RESTAURANTS B44 44 Belden Pl./Bush St. The best way to enjoy the Catalan menu at this engaging bistro is to pick several appetizers per person--the piquillo peppers stuffed with crab meat and the fresh white shrimp sautéed with crispy garlic and served in a little iron frying pan are both superb--and share a moist paella or entree. A sherry or Catalan wine is the perfect accompaniment. A refined chocolate banana pie or rice-and-cinnamon ice cream provide a not-too-sweet ending. Seating is in an open dining room with industrial-style decor and a full bar, or, in good weather, outside European-style in an alley closed to traffic. A restroom visit is enhanced by a video display depicting the annual “human tower” festival that dates back to the 14th century in owner-chef Daniel Olivella’s Spanish hometown of Vilafranca del Penedes, located near Barcelona.
Cafe Bastille 22 Belden Pl./Bush St. Located in the middle of a quaint alley in the “French Quarter,” this Very French bistro provides a quick fix for Francophiles. Seating is either at a long row of tight tables with a wall bench on one side and a chair on the other, or in the Bohemian atmosphere of a crowded cellar. In warm weather, tables are set up outside in the alley. The Americanized menu includes salads, sandwiches, a pizzetta, crêpes, and more substantial entrees such as boudin noir (black sausage) and quiche. Authentic French desserts include crème caramel, chocolate mousse, and a fabulous crêpe topped with chocolate sauce, toasted almonds, and whipped cream. Live music is scheduled upstairs Tuesday through Saturday.
Cafe Claude 7 Claude Lane/Bush St., near Grant Ave. Located in a narrow alley, this restaurant is about as Parisian as you can get without an 11-hour flight. Banquettes line walls in the main dining room, and all the furnishings and fittings were bought in France from a restaurant that went out of business and then were reassembled here. Additional seating is available upstairs and outside in an alley. The onion soup, pâté plate, pan bagnat, and coq au vin are all exceptional, especially when accompanied by a robust cote du Rhone. For dessert, stick to the classics--a tarte tatin, crème brûlée, or refreshing pastis. Live jazz is scheduled Thursday through Saturday evenings.
Kokkari Estiatorio 200 Jackson St./Front St. Named for a small fishing village on the island of Samos in the Aegean Sea, this stylish and very popular restaurant serves sophisticated versions of Greek cuisine. Starters include traditional spanakotiropita (spinach-filled filo pies) and pikilia (an array of delicious classic spreads served with grilled housemade pita and rice-filled dolmathes). Entrees include fabulous grilled lamb chops with memorably good baked potato wedges, a grilled whole striped bass, and what might be the best rendition of moussaka west of Athens. Among the delectable desserts are a creamy rice pudding with poached peaches and cherries, and an expansive array of Greek cookies and baklava—they taste even better with a cup of strong stone-ground Greek coffee prepared in a giant urn over hot sand, or with a glass of ouzo selected from ten varieties. Seating here is a decided bonus and includes both comfortable booths and upholstered chairs. A sister restaurant, Evvia, is located in Palo Alto.
Michael Mina 252 California St./Battery St. Featuring a large dining room with a tall, tall ceiling, this sophisticated space is enhanced by gorgeous oversize flower arrangements. It is chic, bustling, and all at the same time and delivers food of equal caliber. Creative, impeccably fresh seafood dominates the surf and turf menu, using Japanese ingredients and a French influence. Some dishes involve “table theater,” with the waiter dramatically mixing and preparing items at table. In addition to fish, squab and foie gras are also on the menu. Desserts include a daily soufflé and a variety of cheeses. A seven-course tasting menu with optional wine pairings is perfect for those who just cannot decide.
image courtesy of venue Palio640 Sacramento St./Montgomery St. Artwork in the light-filled front room here evokes the piazza in Asti where the restaurant’s namesake horse race, Il Palio, is run. A more cozy, cave-like back room features comfortable booths and a full bar (during happy hour, martinis are $1 and pizza is complimentary with drinks). The Italian menu offers a risotto, a wood-baked gnocchi, and a selection of pastas--which might include housemade square spaghetti alla Chitarra with veal meatballs, or a hearty and tasty ravioli stuffed with porcini mushrooms and ricotta and topped with wild boar sugo. A superb summer salad features stone fruits—peaches, plums, and cherries—with butter lettuce, red onions, almonds, and pecorino cheese. Pizzas and an assortment of secondi courses are also available. The lunch menu is a la carte, while the dinner menu consists of three prix fixe menus: $29 (two courses), $37 (three courses), and $45 (four courses).
Plouf 40 Belden Pl./Bush St. Specializing in steamed mussels and offering eight different versions, this seafood bistro is so contemporary French that after just a few minutes diners feel like they’ve been beamed onto the French Riviera. One waiter witnessed here could do no wrong. Dressed in a white-and-black-striped shirt and sporting a charming, authentic French accent, he brought a huge iron pot full of mussels pastis with a side of perfect thin, crisp pommes frites, and he regularly removed bowls of discarded shells. More seafood items are on the menu--including fish & chips with garlic aioli and malt vinegar--along with a variety of meats and a seafood pasta. Good wine choices straight out of France include Muscadet, Sancerre, and Burgundy. For dessert, profiteroles--little cream puff shells filled with banana ice cream and topped with warm chocolate and caramel sauces—are the way to go. Outside, tables fill the pedestrians-only alley just as they do in the south of France. However, because the weather here isn’t as divine as it is there, heat lamps attempt to take off the chill. The dining room features a high, pressed-tin ceiling and a romantic fireplace, and it has booths as well as a bank of intimate bench-and-chair tables for two. In sync with the name, which translates as “splash,” stuffed sport fish decorate the walls.
Quince 470 Pacific Ave./Sansome St. Known for impeccable technique and fresh local ingredients, this sophisticated venue can be difficult to spot—it has no street number or name sign. The menu changes daily but might include sea scallops with squash blossoms and sea urchin sauce, a fig and mesculun salad, tortelli stuffed with artichoke and burrata, or crisped halibut with eggplant puree and tiny green chickpeas. Expect foam toppings and tiny portions of esoteric items—squid, octopus, eel, suckling pig—and delivery by a choreographed line of waiters. Service is punctuated with an amuse and sweet tray.
image courtesy of venue Royal Exchange 301 Sacramento St./Front St. In the simpler times when this corner pub bar opened--it was not so long ago in 1972, when Alcatraz became a national park and the first episode of “The Streets of San Francisco” aired--only two beers were on tap and only hot dogs and cold sandwiches were on the menu. Now 32 different beers are on tap--including a clean, crisp Amstel Pilsner lager from Amsterdam and a full-bodied, smooth Trumer Pils from Berkeley--and the dog has been joined by hamburgers both big (1/3 pound) and bigger (1/2 pound) as well as veggie (portobello mushroom). Less pub-style grub includes a tasty Genoa-style lazy-man’s cioppino and a grilled salmon salad with mango salsa. All this and cocktails, too! I love the brick walls and the many enclosed wood booths that surround the two central wood bars. Why, after half a beer, you might actually think you’re in the jolly U.K. A take-away window outside makes a quick bite possible.
Sauce Belden Place 56 Belden Pl./Bush St. Located down-alley, this one-room venue’s decor includes a pressed-tile ceiling and high seating. Napkins are big—they are repurposed dish towels—and food is mostly tapas-style small “social plates.” Though comfort foods abound, you’ll see updated appetizer versions— sweet little two-bite mini chicken pot pies, meaty portabello mushroom fries with housemade ranch dipping sauce, bacon-wrapped meatloaf atop mashed potatoes. Chef Ben Paula suggests sharing a large sampler platter featuring four each of a variety of appetizers so diners don’t experience “entrée envy.” Brussels sprout salad consists of separate leaves tossed with bacon candy and dried cranberries and makes a delicious change from lettuce. Unfortunately, many Happy Hour diners probably never make it to the entrees that include a buttery Maine lobster roll--the bun is made in house, and the shells from the fresh lobster are used to make a bisque--and fried organic chicken with whipped potatoes and gravy. Daily from 2:30 to 7 p.m. Happy Hour BOOMS--I joked to my dining partner that maybe we should carry on a conversation by texting-- and microwbrews, bubbles by the glass, and creative cocktails are part of the mix (my fave is the tasty American Honey Side Car with Wild Turkey bourbon and triple orange liquor). Dessert brings on oatmeal cookie dough bon bons and PB&J sponge cake with a vanilla ice cream center. Vegetarian, vegan, and gluten-free options are available. Sauce stays open until 1 a.m.
Tadich Grill 240 California St./Battery St. Begun in another location in 1849 as a coffee stand, this San Francisco institution has been here since 1967 and is California’s oldest restaurant in continuous operation. It is the third-oldest restaurant in the U.S. With dark wood walls, a long wooden dining counter, and private enclosed booths, it has an old-fashioned clubby feel and is a cozy place to be on a rainy day. The wait to get in can be long, but persevere. Then be wise and order simple, unsauced dishes. Pan-fried fish (my favorite is the petrale sole) is particularly good and served with housemade tartar sauce. Everyone gets a hunk of the classic sourdough bread. Steaks and chops are on the menu, Hangtown fry--scrambled eggs, bacon, and oysters--is available, and the housemade rice pudding has been on the menu for more than 100 years. Old fashioned drinks made from scratch include Manhattans, martinis, and Bloody Marys.
Wayfare Tavern 558 Sacramento St./Montgomery St. Celebrity chef Tyler Florence starts meals in his American brasserie with a perfect popover (eat it while it’s hot!) and offers many down-home dishes—a juicy grass-fed burger on a brioche with brie from Marin, organic buttermilk-brined fried chicken, and sometimes baked Alaska or peach pie. The deviled eggs, baked macaroni and cheese with Vella dry jack, and fresh mozzarella burrata are also justly popular. For dessert you can’t go wrong with the Tcho chocolate cream pie, devil’s food cake, or any anything with salty caramel. The cozy ambiance of this 1907 building that once was a gold-measuring center includes natural red brick, dark wood paneling, and high ceilings, plus some very comfy booths. Upstairs on the 4th floor, The Sequoia bar features a “power booth” inside a former bank vault that houses a whiskey collection. The glamorous bar features a leopard-print carpet and a view of the Transamerica Pyramid.