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What restaurant has most impressed visitors?

What impresses visitors from out of town is not necessarily what impresses a local wanting just to dine out. If you have someone from a big city known for food, where do you take them (low-end/high-end) and where do you take Aunt Maude from central Ohio?

Many of my guests were enchanted with dim sum at Ton Kiang, where they wouldn't have liked China Village. Other younger/hipper loved Pizzaiolo for the local crowd and noise and food. So where do you take your visitors--or send them!

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  1. As a Boston area food -obsessed food professional and annual SF visitor, I will tell you that we never miss Foreign Cinema, Aziza, Yank Sing.If you go to my member page, you can see my detailed posts on these places and why I feel so lucky to know them.

    1. I would think Gary Danko on the high end -- it is consistently well-rated amongst those who visit and only go there once. We who have been multiple times tend to see lack of innovation or change and I have little reason to go on my own but have visitors who always ask about it.

      19 Replies
        1. re: Carrie 218

          Seems to be true.

          On the other hand, since Gary Danko's menu has relatively little local character, you can get a similar experience in many other cities around the world. Thus it's probably not a great choice for somebody from, for example, New York.

          1. re: Robert Lauriston

            I don't see why Gary Danko is any less local than Chez Panisse unless it is because he doesn't put the purveyor's names on the menu. These look like localized dishes to me...

            Roasted Cauliflower Soup with Dungeness Crab and Brown Butter Hollandaise
            Seared Sea Scallops with Rutabaga Purée, Roasted Turnips, Braised Celery and Brown Butter Golden Raisins
            Lemon Crusted Yellowfin Tuna with Roasted Fennel, Pepper Relish and Meyer Lemon Butter Sauce
            Lemon Herb Duck Breast with Duck Hash and Endive Marmalade

            1. re: Paul H

              Gary Danko's menu changes quarterly. Scallops, tuna, endive, and (since the local commercial season is long over) Dungeness crab come from the airport. The only definitely local, seasonal item I see on that list is Meyer lemon, which is served with a wildly out-of-season blackberry sauce.

              Chez Panisse's menu changes daily to reflect the local market, and often changes at the last minute if something's not available or doesn't meet their standards, or if the chef finds something better. Here are some local, seasonal items on this week's downstairs menus (the list would be longer in a month or two):

              black trumpet mushrooms
              blood orange
              fava beans
              green garlic
              green peas
              Jerusalem artichokes
              mandarin orange
              mustard flowers
              silver lime
              spring onions

              I'm not saying Gary Danko is bad, just that its menu could be executed in New York, Chicago, Las Vegas, or any other city with enough good restaurants to support first-rate purveyors.

              1. re: Robert Lauriston

                Fennel's not really in season right now, but I get your point. Do you know what they do with mustard flowers? The French Laundry served some mustard ice cream that I found inedible. I've never had mustard flowers in any other context.

                1. re: Glencora

                  I've seen early fennel at the farmers market.

                  This week, they're using mustard flowers in "deep-fried asparagus, onions, and mustard flowers with watercress salad" and "spit-roasted Laughing Stock Farm pork loin with green garlic and mustard flower sauce; with potato and Jerusalem artichoke purée."

                  1. re: Robert Lauriston

                    Ubuntu had them on the menu a while ...

                    escarole and mustard flower salad, little farm’s fingerlings, peppercress yogurt

                    Thank goodness mustard flowers are seasonal ... otherwise this might be the next trend ... 2008 ... the year of the mustard flower.

                    1. re: rworange

                      The thing that confused me at TFL was that the menu said Dijon mustard ice cream. Dijon is in France, right? When we asked about it, the waiter waved his arm toward the sea of mustard growing outside and said they were using what was local. Considering, though, that I'd just eaten lobster, butter from Vermont, cheese from Georgia, etc, I almost wondered if the local mustard thing was a joke.

                      1. re: Glencora

                        Dijon is more of a style, so you could make your own ... but it could have been a a joke.

                    2. re: Robert Lauriston

                      And after reading this thread I walked down to Ferry Plaza and saw fennel at the Tuesday market.

                    3. re: Glencora

                      Fennel is at EVERY farmer's market I've gone to in the past week (at least three of them). What makes you say its not in season?

                      1. re: chemchef

                        Because the plants in my garden are still small and I expect them to come into their own later in the season. The farms selling fennel at markets now could be in warmer micro-climates. (There's local, and then there's local.) Hate to admit it, but I rarely go to farmer's markets because I don't live within walking distance of one, so I haven't seen fennel there. (I'm sorry I brought it up!)

                        1. re: Glencora

                          LOL. Don't be sorry. I'm jealous that I don't have room to have a garden in which to grow fennel. I have to rely on farmer's markets for my "local" produce.

                    4. re: Robert Lauriston

                      Some local ingredients from Gary Danko's current menu:

                      Foie Gras
                      Red Onion
                      Treviso and Romaine
                      Enoki Mushrooms
                      Winter Root Vegetables
                      Salsify and Lettuce Cream
                      Frog Legs
                      Striped Bass
                      Meyer Lemon
                      Duck Breast
                      Guinea Hen
                      Butternut Squash
                      Savory Tart of Seasonal Vegetables with Quenelle of Goat Cheese and Mesclun Greens
                      A Selection of Farmhouse and Artisanal Cheeses Presented Tableside
                      Yogurt Panna Cotta with Acai Berry, Banana Ice Cream and Maple Almond Granola
                      Non-Cholesterol Meyer Lemon Soufflé with Blackberry Sauce

                      1. re: Paul H

                        Many of those ingredients are imported (e.g. salsify, banana, Acai berry, blackberries unless they made the sauce in season and preserved it, most of the cheeses).

                        Others (duck, quail, foie gras, avocado, etc.) could be local or not. If they were paying a premium for local products, it wouldn't make much sense not to mention it.

                        1. re: Robert Lauriston

                          Just as someone once said: "We are all Keynesians now" all serious Northern California restaurants are all California Cuisinists now. Above a certain quality level (and Gary Danko is certainly above this level) everyone uses the freshest local ingredients they can source. Folks that say that you are not going to get fresh local food if you go anywhere other than Chez Panisse and Oliveto are not getting out enough.

                          1. re: Paul H

                            I think that's only partially true. There are still tons of restaurants that aren't using local, sustainable ingredients b/c they don't want to pay the price for such quality. Yes, we live in an area that has more restaurants that do per capita, I'm sure, but its still not fair to think that you can go to just about any restaurant in the bay area and expect that they're using those ingredients.

                            1. re: Paul H

                              The daily menus of Chez Panisse, Incanto, Oliveto, Pizzaiolo, Zuni, and other market-driven restaurants reflect what I see at the farmers market and in my garden in a way that Gary Danko's quarterly-changing menu does not.

                              To put it another way, it would be expensive and difficult for a restaurant in Manhattan to duplicate this week's six Chez Panisse menus. They'd have to hire a forager here to buy and ship some of the stuff, and some of the produce would not arrive in great shape. (This is more true now than it would be in summer.)

                              It would be relatively easy to duplicate Gary Danko's menu in Manhattan. Every ingredient listed is available with a phone call to a first-rate purveyor. Even Dungeness crab and Meyer lemons are common items on high-end Manhattan menus.

                              1. re: Paul H

                                I think Robert's point is that scallops, yellowfin tuna, fois gras and duck breast -- whether locally sourced or not -- are not seasonal or specific to Northern California in the spring. I thought the GD menu items that were posted looked like generic dishes I would find on any upscale restaurant in the US.

                  2. are you sure your visitors wouldn't like China Village? I've always had great luck taking out of town visitors there....all the more so if they come from an area without the great Chinese food we have in San Francisco!

                    When I travel, I love it when I am taken to the same places my friends eat locally, and really don't like being taken to wherever they perceive I might like based on living in SF.

                    When my good friends visited from Phoenix fairly recently, their favorite meal was at Lotus Garden.(followed closely by Aziza) They aren't familiar with Vietnamese food, but as my friend said, "I am not sure what exactly I am eating, but it tastes wonderful!".

                    6 Replies
                    1. re: susancinsf

                      For those who would enjoy it, that would be great. But it's not for the faint-hearted/elderly/intolerant.

                          1. re: susancinsf

                            I concur with susanc, although I don't know her father. I hosted a family dinner of picky and non-picky eaters, and everyone had fun. "standard chinese" dishes like Lemon Chicken are actually pretty great at China Villiage --- who knew?

                            But --- no one was *impressed* by the Cumin Lamb or Li River Duck.

                            My biggest vote for impressive, out-of-town is Boulevard, probably because that's my default where-to-go-when-people-are-in-town --- usually easy to get an OT rez on short notice.

                            The food is occasionally excellent and spellbinding, often average-but-pricy, but it's always a good looking room.

                          2. re: lintygmom

                            I don't know, China Village has a whole side of the menu that Chowhounds ignore ... the more familiar Chinese food. I think they call it classic or something like that on the menu.

                            Thinking about it, if I had to take my S/O's family out for Chinese food ... the anti-chowhounds, so to speak ... the type that bliss out on Empire Buffet ... now that's good eats ... anyway, I'd take them to China Village. My strategy would be to let them order the familiar and order for myself some of the cross-over dishes and give them a taste. I can't imagine anyone not liking that sesame bread.

                            That being said, my solid choice over the years has been Zuni ... for friends, family and business. I've never had anyone be less than impressed.

                            That followed by Yank Sing. Occasionally that fails. I had a memorably bad meal there with the SO's anti-chowhounds ... the meal that made me forever give up on taking them any place out of their comfort zone when one member said that they were nice snacks but were expecting real Chinese food. It deteriorated from there.

                            1. re: rworange

                              Yeah, plus people will be shocked at the prices, especially people who expect Chinese food to be cheap.

                              I think Slanted Door impresses a lot of people. The room is very chic, the view is impressive and the food is unusual without being too challenging (spicy or weird). I think it's the kind of place people are looking for when they're looking for the exotic, cosmopolitan dining experience that's different from what they get back home. Plus they can go home and tell their friends President Clinton ate there.

                        1. We took some unchowish friends to Oliveto and they just didn't "get" it. Nothing on the menu looked good to them. That was a dud. A year later, we took them to Rivoli and they loved it. We've taken other people there, too. A safe bet.

                          My parents' go-to for out of town guests is Skates, even though the food is bad. Sigh.

                          My Japanese Great-Aunt loved O Chame on 4th street, as well as the Japanese shop across the street. She also enjoyed exploring the Pacific East Mall and buying food to cook for us at our house. Apparently she doesn't have much like that near her in Washington D.C.

                          A couple times we've taken cousins on hornblower lunch cruises. Not something we'd ever do on our own, but kind of fun.

                          2 Replies
                          1. re: Glencora

                            Interesting. I took some relatives to Incanto. They couldn't figure out what to order, didn't have a good time, were mystified at my entreaties to "try this" and, basically, I struck out and won't be asked for my opinion again.

                            1. re: Paul H

                              I guess this is an answer targeted at a specific type of visitor, but every year my chef brother visits, and the only place he still raves about is Incanto. He liked the oyster place on Polk as well.

                              I took him to Canteen, Perbacco, Bouchon, several Viet places on Larkin, and his reaction ranged from critical to just ok on everything but Incanto.

                              My sister, who is not a cook but works in the food business, really liked San Tung on Irving, especially the dry fried chicken wings.

                          2. Khan Toke was made for visitors

                            5937 Geary Blvd
                            San Francisco, CA 94121

                            1. I always take my out of town guests to Koi Palace in Serramonte and they always love it. The parade of dim sum coming out is eye-opening. My mom loved it so much the first time there that her exact quote (spoke in Cantonese of course but I translate) was: "I'm so full I could barf."

                              Another place that I generally suggest for visitors is Slanted Door because of the view and the OK food. It's generally clean and fresh.

                              1. Oh yeah, and I guess Boulevard impresses people.... (it *does* look pretty, but I think it is oh, so middle-of-the-road)

                                1 Reply
                                1. re: Carrie 218

                                  Frankly I never understood why people drool over Boulevard. It's a nice physical location but the food really is average.

                                2. Delfina, as it is one of the most unique restaurants in SF. Gary Danko if they want high end, and Luella as a neighborhood spot.

                                  1. For my "big city" friends I usually fall back on either Sea Salt (if East Bay) or Canteen (if SF). They're both casual, yet the food is creative enough to please more discriminating eaters.

                                    1. I've brought a few visitors recently to Bar Tartine, and it's been universally loved. It's great for a mid range price point, and the food is excellent.

                                      1. Locals always dismiss it and say the food has gone downhill, the place smells of old musty closets, etc., but Aunt Maude from central Ohio might get a big kick out of Julius Castle. My parents did. Great views, friendly and old school service, and I was surprised that the food was pretty good too. It's an Aunt Maude kinda place.

                                        And even food snobs need a break from the routine modern place with the beet salads and burrata cheese appetizers, etc.

                                        1 Reply
                                        1. re: swag

                                          Have you been since they closed and re-opened? One of these sunny Sunday's I keep meaning to take a chance on brunch. Can't be worse than the Cliff House.

                                        2. Depends what city they're coming from. If it's Aunt Maude from Ohio...I'd pick stuff with an accessible palette but still exciting. Zuni, Chez Panisse, quality places that you won't find elsewhere but something she could "get" and like.

                                          If it was a full-on foodie, I'd say Manresa in Los Gatos, a taqueria or taco truck (if they're not from LA), Koi Palace or another dim sum place near SFO, Aziza for dinner or Cafe Centro for a weekday lunch in South Park on a nice day or somewhere similar to hang.

                                          Also a good, funky, hip cafe (pre dot com) would be another very-SF place. Everyone has their favs...I like Atlas in Potrero and Simple Pleasures on Balboa.

                                          1. I like Boulevard. it has wonderful ingredients, well prepared. We entertain a great deal when we come to SF and they have a menu that appeals to almost everyone. The service is lovely and the wine list is well priced. My husband had his 60th birthday there and they could not have been nicer. I like Slanted Door but the noise level is high. I took a large group to R and H(?) Lounge and it was great. We kept adding people and they were fine with it. Food was fine but not fantastic but there was plenty that everyone would eat.

                                            1. For big city foodies, my recommendation is Kokkari. That space is so striking, even going to the bathroom is an adventure. I also think Frisson is a great space but the food was not memorable.
                                              I would take Aunt Maude to Townhall at about 5:30 before it gets too noisy or Scala's. In Napa, Bistro Don Giovanni is, in my opinion. an absolute MUST as is Bouchon.

                                              1. deb and i are frequent visitors to san francisco. here are some places we like.

                                                zuni cafe - comfortable as an old pair of shoes. we usually grab a burger and the string fries first thing after we land. love the oysters, the eponymous chicken and the vodka gimlets.

                                                incanto - another comfortable restaurant that satisfies at many levels. humble animal parts cooked/cured to a high order. good wine list and very pleasant service. hopping the j-church line to noe valley enhances the whole evening. maybe my favorite restaurant in san francisco.

                                                a16 - go late. get the pizza. drink wine. feed off the noise and vibe. pretty good people watching.

                                                bar crudo - teeny-tiny place with good food. put yourself in the hands of your server. downstairs is cramped and loud. upstairs less so. i like them both.

                                                myth - one of our few high-end destinations. elegant room, superior service. food is quite good and equal to the prices charged. best for one or two couples. children need not apply.

                                                perbacco - not a high-end destination but a lively place to go for dinner as a couple or solo at the bar.

                                                tadich - next door to perbacco. i like to sit at the bar for a late (2 p.m.) lunch, slurp oysters and drink martinis. i order a dozen oysters at a time and they insist on cramming them on the same plate they serve six. it's clear that these guys have been around a long time and are not about to change a damn thing for me. no worries. i'll keep going back.

                                                farmers' market saturday morning - wonderful. eat breakfast, stroll by the stalls, put together a picnic basket. this says, "san francisco" to me.

                                                honorable mention - deb likes boulevard and one market. i'm partial to the pied piper bar at the palace hotel (drinks only) and in-n-out burger.

                                                in memoriam - washbag and moose's.

                                                9 Replies
                                                1. re: steve h.

                                                  Great list.

                                                  Even if you're going late it's best to have a reservation at A16.

                                                  1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                                    thanks. a16 is a hoot. you're right, reservations are a must. really fun place.

                                                  2. re: steve h.

                                                    Great list, except you should add Myth to the "in memoriam" list: it's closing at the end of the week (although I guess it's still possible that it will be bought and reopen).

                                                    1. re: Ruth Lafler

                                                      i'm sorry to hear this. we've enjoyed eating there. any idea why they're closing?

                                                      1. re: steve h.

                                                        Reportedly it was sold and maybe then immediately resold, but it wasn't supposed to close. I guess something went wrong with the deal.

                                                        1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                                          Soooo ... that leaves Ron Siegel at The Ritz and I can resume recommending that place?

                                                          1. re: rworange

                                                            Who knows at this point? I presume Inside Scoop or tablehopper will get the story one of these days.

                                                            1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                                              happens all the time in manhattan. glad i had a chance to eat there. "in memoriam" it is.