I’ve had quite a few friends from my hometown of Boston cruise through the city recently. One of my favorite things to do with out-of-town guests is show off San Francisco’s eclectic mix of cuisine and cocktails. No knock on Boston at all (and I say that having just spent the majority of a week gorging myself on Maine lobster rolls), but San Francisco’s dining and nightlife is in a class of its own. Here are some suggestions on where to take out-of-town guests who are not your parents (though the older folks will enjoy these just as well!).
Photo courtesy of Ragazza
Ragazza – I love this place because not only does it bring back fond memories of hearing “Eh Ragazza!” a hundred times a day from my time living in Rome, but they do pizza pies, and they do them exceptionally well. The Moto is magnificent when you add an egg to the middle for dipping those perfectly drooping corners. More creative versions like the wild nettle pie with pancetta are just as lip-smackingly delicious. Native Bostonians will agree (which never happens). Bonus – call and add your name to the waitlist, and they’ll call you back when your tables ready. Sweet!
Nopalito – I’ve said it a hundred times and I’ll say it again – I can’t stop going to Nopalito. This laid back Mexican gem hatched from the overwhelming response to the family dinners the former NOPA chef cooked up for his staff. Everything I’ve tried here is packed with flavor – the albondigas, the mole, the tender-as-can-be carnitas, the tangy ceviche, the enchiladas…yes, I’ve been here this many times and more. As for cocktails, obviously the margaritas are great, but the Mezcal Paloma’s smoky flavor seduces. Even my Italian-Colombian yet very American friend who’s based in Brazil was supremely impressed.
Photo courtesy of Thomas Hawk/Flickr
NOPA – speaking of NOPA, it’s obviously a winner for its food. However, NOPA is also an excellent spot to banter wildly and laugh loudly while sipping superb cocktails. The bartenders really know what they’re doing. If their lengthy drink menu leaves you confused, just tell the fella what you’re craving and he’ll shake you up something special (and pretty much perfect). The vivacious and lofty space does not lack in class.
Churchill – If the Hangar One Homefront served in a Mason jar spiked with rosemary syrup doesn’t entice you (it is sooooo good), then perhaps the selection of 40+ whiskies, scotches, and other spirits will. Also boasting beer, wine, and prompt bartenders, Churchill’s slick interior is accentuated by materials and fixtures rather than art (think steel, wood, leather). Look up – the wood ceiling is gorgeous. It may even impress persnickety Bostonians (“may” being the key word here).
Photo courtesy of Absinthe
Absinthe Brasserie & Bar – On Eater’s current list of 38 Essential San Francisco Restaurants, Absinthe is a real treat for both out-of-town friends as well as more notable guests. Absinthe’s dessert king just won best pastry chef of 2011. Sample his sublime beet cake with homemade fromage blanc (no Cowgirl Creamery in here!) and it’s ridiculously easy to see why. Dinner entrees like the pork loin with black truffle jus and spinach-corn pudding (the best succotash-like substance I’ve ever eaten!) and citrus-chili brown butter Hawaiian opah will encourage you to stuff yourself beyond belief.
Indian Oven – After gorging on what seems like 15 courses of California cuisine (with wine and port pairings to match), it’s nice to go back to a relaxed and reliable ethnic standby. My friend’s family owns quite possibly the best Thai restaurant in the world (Chez Siam), so it would be a sin to bring her to any ubiquitously mediocre Thai spot in SF. Indian Oven presents a nice change. Two dishes here can easily feed four. Feel free to be plucky with the menu, the Vindaloo dishes are spicy without scorching your taste buds beyond the point of flavor return. The Bhindi Masala (okra sautéed with onions and spices) is fabulous. They also dimmed the lights and put a rose on our table after we walked in…nice, no?
Photo courtesy of SanFranAnnie/Flickr
Humphrey Slocombe – You’ve heard all of the fuss and maybe you follow their flavor announcements on Twitter. But seriously, Humphrey Slocombe is uniquely decadent. So much so that I’ve been thinking about their fudge sorbet for days (actually, weeks). Secret Breakfast with bourbon and corn flakes is equally amazing. Brave the line, they let you sample as much as you want (Jesus Juice? Olive Oil? Blue Bottle Vietnamese Coffee flavor?). I honestly think their ice cream tastes better than that trendy liquid nitrogen happening in Hayes Valley. Though it’s hard to beat Friendly’s mint chocolate chip in a sugar cone with jimmies, Humphrey Slocombe kind of does just that.
Lake Chalet – For the days when you just can’t take another ounce of chilly fog (can’t…take it…anymore!!!), hop over the bridge to Oakland, or take the BART to Lake Merritt station, to the Lake Chalet, sister of the Beach Chalet and the Park Chalet. The food at the Lake Chalet kind of sucks (the melted cheddar cheese destroyed the Dungeness crab on my open-faced brioche sandwich and reminded me of the processed cheese unacceptably layered on top of trout on menus all over Colombia’s coffee region), but the atmosphere is unmatched. When San Francisco is engulfed in fog, you can sit here, sleeveless, sweating, tanning, and drinking. Order one of their homemade microbrews, or if you’re feeling less hoppy, the Blueberry Smash is good (according to my girly-drink-drinking guy friend). If you’re so inspired, a gondola ride awaits.