Embrace the Elements With Fire & Smoke Burgers
What you’re getting: Crudo Sampler; Uni Avocado Toast; Seafood Chowder
Happy hour is always bumping at Bar Crudo (who doesn’t want $6 glasses of drinkable wine paired with $1, yes, ONE DOLLAR oysters and addictive jalapeño-marinated mussels?), but amidst the happy hour daze, we forget that Bar Crudo after 6:30pm is as strong a seafood-devoted restaurant operation as there is in San Francisco. A little cuteness disappeared six years ago when Bar Crudo moved to these digs from the Stockton Tunnel top, but it's still on top of the raw- and cooked-fish game -- during and after happy hour.
What you’re getting: Rijsttafel
Don’t try pronouncing it, just order it. A rijsttafel (or “rice table dinner”) is a dizzying feast of small dishes, each more captivating than the next, from the vegetables with peanut sauce to the robust Sumatran beef stew rendang. It’s easily one of the wisest investments of $30 around. Or just go à la carte with Indonesian classics like nasi goreng and incomparable fried tripe babat goreng. My sister-in-law was born in Jakarta and when she first started dating my brother, she took him to Borobudur for a crash course on what Indonesian food really is. That's just how real-deal this place is.
Union Square/Lower Nob Hill
What you’re getting: Wagyu sirloin with bone marrow jus; lots of French wine
Really? A French restaurant around Union Square is underrated? Aren’t those faux bistros meant for clueless tourists and post-shopping power ladies-who-lunch lunches? Yes, and also turns-out-no. From the late-night hours and glasses always full of French wine approved by French drinkers, to the not-fussy, not-cliché cooking and never-ending charm of proprietor Guillaume Issaverdens, Paris envies our having Bouche. Really, it does. And wouldn’t you know, that aforementioned original Bar Crudo space is now... Bouche. What a great, small world.
What you’re getting: Prather Ranch Burger; pan-seared chicken livers
Serpentine emerged quietly on the dining map long before the Dogpatch was on the cool kids culture map. The Prather Ranch burger is... just... wow... plus the cocktails are beautiful, the globe-trotting food (courtesy of Deepak Kaul) never fails to entertain or be overly complex, and brunch still draws cross-city crowds for more than just the constant sunshine in this corner of the city. A neighborhood builder AND a destination-worthy restaurant? Yes, please.
What you’re getting: Mezze; Musa pizza
While the tourists make a meal of Ferry Building samples and the Zagat-toting crowd fills up at The Slanted Door (because that’s what they’re told), you'll be kicking it with Amaryll Schwertner, and her consistently underrated little bowls of mezze and rustic Mediterranean-Middle Eastern dishes from the fireplace. Far-from-run-of-the-mill pizzas at lunch are always a hit, and don’t you dare leave without picking up some canelés from the Boulette’s Larder to-go kiosk around the corner. Seriously dude. Don't.
What you’re getting: Randwich!; Roasted Veggie Rice Bowl
We're only gonna let you in on this little secret if you promise you won’t tell too many friends about the Outer Richmond’s all-day superstar; the tiny space already fills regularly to capacity. Run by an adorable husband and wife team, you could easily eat all three meals a day here -- a proper Japanese breakfast to start the day followed by a killer Roasted Veggie Rice Bowl with basil pesto for lunch (with egg!), then dinner of House Smoked Ocean Trout and porchetta paired with Daiginjo sake -- every day and be beyond content. If you're looking for underrated brunch, head here, too, where the lines would be two-hours long if you dropped this spot in the Mission.
What you’re getting: Lamb and Pork Meatballs; House-Smoked Salmon
Quick: name a Sri Lankan dish. Annnnd time. Luckily, Brian Fernando’s “short eats” menu is here to sorta educate you -- it's really more modern Californian with Sri Lankan sprinkled in, like with the harsh-sounding, not-harsh-tasting Crispy Okra and Desiccated Coconut, and maybe the city’s premier version of meatballs. The restaurant is kind of in a no-man’s land part of SoMa. The eating, however, is far from lost. Just try sharing the smoked salmon.
What you’re getting: Sardine and Avocado Toast; Seasonal Coca Flatbread
I know people who've moved to Noe Valley partly for the urban-suburb vibe and partly to be within walking distance to Brett Emerson’s Sardine and Avocado Toast -- the tapas dish to end all tapas dishes. Every night feels like a delicious party -- party because of the Sherry and Cava, delicious because of the superb Madrid specialty of wood oven-blasted tripe with chorizo and chickpeas. Small plates and tapas are all the rage these days, but Contigo perfected the art long, long before everyone decided to do away with individual entrées.
What you’re getting: Birria; menudo
The Chron's Top 100 features two Mexican restaurants within San Francisco (four if you factor in two Nopalito locations and the fact that Mamacita/Padrecito are different places). Back in the old days, La Taqueria would be the token burrito/taco parlor on the list and still deserves all of its local and national accolades. But really, just two?? So let’s start with the new, year-old location of the veteran classic Gallardo's. There's nothing glitzy about the atmosphere or cooking, which's fine since you’re just here to eat enchiladas and burritos on weekdays, and menudo and birria soups during weekend brunch.
What you’re getting: Cold spaghetti; scallops & soppressata
As the fourth generation of one of San Francisco’s grand ol’ dynasties, Alexander Alioto is a titan with pasta in his hands. You’d starch out after a while, if not for the scallops surf and turf with Fra’ Mani Soppressata and squid ink agnolotti. Alioto also does cold spaghetti (whoa) and seafood lasagna, which before Plin, was unheard of. At least once, try the steal of a three-course, $46 dinner weeknights, where you basically can order anything, and pair it with some of the most thoughtful cocktails in the Mission. The fact that Plin is never even thrown in the Flour + Water/SPQR/Cotogna/A16 Cal-Ital conversation just isn’t right.
What you’re getting: Grilled Leg of Lamb
We’d be remiss to talk about the Bayview’s game-changing dining room without a brief synopsis of its visionary creator and chef, Eskender Aseged. He’s a native Ethiopian who worked in the front and back of the house of several acclaimed San Francisco restaurants before launching his Radio Africa pop-ups. This is why it’s important to acknowledge pop-ups, food trucks, and other non-traditional restaurant molds. Aseged had a brilliant talent and idea -- he just needed the time and resources for it to grow. Fast forward and here we are now with his always-vibrant recipes, from fragrant saffron prawns to berbere-dusted flank steak. Practically single-handedly, he is lifting up a challenged part of the city and opening our collective eyes to a new continent’s worth of eating.
What you’re getting: Red Dog Butcher’s Plate; Pan Roasted Mary’s Half Chicken with sumac yogurt
Lauren Kiino built her reputation at the Ferry Building’s Il Cane Rosso for almost-Zuni-level roasted chicken and a blockbuster egg salad sandwich. Her grown-up, deftly executed cooking at Red Dog shows her real cooking chops. Some dishes seem Chez Panisse Californian, others look towards Asia, many would be at home in Notting Hill gastropubs, and a few might borrow from Middle Eastern cookbooks. Regardless of geography, the charcuterie and terrines made in-house spread on beer bread, followed by roast chicken and a still-under-the-obsessed-burger-hounds'-radar hamburger will open some eyes. And mouths. If only restaurants like this in SOMA sprouted up as often as a $5,000-a-month lofts...
What you’re getting: Sansho pepper-spiced chicken wings; wine
Of all the places on this list, St. Vincent is by far and away the most egregious media omission. It's wine-focused (get wine, lots of it), but you could dine with sparkling water on duck liver toast and viciously umami-strong koji pork belly and leave thinking this place is more deserving than 75% of longtime SF Chronicle critic Mike Bauer’s picks. Oh, and if you thought cocktails or beer were threatening the relationship of food and wine, come here. The marriage has never been stronger with owner and former Quince sommelier David Lynch's wine list.
What you’re getting: Tasting menu at S&D; Cheesy Pretzel & Veggie Melt at SW
Working for a local news radio station in 2010, I interviewed two unknown chefs: Matt McNamara and Teague Moriarty. At the time, they said they wanted to make enjoyable, seasonal, ingredient-driven cooking in a kind of sketchy area. Fast forward to right now and they’ve got a growing empire: a Michelin star, an 83-acre Santa Cruz Mountains farm, they bake some fascinating bread, and their $115 tasting menu is the most “affordable” of the city’s innovative destination dining rooms. If lunch near Union Square is ever a question, the casual Sweet Woodruff (where you practically eat in the kitchen) should always be the answer.
What you’re getting: Shaanxi Mian-Pi with Sesame Sauce; Pita Bread Soaked in Lamb Soup
Ever wanted to dine on the fresh, knife-cut noodles the Shaanxi Province and Xi’an are celebrated in China for? Well, you will now: having had a version of sesame mian-pi in the shadow of the Drum and Bell Towers in Xi’an a year ago, there's no doubt Terra Cotta Warrior makes the superior version. Whoa what a noodle dish. In a city with more than just a few Chinese restaurants, nobody knows much about this particular regional cuisine. Time to get educated.
What you’re getting: Linzertorte; bagel with smoked salmon
Hayes Valley isn’t exactly a grand European capital setting, but we can work with it, especially for this immaculate café that literally could've been a set for a scene in The Third Man. Michelle Polzine’s parade of never-too-sweet, never-not-satisfying Sacher tortes, linzertortes, and Russian honey cakes are all musts, and don’t underestimate the savory items in the midst of the pastries. Your long-lost search for a bona fide homemade bagel ends here.
What you’re getting: Filetti with cherry tomatoes and buffalo mozzarella
Just stop it now. The competition begins for the pizzaiolo SILVER medal because Anthony Mangieri and this strictly pizza-only establishment (get your salad elsewhere!) are already doing the best pie in the ENTIRE STATE and tied for best in the West with a certain chef in Phoenix. If we were ever gonna make New York jealous about a pizza here, this would be our only shot at it.
What you’re getting: BBQ Scotch Eggs
Just go to Sacramento St now and get the rotating, never-disappointing plate of pork. Cool? Cool. Chef Charlie Kleinman is an imaginative master of smoke, but isn't necessarily limited to BBQ in discipline, which means a menu filled with stuff like BBQ Scotch Eggs filled with burnt ends, paired with owner Matt Wexler’s eyebrow-raising Smoked Manhattan.
Sign up here for our daily San Francisco email and be the first to get all the food/drink/fun SF has to offer.
Trevor Felch is a restaurants writer for SF Weekly and a contributing editor for Vino 24/7. Follow him on Twitter @TrevorFelch.