OK so I've eaten just about everywhere in SF and many of the places nearby and while I've been posting my reviews to Zagat (I've got about a half-dozen quotes in the last few editions) I've never shared much of my discoveries with anyone but friends.
But I thought I'd go ahead and share them here...while there are no surprises really I'm confident of my analysis.
My interest in eating out at over 200 restaurants in the last couple years was spurred by my obsession with cooking...I wanted to see how far I had to go. My conclusion is that I can currently cook for myself on average better than all but a handful of the restaurants out there. However, I would find it much harder to do so profitably at the scale these restaurants operate under. So when it comes to absolute talent I have a long way to go still, but not terribly much more to learn from dining out.
Let's start with my favorite restaurant, for obvious reasons: Chaz. This place is like eating at my house except with a far better cook. Charlie does every aspect of the cooking himself and will often serve you the food himself. He's just far, far better at it than I could ever do, it comes in at a price point similar to what I can achieve at home, and I have plenty to learn from him. I have an edge on the wine list but I can always just bring a bottle or two there. Chaz is unquestionably the best value restaurant in SF.
But it's only for the food. I take dates to Frascati, which is cozy and like most restaurants is a bit hit-and-miss, if you order well you will be in heaven. Also a serviceable list from the ex-Rubicon wine steward owners. I'm interested in Quince which seems a continuation of this concept along the Delfina lines, but I have yet to attend.
For absolute quality of food I'm split between La Folie and Gary Danko. Danko is a little less hit-and-miss than Passot; and a little more modern. Neither of them suffer from the Ducasse stricture of haute academia like Portray or Gras at Ritz and 5th floor. Both are reliable, if costly, sources of gorgegasms.
However, I got the best service I've had in the US at the Ritz, followed closely by the stunning choreography at Charles Nob Hill. If I were to open a fine restaurant I would spring for my waitstaff to eat at those places to get an idea what service can be.
Farallon's decor is still hard to beat, although I would rather go to Seasons if I wanted to have decent food that lived up to the setting. Danko has nice digs too and the harp at the Ritz actually isn't too cloying.
We have lots of ethnic choices in this city and that's much of the fun. There are dozens of places that have a specific dish or two that is competitive with anything else served in the city. Unfortunately, the quality varies too much to give you any specific recommendations...but my technique is to grill as many staff members as I can when I sit down and get a sense of who knows what they're talking about.
And we can't forget wine. I'm smitten with Incanto's wine bar which lets you explore the infinite variety of Italian wine in tasting flights. ("Fabulous wine bar" in Zagat came from yours truly, if not many.) They have three sommeliers on staff, including the genuine Italian article, Claudio, in that neighborhood restaurant, where the somewhat adventurous yet competent food plays a strong supporting role. I guess Giancarlo's cellar at Acquerello is better but it's a costly place to get an education.
I'm not as thrilled with Eos, Bacar, Hayes & Vine, First Crush, etc. but I do like the Bubble Lounge for dates and bubly flights. The best list in the city is probably at Rubicon, but like I say for the utterly miserable "La Table": "Don't bring the wine--bring the food!"