When I was in San Francisco for a bridge tournament for 10 days, Chowhounds were helpful in steering me toward some good options under difficult constraints: http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/878772 But I had several days where my meals weren't so constrained. I ate decently to very well at Anchor & Hope, Perbacco, Sentinel, Y and Z, Prospect (for brunch), Sentinel, South Sea Seafood Village, and Taqueria Pancho Villa o Los Coyotes and several other places I've momentarily forgotten.
But my favorite new restaurant of 2012 is Rich Table, where I ate three times in eight nights. One of my favorite chefs in New York, Dave Santos (who just opened Louro in the West Village) told me that I had to eat at Rich Table, and that when they worked together at Bouley in NYC, he was tremendously impressed with Evan Rich's talent. I had no idea that the place was so "hot" or that it was so difficult to get reservations.
I first went with a party of five and we started with all the "bites" and were knocked out by them. If there is one dish that typifies what I love about Rich Table, it is the brandade "bite" (actually a nice-sized portion). I've only eaten brandade prepared with salt cod, but Rich's version is made from trout and swordfish, and it typifies the elegant rusticity of the cuisine. Slathered on the house levain (fennel all week when I went -- now it seems to be sourdough), this is one of my favorite dishes of the year. Looking at today's menu, I'm astonished that so many of the best dishes we sampled are now off the menu. And these aren't necessarily seasonal items. For example, my favorite appetizer was probably the squid salad with cabbage (I believe some of the cabbage was pickled, some not) -- a sort of seafood cole slaw that was light and bracing. I only had one shot at it. Like the Lone Ranger, the squid salad was heroic, and then slithered out of town without a word, not requiring the praise it deserved. I'd be happy to talk about more dishes if anyone cares, but there has already been so much turnover in the menu, I'm not sure it'll help to praise dishes that are no longer available (although I see that the trout entree and caramel panna cotta with coffee crumble dessert that we loved is still available).
Two other times, I walked in right at opening time at 5:30. Once I sat at the bar with a friend (although we were also offered spots at one of the communal tables, andthe other time we snagged a two-top). It isn't true that it's difficult to eat at RT, if you are flexible about where you sit.
I can't emphasize the friendliness and warmth of the service at Rich Table. Far from encountering a virtual velvet rope by the FOH, we were welcomed like long-lost friends without a reservation. Once seated, the waiters were equally fantastic. They were funny, knowledgable about the food, and most unusually, seemed to have all the time in the world to talk about the food and drink.
This is the way I want to eat. In the spirit of full disclosure, I've long been fed up with so many of the elements of fine dining. Compared to this style of restaurant, gastronomic temples like Daniel or Eleven Madison Park in NY feel corny to me. The food is better at Rich Table, it's more fun to spend a couple of hours at RT, and it is much less expensive. What has a tablecloth ever done for me? Or a suit and tie?
Was there anything I didn't like about RT? Perhaps the entrees weren't quite up to the level of the "bites" and "appetizers," but this is grading on a very difficult curve. And we weren't too impressed with the red wines by the glass. On the other hand, the cocktails are great. I especially loved the "Autumn Leaves" -- a rye drink with bitter orange and black walnut.
The stereotype about San Francisco is that it is weak on the high end, but has many terrific middle-tier restaurants. The only thing middle-tier about Rich Table is the price. Evan and Sarah Rich and their staff have so much to be proud of.