happy smile.
Dametra Cafe on Urbanspoon

Tataki - We wrote a while back about trying to ask a sushi place in Cincinnati about the source of their fish.  It did not go so well.  So, when someone told us about a sustainable sushi place in SF, we were excited.  We've been really enjoying sushi, but also getting more and more in tune with the fact that the way we're eating at sushi places is not very good for the ocean at all.  I'd say our trips to both SF and Chicago were like looking into the future for Cincinnati - more restaurants can and will source locally and sustainably, and more places will need to be able to answer where they get their products or they'll suffer.  That came out sounding kind of mean, but we're killing our planet here so it is about time we get serious about this.  For what it's worth, Tataki is the only sustainable sushi place in SF, so those Bay Area folks have some future coming their way as well.  And in the future, you will feel great about eating your food.  We sure did at Tataki!  They have the same sushi guides (download a pocket guide here) that we had just seen and picked up at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, and the same book we ordered recently on sale too.  They tell you where everything comes from, and how it was caught.  Oh, and it tasted great too!  Definitely spread the word.
Tataki on Urbanspoon

Bi-rite Creamery - This is another one of the many excellent food options in the Mission around 18th Street between Dolores and Guerrero (or thereabouts).  They also have a grocery across the street where we picked up some delicious peaches.  Sarah and I both liked Bi-rite better than Humphry Slocumb, but we also both felt strongly that we are blessed with such awesome ice cream and gelato (Graeter's, Jeni's, Dojo, etc.) in Ohio that we are pampered.  So, if its great ice cream you're looking for, we say stay here.
Bi-Rite Creamery and Bake Shop on Urbanspoon

Zuni Café - On our last night in the city, we decided to go to another old SF standard, Zuni Cafe.  We got there and sat in the bar area (at a table) and checked out the menu.  The regular menu was expensive enough (and frankly not interesting enough) that we decided to simply go for some oysters.  The owner of Omnivore Books had recommended we do that, and so here we were.  We asked the server to bring us a sampling of options, and she brought us 2 Kusshi, 2 Marin Miyagi, 2 Drake's Bay, 2 Humboldt Kuma, 2 Beau Soleil, and 2 Pacific oysters.  I can't remember having any oysters, so I'm not really sure what to compare them to or how to talk about them.  But, Sarah assures me they were good, and I always like trying new things, so I was happy.  We had a glass of white wine each as well, and that was it.  We were off to find ramen!
ZUNI Café on Urbanspoon

Halu - Ever since I found out about Momofuku in NYC, and especially after getting the cookbook, I've been really digging ramen.  Call it a throwback, but we got some Ichiban packets at CAM and when you throw some pork belly and bean sprouts and fish cake slices and other goodness on top of those noodles and that broth, good things happen.  I just did another google to be sure I wasn't missing Japanese ramen in Cincinnati (it looks like there may be an option in Florence), but in general this is not something that is easily accessible or notable in our town.  We went to a couple places that were closed on Tuesday night, and kept looking through the Yelp ramen options as we drove.  Halu was the spot we ended up at, and although they aren't really a noodle joint first and foremost, they did have ramen.  We ordered a couple of skewers (the yakitori were there specialty) that were tasty, and a bowl of pork and bowl of fried chicken ramen.  Both had flavor and depth to the broth that can't be matched by the packets we've been using, but I still like it the way I make it best.  No matter, it was great to have some more unique flavors and another restaurant option in SF that we don't have in Cincinnati before we left town.
Halu on Urbanspoon

So those were our SF eats!  Now, to get back in the rhythm here in Cincinnati.  Here are more pics if you're interested...


intuitive eggplant said...

Another great round-up, Gavin! Sorry to hear of your disappointments, but I too have experienced let-downs from places I had perhaps inflated hopes for, vs. surprise and delight at places I approached without such high expectations. I'm planning a trip to CA in Sept. and am not yet sure how much time I'll have in SF or Napa, but I will definitely come back and refer to this post. Thanks!

Cincinnati Bites said...

I've really been enjoying your Chicago and San Francisco restaurant tours. Lots of places to add to my wish list!

Gavin DeVore Leonard said...

i.e. - thanks for the comment! If you're wondering about specific things for your trip, let me know and I'd be happy to share any info we've got for CA.

Cincinnati Bites - thanks! There are certainly lots of options in both places!

Daniel said...

Hey guys very helpful write up. The wife & I are going to SF next week for our anniversary and I've been asking around where we should go. Did you have a favorite part of town or anywhere you wanted to get to eat and didn't make it to?

Gavin DeVore Leonard said...

Daniel - Thanks for the comment! For favorite part of town, I'd probably say the Mission - tons of food options, good walkable area. I wish we would have gotten to Hapa Ramen - they are at the Ferry Building on Thursday's (at least they were a month or so ago) and then they also are at other places at other times (follow them on Twitter and/or look at their web site). The other one we heard a lot of good about but didn't try was Francis - simply because we'd already done a bunch of California cuisine-type places. If you didn't read our other post, I'd give it a skim too - http://amateurfoodies.blogspot.com/2010/07/some-quick-travel-thoughts-and.html - it has some more overarching thoughts. If you have specific kinds of food you're looking for or other questions, go for it...

Anonymous said...

Ran across the site after a quick search for Oakland restaurants (of all places). Your site popped up. I like the look. Simple and clean.

Had to comment on the SF reviews though. I know you are not local, so I have to poke a little fun at you for some rather pedestrian reviews (and some misses)...scanned the list initially and the Zuni review peaked my interest...until I read that YOU DIDN'T EAT THERE! (not to mention that you had a glass of Chardonnay - can't believe people are still drinking Chardonnay).

These are reviews of establishments locals don't hit too hard. Ferry Building? Built for tourists. Ad Hoc? Same thing.

Do some research next time before coming. There are 5,000 restaurants in the city.