Europhiles who bemoan the lack of sophisticated food and wine in America have nothing to complain about in San Francisco, where you can find shockingly delicious osso buco and mouthwatering sushi sometimes on the same corner. As in many cities, great new restaurants open each year in San Francisco, but unlike Los Angeles and New York, quite a few of them last longer than a year, and many last a decade or longer. Here are ten classics that consistently make the grade:
Okay, it’s across the Bay Bridge in Berkeley, but foodies shouldn’t miss the place that created California cuisine. The downstairs portion is noted for formality and fine personal service. Here, the daily-changing multicourse dinners are prix fixe and pricey, and the menu reflects it with taste sensations like green bean and lobster salad, or grilled duck with roasted figs and onion marmalade. Upstairs, in the informal cafe, prices are lower and the menu is a la carte, often including items like roasted tomato and garlic soup and baked goat cheese with garden lettuces. 1517 Shattuck Avenue in Berkeley. 510/548-5525. Reservations essential. Closed Sun.
Fleur de Lys
The generous prix-fixe menus (each course with many choices) encompass such delicacies as venison loin on salsify, filet mignon with braised endives and roast pears, and porcini-dusted skate wing. Grand Marnier souffle with orange-and-cardamom ice cream is an elegant finish to an elegant meal. The interior’s distinctive feature is its tented ceiling, 900 yards of draped and swathed fabric. 777 Sutter Street. 415/673-7779. Reservations essential. Closed Sun. No lunch.
The surroundings are lovely, but the food is the star here, from quail and squab stuffed with wild mushrooms to poached lobster with corn-and-leek ragout and roasted rabbit on a bed of vegetables. The dishes are all artful—almost too beautiful to eat. Such rarefied preparation and presentation are costly, so you may want to save this singular place for a special occasion. 2316 Polk Street. 415/776-5577. Reservations essential. No lunch.
Hayes Street Grill
Perfectly fresh seafood—Pacific blue nose, yellowfin tuna, harpoon-caught swordfish—is offered daily at this San Francisco favorite. Much of the fish is grilled, with a choice of sauces from beurre blanc to tomato salsa. A pile of crisp, thin french fries guaranteed to make a Brussels native homesick accompanies the grilled offerings. Among desserts, the creme brulee is legendary. Brass coat hooks, white tablecloths, and a mix of banquettes and tables define the traditional look of this seafood mainstay. 320 Hayes Street. 415/863-5545. Reservations essential. No lunch weekends.
Kabuto A & S
For one of the most spectacular—and long-running—acts in town, head down Geary Boulevard past Japantown to Kabuto A&S. Here, master chefs slice up buttery yellowfin tuna or golden sea urchin on pads of pearly rice. In addition to serving fine sushi and sashimi, the restaurant also offers traditional but delicious cooked dishes in its cozy, 20-seat dining room. Don’t forget to sample the excellent sakes, each one rated for dryness and labeled with its place of origin. 5121 Geary Boulevard. 415/752-5652. Closed Wed.
Masa’s remains one of the country’s most celebrated food temples. The powers that be in the kitchen consistently please even the fussiest critics, turning out such delicacies as duck breast with nectarines, roasted loin with chanterelle mushrooms, and wild striped bass served with applewood smoked bacon. Dinners are prix fixe and tasting menus come in 3, 6, and 9 courses, including a six-course vegetarian option; there’s also a kaiseki menu, with 10 small courses. Save room for one of the heaven-sent desserts. 648 Bush Street. 415/989-7154. Reservations essential. Jacket required. Closed Sun. and Mon. No lunch.
There’s always a chance of seeing a celebrity here (photo,top), including the owner of this legendary eatery, superchef Wolfgang Puck. A stunning three-level bar and dining area is connected by copper handrails and accented with museum-quality contemporary paintings. The seasonal lunch and dinner menus are Californian with Mediterranean and Asian overtones, including the restaurant’s signature Chinese roast duck. The breakfast and late-night bar menus (great pizzas) are substantial and guarantee that regulars are kept happy at all hours. 545 Post Street. 415/776-7825. Reservations essential. No lunch Sun.
The fine fare and the lovely interior at this Lower Haight institution keep local food critics and restaurant goers singing Thep Phanom’s praises. Duck is deliciously prepared in several ways—in a fragrant curry, minced for salad, atop a mound of spinach. Seafood (in various guises) is another specialty, along with stuffed chicken wings, fried quail, and addictive Thai curries. Daily specials supplement the regular menu; a tropical mango sorbet is among the dessert offerings. 400 Waller Street. 415/431-2526. No lunch.
Vivande Porta Via
In 1998, Vivande won the coveted L’Insegna del Ristorante Italiano from the Italian government, a stamp of approval from the homeland that this 25-year-old establishment knows what it’s doing. You’ll be singing it praises to when you sample items like oven-roasted salmon with balsamic-oregano glaze; Venetian risotto with arborio rice, chicken stock, and pancetta; and frittata and chicken salad. The menu has a half dozen pastas and as many meat and fish dishes. There’s also a take-out deli, offering up Tuscan bean salad, chicken and mushroom pies, pastas, meats, poultry, and hot soups. 2125 Fillmore Street. 415/346-4430.
The southern French-Italian menu at Zuni draws an eclectic crowd, often late into the evening. A balcony dining area, a rabbit warren of little rooms, overlooks the long, copper bar, where oysters are washed down with the zippiest cosmopolitans and martinis in town. The menu changes frequently, but the whole roast chicken and Tuscan bread salad for two are staples that don’t disappoint. The hamburger topped with Gorgonzola is also a winner. Desserts are simple and satisfying, and the wine list is top drawer. 1658 Market Street. 415/552-2522. Reservations essential. Closed Mon.
Laurel Court Restaurant and Bar
For the hefty cost of eating here, you’re likely to want more than great service.
Brasserie cuisine shouldn’t be flashy, but it shouldn’t be dull either.
Traditional doesn’t have to mean stuck in the past.
The food is sensational but the noise level, congestion, and service aren’t.
It’s been around forever, like some of the fish we’ve nibbled there.