Keeping up with the abundance of San Francisco restaurants, from tried-and-true to start-ups, is a fulltime job, but every few months I'm motivated to share a list of finds for visitors and locals alike. This latest round of suggestions was inspired by the "fooding" trip of my brother/chef Steve Johnson of Rendezvous Central Square in Cambridge, who is a true "food creative" and Bay Area food fan from his frequent forays here, and the views of some other pals who currently make the city and its best restos their home.
Any time of day: Blue Bottle Coffee is the latest rage, and every story is made better by the story behind the story. Imagine a clarinet player who just can't get the morning cup of java right and sets out to solve that riddle - and you yet another successful Bay Area entrepreneur's story. The easiest access point is Blue Bottle in the Ferry Building, but the inside view comes in the alley in now-hip Hayes Valley where Blue Bottle started in a garage at Jessie and Linden streets (just like Apple started down in Silicon Valley). You have to love it at $20-24 a pound, but if like me you are tired of the same-old same old, the pure and succulent flavors, creative verve and colloquial personality makes a Blue Bottle moment a worthy experience (along with the line of fans that comes with it).
Ferry Building: We have a bias for this panoply of organic and specialty food destinations that are original, featuring regional producers, seasonal, distinctive in quality, perhaps a bit chaotic in experience, but what the heck. This is as close to the land as you'll get without renting a car and traipsing out to the North Bay, West Marin and other nearby locations where the real thing is delivered every day by small (or relatively small) producers. If I sound rapturous, then forgive me, because the artisanal quality of Bay Area food producers is beyond belief, and this stop at Market Street and the Embarcadero just under the Bay Bridge offers an excellent sampler to whet your appetite.
Many San Francisco restaurants seem literally carved out of store fronts, including several of these below. They are jam packed every day but don't let that deter you. Check them out in advance and reserve ahead on their websites, Open Table, Urban Spoon Rez or others. Mark these down:
Boulettes Larder: J'adore ce resto! There's something that feels very intimate about this tiny bistro (enlarged by an outdoor seating area) in the Ferry Building, as if you're at the chef's table in a farm in Europe while also in high-energy urban San Francisco. The menu hand picks and combines ingredients in innovative combinations with straightforward style, simplicity and artful confidence.
Bar Jules: Cozy and busy with a handful of daily offerings and a neighborhoody ambiance that welcomes everyone. In Hayes Valley, steps from the Civic Center, opera, ballet, symphony hall and Asian Art Museum.
Flour + Water: Another small space favorite honoring local producers, a James Beard "rising chef" finalist in 2011 and "best new resataurant" finalist in 2010. In the Mission and described by GQ as "sneakily sophisticated."
Contigo: With homage to Spanish and Catalan food, this resto in Noe Valley supports a many farmers, ranchers, fishermen and artisans, another example of the rustic blended with the urban kitchen. The reverence for the predominance of regional producers, and thus fresh ingredients, is signaled by "tonight's" long list on the back of the menu. Produce as far away as the San Joaquin Valley (pomegranate juice, pure olive oil and garlic) and Eugene, Oregon (hazelnuts). But it's also about being authentic, so the Iberian ham comes from Jabugo, Spain.
Frances: We popped into this hot little spot in the Noe Valley area for appetizers before dinner --and lucked out with a few tastings from the bartender who was checking out a new decanted wine specialty. This is a place where it's said to be tough to get a reservation and we understand why, since it seats only 35 or so guests. Getting there at opening and sitting at the bar was our smart luck. We also had a birds eye view into the kitchen and watched its efficient behaviors. That calamari with grilled Meyer lemon and chermoula spice was to die for while the grilled asparagus promised superb quality across the menu.
Delfina: Back after some years, this icon in the Mission - an Italian-inspired James Beard Award winner - doesn't disappoint. You just have to go there and taste it for yourself! And over off Filmore Street in Pacific Heights, its Pizzeria Delfina (with pizza combos that you'd love to imagine such as "clam pie" and homemade fennel sausage with bell pappers, red onions and more as well as salads and entrees) is smugly popular with residents who quietly treasure their neighborhood gem.
Mohica: I keep returning to this Peruvian resto offering small plates, amazing sushi-grade cebiches (ceviches), paella and a variety of entrees (seafood, beef, poultry and lamb). In the SOMA (South of Market) area not far from the Yerba Buena Gardens and San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Mohica is busy but unpretentious, a favorite for downtown-living locals and people who work in the area. It's a bit off the beaten path but not something to miss.