Best food/ambience in SF for weekend visitors?
Oliveto (East Bay) and Aquerello (SF) are the two best Italian restaurants in the Bay Area. If you have trouble getting a reservation, there is a great service called DinnerBroker.com. They can get you into top notch restaurants at the last minute. These two restaurants are very popular and very hard to get weekend reservations, so you might want to check out www.dinnerbroker.com. I think you can call them as well.
Good luck and good eats!
You might consider Aquerello. It is intimate and the food is quite good. It's on Sacremento Street.
Delfina is good, rustic Italian, but I'm not sure you would consider it authentic. It would be a shame, in my opinion, to miss some of the best restaurants in the area just because they are not authentically Italian.
If you are not against taking Bart across the Bay, you might enjoy Oliveto at Rockridge.
Also in the East Bay, lunch at Chez Panisse Cafe is a treat.
This is a tough question. In my opinion, SF is not a very good Italian restaurant town for real fans of regional Italian cooking.
Prego (Union/Buchanan), despite being part of a small chain, often purveys excellent nuova cucina, but is not completely reliable. Chefs change.
I love Tommaso's (Kearny/Broadway), but it's a very downhome kind of spot for pizza, pasta, marinated vegetables.
Rose Pistola is wildly inconsistent. Very good Ligurian style food when it's "on." (Columbus/Union) Need reservations.
The "hottest" spot in town is Bacar, a brand-new, multistory Calif.-style spot with a large wine list and large menu. Brannan near 4th
Every Italian spot has its fans and its detractors, but since the late, great Orsi's folded years ago, I can't think of a really "upscale" Italian dining room. I have no insight into why.In the long time I've lived and dined out here, SF has never seemed fertile ground for either grand Italian dining or much in the way of true regional, which to me is the real heart of Italian cuisine.
Any of the places mentioned by the previous poster--except, of course, Caffe Sport--will require reservations for main dinner hours.
Since you prefer Italian, I suggest Caffe Sport in Northbeach, 574 Green St. 415.981.1251. The atmosphere is cute/crowded and they don't take reservations and it's cash only - good Sicilian food though!! See link.
As far as really nice atmosphere, I'd suggest Farallon (high end sea food) on Post St. as well as Postrio (Wolfgang Puck Cal cuisine) on Post St. Both have good food. Aqua and Rubicon also have good food and atmosphere. The Fifth Floor in the Palomar Hotel is very cool! Gary Danko is supposed to be fabulous though I haven't been and Elizabeth Daniel has outstanding food, but wine only and the atmosphere is too quiet for my taste (sort of funeral parlor-esque). Check out these places on citysearch.com
I have not been to Cafe Sport for years, but you should be warned that it is a bit 'different'. Not just for the decor, which is unusual ornate stuff, I think actually carved by the owner. It is sort of known for having a certain rude waiter schtick. When we were there we were only allowed to order, for six of us, three dishes double portions. We had to beg to be allowed a fourth item. I don't know why they try to limit the variety unless it is for the kitchen. It comes off as arbitrary whim of the domineering waiter. And forget about it for a deuce, you will likely be in an aisle at a tiny table. Conventional widson had it not to bother with less than four people. Once I went with a date and he would not stay because we were being bumped and ignored by the waiters. Oh, and table of 8 was kicked out because they were playing with the serving spoons. But I know people who would not think a visit to SF was complete without going. The food was really good in my dim memory of it. I especially remember a huge serving platter piled with dungeness crabs in a messy but good dressing. Lots of seafood and garlic, so you can't go wrong with that combo IMHO if you are in the right frame of mind.