Help me choose - Aziza/Kokkari/O Chame/Limon or...?
I'll be in the Bay Area for a week in December and need help narrowing down a lengthy list of restaurants. I grew up in the Bay Area but live in NYC now, so I am craving inventive food that is not common in NY. I am looking for something creative (while I like 'purist' foods, I can often replicate them on my own, so I want to be blown away by something I can't recreate!). NYC has great Italian, Spanish/Tapas, & French, so they're not a high priority for me, but I'm open to suggestion... that said, here are the menus that have most piqued my attention, what are your thoughts?:
-Limon (any recs for other inventive latin restaurants?)
-Chez Panisse (just b/c I've never been - to save money, is it safe to stick to the cafe?)
-Foreign Cinema (also for the environment - how is the food lately?)
Other restaurants I've thought about, but think I might be able to find equally good/similar spots in NY, are:
TAPAS - tapas are great in NY, though I do love Piperade in SF... what are your thoughts on:
Zarzuela, Laiola, Cesar, or others?
ITALIAN - again, great in NY - is it worth giving up one of my top choices above to visit:
Ducca, Incanto, Oliveto, A Cote, A16, or others?
OTHER - is it criminal to miss out on any of these, or some other place I'm missing?:
Quince, Canteen, Bar Crudo, Coi
just to give you perspective, my favorite meals in SF over the past few years have been at Sushi Ran, Myth, Piperade, and Jardiniere (and Taqueria La Bamba, my favorite ever in mtn view)
This is a nice post from a visitor--note well, everyone who asks "I'm visiting in two weeks. Where should I eat?"
Of your proposed list, the one restaurant that sticks out to me as not fitting is Foreign Cinema. It's perfectly OK, nice to have in my neighborhood, but not something I'd travel across town (much less across the country) to experience.
My general preference is for tiny places that feel special: Bar Crudo and Canteen are favorites of mine, but the second is French-influenced, so if you're not after that you may want to skip it. I love Incanto.
Aziza is a good choice.
The Chez Panisse "Cafe" can be misleading as the quality of food and prices are still high. So it's a good alternative if you want to save a little money and want more choice compared to Chez Panisse the "restaurant"
If you're not only considering SF proper, Manresa in the South Bay has deservingly received many accolades (including two stars from michelin if you're into that) and the tasting menu is worth a visit.
I always recommend Bar Crudo, Bar Tartine, and Canteen to visitors (esp ones from NY) - they all serve inventive, high quality food in very casual settings (the closest I've seen in NYC to this is Prune). I'm also a fan of Incanto - love the spaghettini with cured tuna heart, the head cheese, and find it always worthwhile to try whatever offal is on the menu that day
I'll comment on the East Bay places - I think Cafe Chez Panisse is a must (many people prefer it to the restaurant - major advantages over the restaurant, aside from cost, are that it's open for lunch, and the menu is a la carte).
I really like Cesar and A Cote but probably wouldn't make a special trip to the East Bay to eat there. However, I would recommend them if you're already going to be in the East Bay. Add Pizzaiolo to the list - pizza with a Chez Panisse pedigree, very different from both NY and Neapolitan models. Re: Cesar I'd go to the new one (on Piedmont) - the menu is more extensive, and has more distinctly Californian items (their standard tapas items are not superior to the ones you'd get in NYC). It's also open for lunch (and all afternoon)
With the exception of the special dinners, my Oliveto experiences have been too uneven for me to recommend it for an out-of-town visitor.
Of the restaurants that you named that I have not been to, I think Coi sounds the most intriguing. I feel like I've read negative reviews of O Chame, but I haven't been there myself.
I think that it's definitely criminal to miss out on Canteen and Bar Crudo -- Canteen is also great for brunch on the weekends (no reservations), so you could save it for that. I loved Aziza, BUT I would definitely read some past reviews of Aziza by visitors on this board, because there are definitely people who don't like it (the meat tends to have sweet preparations, the prix fixe meal is sometimes too much food for some, etc.). I like both Chez Panisse upstairs and downstairs, but I've enjoyed my meals more upstairs. I would also definitely go to Incanto, really great good, and definitely try the more unusual options on the menu. I like Foriegn Cinema, it's fine, but I wouldn't pick it for one of my meals here (though, I've heard great things about the brunch, so maybe you could do that). Kokkari is one of my favorite places, but it isn't one of the best that San Francisco has to offer; I would go there for lunch instead of dinner, because I've had really excellent lunches there (and definitely get the breads and spreads!).
If you go to Cesar, go to the Piedmont Avenue location in Oakland instead of the Berkeley location; I really love the Piedmont location, and it's open from noon until midnight(ish), so that might be a good choice for lunch if you're doing a day in the East Bay. I'm also a big fan of A Cote (but it's not Italian) and if you're going to be in the East Bay for a dinner other than CP, go for it, but I wouldn't go out of my way if I was only in the area for a few days and staying elsewhere.