We were in San Francisco over Christmas. I finally see what all the fuss is about: San Francisco may be the most concentrated good eating west of Milan. I'll do the less good first.
We tried Yabbies Coastal Kitchen, on Polk. To anyone who has spent more than a day in Australia, a Yabbie is a large freshwater crayfish, and a common but derogatory nickname. The Citysearch reviews were mostly very good, but I have to say I wasn't terribly impressed. It was the Thursday before Christmas and the joint was full, but they seemed to have insuffucient staff. The food (we shared an alleged clam bake) was OK but not great. Oh, and I tried the California cheese sampler after dinner. I realize I'll be pilloried for this, but based on an n of 1, I'm sticking with European and New England cheeses. Even the best Australian cheeses are better than the too-salty California ones I was given as representative of the genre. So, overall, not very impressed with Yabbies.
We wound up at Iluna Basque, Powell at Union, for Christmas dinner despite the comments on this board. (Not all that keen on Chinese, and made our plans too late for most other places.) I understand the comments about the service - it was a little slow and haphazard - but the food was good, and we were able to walk out feeling well fed but not stuffed. You should be able to do that with tapas, right? My wife had crab cakes, a salad, and I've forgotten her desert, but it was evidently good because she finished it. I had a simple salad; the cassoulet with a melt-in-the-mouth lamb chop (how did that get into a cassoulet?) and a sausage that I don't think was chorizo, but maybe it was; and a plate of Basque cheeses. Good cheese, good beans, OK greens. I'd go back, preferably on a night when they aren't so busy and can maybe get the shaved potatoes and coffee on the table without being reminded.
We had a late lunch at the Boulevard, a block from the ferry building, on the 23rd. Is that the trendiest place in San Francisco? Very crowded, but the wait for the table wasn't too long (we had a reservation for 1:30, seated ~1:45), and the service after that was good despite the crowd. The crab cake was the best I've ever had, and that includes both Maryland and Boston in season. The lobster bisque, which my wife and I both had, was also exceptional (not as good as Boston's, but a close second). We kept our lunch small deliberately, because we were having an early dinner, but it was just the right size for an early afternoon snack. Overpriced, I thought, but good food and good service.
We were visiting another friend in Berkeley on Boxing Day. My wife and Simone had the prawns in a garlic and saffron sauce at Cesar, a small tapas bar where the chef used to work at Chez Panisse, while I had the serrano ham. Both very good, and again just the right size for a late lunch before an early dinner. It was small because soon after meeting us at the BART stop, Simone's wife called and said we could get a 5:15 reservation at Chez Panisse Cafe (next door to Cesar; the apple doesn't fall far from the tree). So we took that, which meant keeping lunch small, as it was already 1:30. But the service at Cesar was good, as was the food, and I think my wife would go back tomorrow for more prawns.
Chez Panisse is the holy grail, at least it seems that way to those of us from the Midwest. To fall into a reservation at last minute seemed too good to be true. Entering the restaurant feels like walking into a temple. I felt we should genuflect as we entered and crawl up the stairs on hands and knees. Alice Waters and her accolytes created American nouvelle cuisine, right? How could the food be anything other than extraordinary?
The cafe was crowded but our service, contrary to some reports here, was good. The menu had a lot of surprises: you don't expect to see either pizza or spaghetti in a place with this sort of reputation, especially when nestled against mackerel and leg of pork. Having already had the Italian things in Italy this year, we decided to go with American. My wife had a salad and the mackerel, which she pronounced very good despite the strong flavor. I went with the grilled endive and beet salad and the pork.
We live in Iowa. We know pork. At least, I thought I knew pork. This pork was heavenly! Melted in the mouth, accompanied by crisply steamed vegetables and the second edible polenta I've had outside Italy. My opinion: it did justice to the Chez Panisse reputation.
The deserts, on the other hand, seemed uninspired. A flourless chocolate cake? Hazelnut creme brulee? Vanilla ice cream drizzled with espresso? I realize Ms Waters made her reputation on fresh ingredients prepared to order, but I thought I would see something a little more unusual. So I fell back on my old standby, a plate of cheese; this time, it was the Parmesan cheese. Good, not too salty. I'd go back to Chez Panisse Cafe, but I'd plan to have my desert and coffee next door at Cesar.
I've saved what we considered the best for last. We ate dinner on Christmas Eve at Allegro, a hole-in-the-wall place (1701 Jones St.). From the moment we walked in we knew this would be special. The staff, all apparently family, greeted us like long-lost friends. The service from that moment on was prompt without being pushy. They had no objection to letting us share the asparagus appetizer and a salad: a good thing, because one of each for each of us would have been too much. The salad was dressed perfectly, a simple vinaigrette with just enough flavor, and no pepper offered or needed.
My wife had the crab and lobster ravioli, which was so good she wouldn't share any with me. I chose the veal scallopini with lemon and capers. The veal melted in the mouth as it should but too often doesn't, the sauce was smooth and didn't overpower the veal. I can't remember what my wife had for desert; something good, no doubt. I didn't see anything I especially wanted; coming from a long line of cheeseheads, I asked if I could have a plate of gorgonzola. This caused a few seconds of consternation (gorgonzola wasn't mentioned anywhere on the menu), but in a few minutes the cheese arrived.
The deserts were accompanied by a glass of port. Not just any port, but a Fonseca, with apparently unlimited refills. I assume this is something they do only at Christmas, but it made us feel even more welcome and even more at home. It really was, as my wife said, like being back in Italy for a few hours.
I can't find any mention of Allegro in these pages (I only went back to June) or in City Search. DineSite calls it "staid," but I think that's unfair. It is like many Italian family restaurants. It isn't innovative, but I would expect consistently exceptional food, impeccable service, and all at a reasonable ($3 for a plate of gorgonzola cheese) by San Francisco standards price.
This was our first visit to the Bay Area in many, many years. I can honestly say we never had a bad meal, had a couple of exceptional ones, and would return to any of the places we ate (except maybe Yabbies) without hesitation. You people in the Bay Area should stop hoarding your culinary gems and share the wealth!