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Returning to SF for my 2nd (eating) trip - please help narrow down my choices

I visited San Francisco 2 years ago for a week where the priority was eating good food. With the help of the SF Chowhounds we ate extremely well. So well, in fact, that by the time we were nearing our last few dinners, my boyfriend would only casually (but jokingly) remark "Well... this is what I've come to expect" when I'd comment how good the food was.

Last time, we enjoyed dinners at Chez Panisse Cafe (our favourite meal), Incanto (love love love!), Bar Tartine, Myth (I was sad to see it closed), lunches at Swan Oyster Depot, Delfina, Slanted Door, and breakfasts at Tartine Bakery and Slow Club.

We're coming again next week for a wedding in Palo Alto, but will be spending a few days in San Francisco and a few days in Carmel and would love some suggestions. I am comfortable with the price range and atmosphere of the dinner places we went to previously (not overly formal, mains <$30).

We are in SF for Saturday dinner, Sunday all day, Monday all day, then back on Sunday for lunch and then dinner reservations at Nopa.

So far I have only made reservations at Nopa (so excited!).
Other places I am interested in are Zuni, Salt House, Aziza, Bocadillos, Piperade, Burma Superstar or Larkin Express, Perbacco, Flour and Water, SPQR, Quince and La Ciccia (on grayelf's rave reccomendation). I'm also interested in Absinthe (admittedly) because I was a huge fan of Jamie on Top Chef. Is the restaurant worth visiting?

I was hoping for advice on which places are good options for lunch (as opposed to dinner). Also, I want to make sure I'm not doubling up too much on certain cuisines (i.e. if I only have one Italian meal, which place should I pick?).

Any fun snacks? How is the Kung Fu Taco Truck? Also, I loved Birite Creamery, but I understand there's a big ice cream debate in your city. What other places should I try?

Any suggestions for Carmel? I will try to comb the California board for ideas.

Phew! Thanks for making it through the post and thanks in advance for your suggestions!

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  1. Nice to hear how your visit went, even if it is two years later. You also asked about taking a group out a couple of months ago: http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/618378 Where did you end up going?

    4 Replies
    1. re: Ruth Lafler

      Sorry... I haven't been great about reporting back. I promise to report back on this upcoming trip (though I may need a teensy bit of nagging) :)

      The group dinner ended up being at Osha Thai. It was good for the group because it was fairly moderately priced, had a fun cocktail menu, a large menu with many crowd-pleasing and easy-on-the-palate options for sharing and a nice trendy but informal atmosphere. I wouldn't have been that excited about it if I was just going for dinner on my own, but it worked well for a group function (of mid20s to mid30s young professionals).

      Otherwise on that trip, I stayed in Mountain View and took the train into the city so didn't get to sample much, unfortunately. I did manage to try Samovar Tea Lounge which had some interesting tea/food pairings on the menu. I also lunched at Zebulon, which was disappointing. My friend ordered the a sad-looking Cobb salad and I didn't find my sandwich that inventive. For another lunch I returned to Delfina and then wandered by BiRite creamery, both of which were as delicious as I remembered.

      1. re: twinkienic

        Did you have any good eats in Mountain View?

        1. re: bbulkow

          Mountain View eats:

          Calafia Cafe - This was my first dinner in Mountain View and I was starving having just got off the plane. I really liked the atmosphere. Clean, simple, open kitchen with a market to the side (if I recall correctly). The menu was full of comfort options - noodles, pizzas, sandwiches, salads. We had some noodles which I thought were a bit too mild in flavour. We really enjoyed our pizza (I think it had duck and goat cheese on it). Overall enjoyable, but nothing that really stood out.

          Fiesta del Mar Too - cute Tex-Mex restaurant with wonderfully carved and painted chairs. I'm not a huge fan of Tex-Mex, but their menu had some interesting options that I don't usually see in other restaurants of this cuisine (at least in Vancouver).

          Queen House Taiwanese - cheap and cheerful joint, packed full of Asian students (I think). Everything we had was simple and tasty, and our beef brisket hot pot was even better the next day reheated when the flavours had had time to come out.

          Cascal - Just stopped in this Mediterranean place for tapas during happy hour. Drinks were tasty. We didn't get to sample much of the food because we were headed to dinner at home but the menu looked fun.

          Piacere in San Carlos - This was a fantastic meal. We ordered a number of small dishes to share. We had sliders, which were juicy and flavourful and pink inside. Pastas were great - we had the gnudi and the orecchiette. We also had chicken livers and one of the pizzas. The table next to us had mussels which came on an iron skillet which smelled so good. I just looked for my pictures to post... but realized I can't find them! I must have deleted them off my camera by accident... shoot!

          1. re: bbulkow

            i live in mountain view...
            Indian: Amber India is an institution
            Vietnamese: Xahn is a trendy spot with decent "fusion" food
            Thai: Amarin Thai
            Sushi: Sushi Tomi
            Cascal is a nice "scene" and fun...i've never been impressed by the food but it's the most happening place in Mt. View
            Let Petit Bistro is a nice little french place that's a local favorite. consistently good.

            For fine dining, Chez TJ is supposed to be great but i have yet to check it out

      2. You have a lot of great choices there; I have only good things to say about Nopa, Zuni, Perbacco, Flour + Water, and La Ciccia. I like but don't love Aziza, but it's very different from the rest of your choices, so it might be a good one to select. Zuni and Perbecco are both great for lunch (though Zuni isn't open on Monday). I wouldn't pick Absinthe over any of those choices for dinner, though I have had a few excellent brunches there, so you might want to try that on one of your Sundays for brunch.

        Definitely try Humphrey Slocombe for ice cream, it's near Flour + Water, so if you go to F+W for dinner, you could coordinate visits (except HS isn't open on Mondays, warning).

        1. Given your top choices last time, which pretty much match mine, you should absolutely make a detour to Oakland and eat at Camino.

          Larkin Express closes early, so go there for lunch. The food's better than Burma Superstar's.

          Lers Ros is another good place for lunch (or dinner, they're open 1:30am).

          Humphry Slocombe is the must-try place for ice cream.

          I don't think any of the Asian food trucks are worth chasing after.

          My suggestion for Carmel is make it a day trip. The scenery's lovely but you can't eat it.

          -----
          Camino
          3917 Grand Avenue, Oakland, CA 94610

          1. You're delving a little deeper into SF's scene, so realize you'll occasionally start having "misses" - just so you expect it. Consider it the tax for becoming more "with it".

            Zuni appears not to be weathering the recession well. BSS wouldn't be on my top-10 in SF, more like top-30, so I'd say "not yet", although if you have 5 meals and want some change-up it might be good. Salt House I recently found to be simply good, perhaps best for oysters-and-cocktails before heading off elsewhere. If you're a fan of the TV personality, it might be cute to go to his place, but Absinthe is considered simply good not great.

            Perbacco, Aziza, Flower and Water, SPQR, Quince - great list - what about Coi Lounge?

            "doubling up on cuisines" - you don't have any chinese. I understand you're from Vancouver, but it might make sense to have a single meal, just to try some comparisons. And there's no real central/south american. Poc Chuck is a consistant recommendation.

            6 Replies
            1. re: bbulkow

              I've been hearing complaints that Zuni has gone downhill (or sucked to start with) for over 20 years, but it's still the best restaurant in SF. I've been several times this year, including a blowout big-round-number celebratory meal in July:

              http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/5284...

              I guess from reports here that it's possible to have bad service, but I've encountered that only once, near the end of service, when an apparently new server mixed up my medium-rare burger with a friend's well-done. (Namu has since replaced Zuni as my favorite burger.) I also once sent back a dish of perfectly cooked risotto because it had no aroma of the white truffles for which they were charging an extra ten bucks.

              1. re: Robert Lauriston

                Allow me to be the proverbial turd in the punch bowl here. I've only been to Zuni twice, first a couple years ago and more recently a couple weeks ago. The first time around my daughter and I split the famous roast chicken. It was very good (though, ironically, not quite as good as a take-off on the recipe that a local Miami chef makes). Nothing else was incredibly memorable.

                My most recent visit was a disappointment.
                http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/6427...
                Tomatoes in the heirloom salad sliced so thin you'd need a micrometer to describe them; overcooked squab; tough steak (and, with credit to Woody Allen, the portion was too small); uninspired and monotonous ingredient pairings; and, as I noted in my other comments, a portion of our order AWOL.

                I love the Zuni Cafe cookbook - it is one of the most inspiring cookbooks I've ever had; I've found the restaurant itself not to be on the same level, which frankly really bums me out because it's a place I wished I was burning to go back to every time we visit SF.

              2. re: bbulkow

                Good point. There are quite a few Peruvian restaurants in the city. La Mar even has a great location with a view.

                1. re: Ruth Lafler

                  Don't worry, Ruth, I'll "Hound" twinkie if she doesn't post a report promptly this time -- I didn't know her two years ago but now, look out :-).

                  I just read that Larkin Express has now officially changed its name to Burmese Kitchen (which he was considering doing when we were last there) and is open for dinner all week but no hours posted. Anyone else have any intel on this very welcome expansion of service at my current favourite Burmese? Damn, I wish I had some of his tea leaf salad NOW.

                  1. re: grayelf

                    From their take-out menu (a treasured souvenir here in Burmese food-less land), I got earlier this month:

                    Monday 10:30AM-3:00PM
                    Tues to Sat 10:30AM-8:30PM
                    Closed Sundays

                    They even have happy hour but don't recall the "deal" or specific hours.

                    1. re: el_lobo_solo

                      Wicked, els, now if only they would unlock the edit function so we could update the Places link!

              3. I recently visited Zuni and had the standards there- burger, chicken, caesar salad, and espresso granita and all were as good as ever. I highly recommend Zuni if you've never been. I love Piperade, much better than it's sister Bocadillos, but a lot more expensive.
                Both SPQR and Flour and Water are terrific picks...I know SPQR doesn't take reservations though and not sure about F and W.
                However, I just went to Aziza a few days ago and it was only fair. Desserts were underwhelming and the signature plates of couscous and basteeya didn't live to their hypes.
                Ice cream wise, you can't go wrong with Humphry Slocombe or BiRite but the salted caramel at Birite is arguably the best flavor I've ever had, so I'd pick that and then go get bacon peanut brittle at Humphry!
                But if you're in Palo Alto, go get Rick's Ice Cream, the best ice cream I've ever had!!!

                1. Thanks for all the suggestions!

                  I'm definitely going to try to make it to Larkin Express, Poc Chuck, and La Ciccia, and definitely Humphry Slocombe (and Rick's when I'm in PA)! I'll look into Coi Lounge and La Mar. I think Camino might be a bit too far for us (I was hoping to stick to the Muni) but a quick glance at the website looks tempting.

                  We're going to try to catch the sunday afternoon baseball game at AT&T park. I'm thinking maybe lunch at the ferry building, then amble over to the stadium... although I'm not sure how early we should show up to buy tickets.

                  SPQR and Flour+Water seem similar - which would you recommend between the two?

                  Re: Chinese - there'll be a 10-course Chinese banquet meal for the rehearsal dinner that week (Flower Lounge in Millbrae). Maybe I should still try dim sum for comparison purposes... Yank Sing seems to be used often as a benchmark.

                  Also going to add Laiola and (especially) Toronado to my list after reading some more. They look interesting!

                  We were hoping to be pretty flexible with our itinerary... but are reservations a must for some of these places?

                  6 Replies
                  1. re: twinkienic

                    Reservations are a must for La Ciccia and Flour+Water. SPQR doesn't take them.

                    It's Poc-Chuc, not Chuck: http://www.chow.com/places/16830

                    1. re: Robert Lauriston

                      Definitely make reso's for Flour+Water if you can, but they do keep 1/2 the restaurant for walk-ins.

                      1. re: meggie t

                        Yeah, but you might have to wait an hour and a half for a table.

                        1. re: Robert Lauriston

                          Depending on the time of night, yes. But those willing to go on the early side shouldn't have to wait long, even though walk-ins arrive 20 minutes before the place opens to get seated. I went a week or so ago at around 6 pm, we waited 10 minutes and got two great spots at the bar. I also love the way the place feels before it's gets darker, nice and bright.

                    2. re: twinkienic

                      You're going to be horrified by the dim sum at Yank Sing if you're familiar with what is available in Vancouver. The only thing that's somewhat comparable to the great HK style Cantonese fare up there is Koi Palace, and even that's not consistent and has its fair share of problems. I personally would just stay away from Cantonese food altogether -- you'll just come out feeling like you wasted a meal.

                      From your list I would recommend: (1) Salt House - if you go for a lunch, try their tea smoked duck appetizer, which is done very well and similar to Shanghainese smoked items (2) La Ciccia - nice octopus stew, pastas are good (3) Perbacco (4) SPQR (5) F+W and (6) Quince.

                      You might also want to look into the special 3-course lunch menu at Absinthe.

                      1. re: twinkienic

                        Ferry Building: go to Il Cane Rosso for lunch and Recchiutti for dessert.

                      2. Sorry I didn't see this thread until now. You've really done your homework! I *love* NOPA. See if you can sit upstairs where it is a little less noisy.

                        From your list of potentials, my favorites are Perbacco and Laiola. Perbacco, Like Delfina, it isn't totally unique to SF in that it is more of a generic N. Italian, but it is SO good, and the house-cured salumis are insane! Also, massive portions of fresh wild mushrooms (chanterelles and porcini) at very reasonable prices. As a lover of rediculously well priced rare Italian wines, it has my favorite wine list in the city.

                        Laiola is almost all small plates now. I've just had some incredible meals there. Intimate and VERY casual. Assume at least 3 small plates per person if you are real foodies and hungry. The house drinks are cool. This is, just FYI a 'going out' type place... while very casual but good service, many people go here to mingle.

                        I am a big fan of Piperade but they always seem to screw *something* up. Either the "seared" Ahi comes out medium-rare or the main courses come out fifteen minutes after the appetizers, or...or... but the food is so good, I keep going back, anyway. (They always apologize and make things right, too.) La Ciccia is very good and the owners are really nice. Quince is a bit more expensive, but very good food. I really like Aziza and it is pretty unique. There is sort of a "cult of Aziza" group here that absolutely LOVES it. I'm not one of those, but I like it.

                        I would skip zuni. Similar menu to NOPA and I think the food is better at NOPA.