I've done my research (including reading similar threads), and have a list for comment. But first, some background/context:
- I'm a native NYer, who has also spent lots of time in Seattle. I'm interested in great food, but great San Francisco/California/West Coast food specifically.
- It's my second trip (ever) to the Bay Area. On my first, 18 months ago, I hit Chez Panisse Cafe (one of my best meals ever), Manresa (very good, but not memorable; I was more focused on the company than the food), Greens (good enough food and very pleasant experience) and Pesce (not my pick; totally forgettable). I also had an unsatisfying Farolito burrito (possibly because I ordered unwisely), and an interesting quick lunch at El Balazo.
- My preferences lean toward the local/seasonal/let-ingredients-speak-for-themselves approach, which isn't to say that I'm uninterested in creativity. I'm a partisan of (New) American food first (and influenced by Northwestern cuisine). At least historically, I've tended to prefer French (or Japanese, or Mediterranean) influences to Italian (or Chinese, or Spanish). And I have some picky preferences: I eat little pork or offal (here and there as an accent is ok), and essentially no duck (including foie gras), and try to limit my refined carb intake (pizza, pasta, etc).
- I'll be staying around the Embarcadero, probably near the Ferry building at first and later by the wharf (yes, I know). I'll be solo for the most part, but won't necessarily feel limited to the bar if a place is willing to give me a table.
- While I'll happily wear a suit for the right food (yes, I understand SF casual), I'll be on vacation and will tend to prefer places I could theoretically show up to in running shoes or hiking boots without too many looks askance. Similarly, while cost is not a huge concern, I'd rather pay only if it's worth it.
Where I'm thinking about:
The No-Brainers - I've already got a reservation at Chez Panisse Cafe, and am set on Zuni and Canteen, assuming I can get a reservation at the latter. I may play Zuni by ear, trying to go for a quieter lunch or a late-night (weekend?) dinner - is one preferable? The caesar and burger sound tempting, but I'd be more interested in seasonal fish and salad dishes.
The Big Dinner(s) - I'd like to hit one Serious Restaurant, probably on a Monday or Tuesday, and could do a second if I felt really compelled. By dint of institutional status and location, among other factors, I'm leaning slightly towards Gary Danko. I understand that some would say that the place is not sufficiently local, ingredient-wise, and therefore nothing I couldn't get in New York (perhaps referencing restaurants I have found overpriced and/or unsatisfying in the past). My response is to ask if it isn't distinctly Californian in its cooking/approach? Moreso than Michael Mina, say? Or should I look for that to the stodgier-seeming Boulevard (or One Market)? My prime alternative to Danko is Ame, which sounds more adventurous and maybe a little cheaper, though sparse in atmosphere. The Dining Room seems a bit too formal for what I want, and more expensive, and Siegel seems to be fond of ingredients I don't like, but I have to admit that their current a la carte menu might be the most attractive-sounding of the three.
The More Casual Places - I figure I should try one of the casual-ish Italian places. SPQR's menu seems the most appealing, though the less interesting-sounding A16 might end up more convenient (for lunch?). Delfina has been built up the most in my mind, but did not look especially attractive when I walked past last time - the Pizzeria looked happier in late afternoon/early evening. I'd consider substituting the more-out-of-my-way Incanto, but it would take some convincing. Quince intrigues somewhat, but seems a little formal/pricey. As for other cuisines, Range certainly seems like a good value for food quality, perhaps preferable to Delfina if I'm in the Mission, though the menu seems somewhat ordinary. Is it possible I'd prefer Bar Tartine or Foreign Cinema to either given my food and casual-ness preferences? I feel some compulsion to try Slanted Door, given its convenience to where I'm staying and how much it's talked about, but I'm not sure I'd be into the vibe of the place - is it calmer if you eat outside? What about the takeout option? Am I better off at Hog Island? Also, any thoughts on the lounge at Coi or Mina's Clock Bar?
Lunch/Brunch/In-Between Meals - Is it worth losing daylight hours I could be using walking around to brunch at Dottie's or Park Chow or Zazie (I'll try Canteen if I can't get in at dinner)? To lunch at Tadich or Swan Oyster Depot or, if I'm in Sausalito, Sushi Ran? Is it worth eating something at Park Chalet or the Bistro at the Cliff House to borrow the real estate for a while, or am I better off with picnic food/snacks? Is a lunch/snack at Pres a Vi any preferable to a quicker option (like the Art Institute Cafe or Greens to Go or the Warming Hut)?
Wine Country - I may have a chance to grab a quick lunch in downtown Sonoma or Yountville. I've pegged the girl and the fig and the bar at Redd, respectively, as the most interesting-sounding options. Unfortunately, I'll be carless and it doesn't seem that I'll be able to get to the amazing-sounding Ubuntu.
And finally - what's your favorite place for a (chicken?) burrito and aguas frescas? If I'd prefer to commit the unpardonable sin of eating brown rice in a burrito, should I just forgo the "Mission burrito" formula and go to La Taqueria instead?