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San Francisco Can't Miss Dining

So, I am travelling from NYC to San Francisco later this year and I basically have two nights of dining in the city.

For one of the meals, I am looking for a unique tasting menu experience. The restaurants I am looking at include Benu, Coi, Manresa, Saison, La Folie and Gary Danko. I don't need the meal to be a traditional white table cloth experience, I just want to experience something new, unique, and most importantly delicious. What would you advise?

For the other meal, I want something less high-end. A more fun place to eat. I have dined at Nopa and was slightly disappointed. I am looking at places like Flour + Water, Kokkari Estiatorio, and Sons & Daughters. I want something different from what I would experience in New York. I am purposefully leaving it vague as I don't want to limit the suggestions.

Thank you for the help!

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  1. I think Saison is the most unique place at the high end. Definitely a long way from the traditional white-tablecloth Michelin style.

    I'd suggest La Ciccia, Incanto, or Cotogna rather than Flour + Water.

    1. Of the high-end places, Benu, Coi, Manresa, and Saison are all unique in their own ways. Much as I love La Folie, I don't think that it's particularly unique or that it makes a huge effort to be so. More of a focus on well-executed food than experimental stuff. Gary Danko is pretty generic high-end dining and, while competent, doesn't feel unique at all. You can probably get Russian caviar and Maine lobster in NYC.

      1. Put Atelier Crenn on your list.

        I don't see any reason for a NYer to bother with Greek food in San Francisco.

        1. for a unique tasting menu experience, Saison without a doubt. Manresa is about an hour from the city, and it's incredible as well, but my money goes towards Saison. both Manresa and Saison are far and away leagues above La Folie or Gary Danko, Acquerello, Fleur de Lys, etc.. Saison is my personal favorite for several reasons. i appreciate the cooking approach of every dish involving the hearth. it delivers perhaps the most delicious food in California, and the ingredient pairings are smart and not overwrought. perhaps the best way i can describe the food is that it seems like you're tasting the maximal expression of an ingredient, either distilled or amplified. flavors are incredibly complex and nuanced, without feeling heavy. anyway, i don't mean to be dismissive of the others you listed, they all have something to offer and you can have a great meal there, but personally i think Saison is the place to go to.

          for a more casual experience, Flour + Water has a cool vibe but there's mixed reviews on the food. it's next to impossible to get in, but while i enjoyed it generally, friends didn't quite love it, and we agreed that it's not quite worth the hassle to get a seat. Kokkari is solid Greek food and a good option (some delicious grilled octopus and lamb chops), but perhaps not quite "fun" or unique as you may be looking for? i think you can find something like that in NYC. Sons & Daughters clocks in at about $150pp after all said and done, w/o alcohol, so it's not exactly that cheap.

          Consider La Ciccia for a cozy neighborhood Sardinian joint. I adore Cotogna but not quite sure it's as unique as you'd like, though it's a very solid option with delicious food in a casual setting. Rich Table may be a good option, yes it's hard to get in as well, but it feels very "SF" if that's what you're looking for. All of these are casual but have solid food. Because you mentioned Sons & Daughters, you might want to look into Commonwealth as well. Very casual spot but good and inventive food, very cool space and i like their operation overall, feels very laid back but you can have a good meal there with friends (or solo).

          5 Replies
          1. re: kyee87

            The food at Flour + Water is great, but similar to and no better than at Cotogna, which is easier to get into. F+W feels more like a bar with food than a restaurant, kind of like Spotted Pig.

            1. re: Robert Lauriston

              good point, Cotogna's a great option. and the $10/glass, $40/bottle wine menu is a nice touch!

              1. re: kyee87

                Thank you everyone for the responses! Looks like already the consensus is for Saison. At Saison, is there still a chef's counter and if yes... is it worth it?

                On the more casual side, Son's & Daughter probably not my best bet. La Ciccia and Contogna both sound excellent. Also wanted to add State Bird Provisions as a place under consideration.

                  1. re: Rizzobert

                    I would think of Sons & Daughters as an alternative for your high end meal. While I prefer both Coi and Sons & Daughters to Saison's previous incarnation, it's hard to argue against Saison as the most distinctive choice. Given your limited time I can't see making the drive down to Manresa, but if you were staying in Silicon Valley that would be a different story.

                    La Ciccia would be my first choice for the more casual meal. I would recommend Nopalito for Mexican, but you didn't like Nopa that much and there's common parentage. You might also want to consider Zuni, which is a quintessential San Francisco place both in food and atmosphere. I second Ruth's comment that there's no need for you to try Greek or Cal/Greek food here coming from New York. Enjoy!

                    Michael

            2. I'd recommend aziza unless you already have a new Moroccan place in NYC that's does tasting menus and for your more casual, state bird provisions.

              1. What about going for mexican? That's something hard to find in nyc.....

                1. Don't bother with Gary Danko, and Kokkari.

                  Look into Rich Table, or possible State Bird Provisions for second tier(less fine dining) but different. Both are Coi alumn projects. Sons & Daughters doesn't really fit for a fun place to eat, but the approach is "something different".

                  Saison fits. Don't expect a magician with an egg cream at the end of the night though.

                  Altelier Crenn is a newer trade off from Coi to consider. Both play with sensory (in different ways) and get ridiculous,

                  Because you mentioned Flour & Water, you're going to get a lot of alternative suggestions for La Ciccia. It's the most over hyped neighborhood restaurant around and doesn't fit your request at all. I'm not sure what about Flour & Water seemed different, but you can consider Central Kitchen/Salumeria and then after meal drinks at Trick Dog with marginally inventive bar snacks.

                  23 Replies
                  1. re: sugartoof

                    Thanks Sugartoof. Very helpful.

                    I think I am pretty much set on Saison. In my initial message, I think I focused too much on different. More, I am looking for the can't miss meals in San Francisco. Things that are also uniquely San Francisco would be an added benefit. I am not looking for different or unique for the sake of being different.

                    In simpler terms, if you could only have one high-end meal and one other restaurant meal in San Francisco, what would they be? Sounds a little grim when I put it that way... but hopefully you get the gist. Thanks!

                    1. re: Rizzobert

                      La Ciccia's the first place I would recommend to someone with time for only a couple of meals and no special requests.

                      http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/782552

                      sugartoof is free to dismiss it as a neighborhood restaurant, but there's really nowhere else like it.

                      1. re: Rizzobert

                        Unique to San Francisco would get you very different suggestions. I think I get why you were unimpressed with Nopa, but I will say, it's probably one of the safest suggestions, most here will agree upon. You probably are looking for a Rich Table, State Bird, Frances, chef driven kind of place has some West Coast eccentricity to it. Not on the same level in any way, but for experience alone, check Outerlands.

                        I can't think of a NY equivalent to Saison but when you get into the high end, things do tend to get more outer space than San Francisco, unless a bowl of peas or some local ingredient with some foam on top is enough to feel San Francisco. With that, you get our most over the top dining experience (or a top 3). That said, there are places that probably represent SF better in the same way Stone Barns represents NY better than something like Per Se or Ko.

                        As for La Ciccia, I'm not saying you wouldn't enjoy it - but it doesn't fit your request, and you can find the equivalent rustic Sardinian dishes all through NY without all the fanfare.

                        1. re: sugartoof

                          Where in NY do you get pasta with shaved tuna heart? The only reference I find to it on the NY TImes' web site is in an article by Mark Bittman, who had eaten at La Ciccia three times:

                          http://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/30/tra...

                          I guess Il Buco makes a similar spaghettti with bottarga.

                          1. re: Robert Lauriston

                            I think you answered your own question.
                            The place you named is far superior to La Ciccia.

                            Also, you named one dish, which perhaps you think defines La Ciccia, but doesn't entirely define Sardinian cooking. It's a dish I suspect La Ciccia initially included because people like yourself were gushing about it over at Incanto. When you google the phrase "Shaved tuna heart", most of what comes up is related to Incanto.

                            Bottarga, which is what La Ciccia calls it on their own menu, and maybe Mosciame are the terms you should have been searching for.

                            1. re: sugartoof

                              Cured tuna heart ("cori de tonnu" in Sardo) is a Sicilian specialty. So is the kind of bottarga ("bottariga" in Sardo) that they use at La Ciccia. Most places use the Sicilian kind.

                              Mosciame is cured tuna loin.

                              I doubt Mark Bittman would have eaten at La Ciccia three visits to SF in a row if he thought he could get the same dishes done as well or better in NY.

                              1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                That's a huge conclusion to jump to, in an argument that's pretty pointless.

                                Bittman's not Pete Wells, and he's also calls Delfina "sensational", so let's keep some perspective here.

                                1. re: sugartoof

                                  Note ,to Mark Bittman via Facebook.
                                  Dear Mr. Bittman,
                                  Could you explain why you ate at La Ciccia three visits to SF in a row if you could get the same dishes done as well or better in NY? Inquiring SF Chowhound minds want to know.
                                  Thank you
                                  A interested bystander

                                  1. re: wolfe

                                    San Franciscans needing validation of a NY food writer undermines things, doesn't it? Pretty trivial and OT anyway.

                                    1. re: sugartoof

                                      +1 on that!

                                      Doesn't incanto have shaved tuna heart on the menu most days? except Incanto has blood-based pasta? Isn't tuna heart "over" yet?

                                      Seriously, the OP got a set of recommendations they are happy with. Nuff said.

                                      1. re: bbulkow

                                        Yo BB and S. All I was trying to do was validate RL's statement.
                                        "I doubt Mark Bittman would have eaten at La Ciccia three visits to SF in a row if he thought he could get the same dishes done as well or better in NY."
                                        http://static.guim.co.uk/sys-images/G...

                                        1. re: bbulkow

                                          If we're going to declare delicious ingredients "over," can we start with chocolate?

                                          Pasta with shaved cured tuna heart is something I want to eat every once in a while. It's a unique flavor. Chris Cosentino has served blood pasta, but his usual tuna heart dish is made with regular vegetarian spaghettini.

                                          1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                            Fair enough. It seems like the two of the places in SF you have consistently championed the most happen to serve shaved tuna of some sort. They're also in walking distance from one another.

                            2. re: sugartoof

                              For the lower end meal, I read OP's request as asking for fun experiences he/she wouldn't get in NYC, not necessarily dishes unique to San Francisco. I am no NYC expert but I'd say yes, that definitely means no Greek but it could include La Ciccia, for the entire experience including the delicious food, all-Italian wine list, and incredibly warm welcome, in, yes, a neighborhood restaurant, but then, San Francisco is all about neighborhoods (though I suppose the same thing could be said about NYC). It really is not just for the bottarga and to argue about the origin of any one dish at La Ciccia, or who dined there when, misses the point, in my opinion. (in any case, my favorite dish on the La Ciccia menu is the uni pasta, not the bottarga).

                              If there were a truly great Mexican or Mex-Cal restaurant in the City, I'd say that would be a good suggestion as well, but there isn't one I'd recommend. Haven't seen much on CH about (and I haven't tried) La Urbana but it might be an interesting option if the OP wants to try something new.

                              It has been several years since my last visit to Aziza but I did take a Manhattan resident who does a lot of dining out there perhaps six years ago, and he loved it and did comment that it was something he couldn't get in NYC, fwiw.

                              All that said, the obvious 'SF dish you won't get in NYC' late in the year that no one has mentioned is to go anywhere that serves dungeness crab and order it. Plenty of options for both what I consider the 'California' prep (boiled, steamed or baked and served with garlic and butter), and many different Asian preps. You won't get it in NYC and IMHO you shouldn't miss it. Keep your eyes on the board, the best places to get it this year should start in 3-2-1 (assuming the season opens Friday 11/15 as scheduled).....This oldish thread could start some discussion: http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/824804

                              1. re: susancinsf

                                I agree, reducing La Ciccia down to one dish does it a disservice. The initial claim was that you couldn't get that dish in NY, but it's appeared on menus for Batali, and Blue Hill, and small rustic places that make all their own pastas like Il Buco.

                                Whatever reasonings you have for "no Greek" would apply here too. There's nothing about the La Ciccia experience that you can't duplicate in NY.

                                Mind you, there are plenty of New Yorkers who will love experiences at La Cicccia, or that enjoyed Aziza in the past. Don't mistake that for a validation of uniqueness. It really depends on their culinary literacy or where they've been in NY, and even then, if a meal hits the spot, it can feel special and unique.

                                1. re: sugartoof

                                  actually my 'no greek' recommendation was based primarily on the fact that there isn't any really good greek food in SF IMHO (and I am *not* a Kokkari fan).

                                2. re: susancinsf

                                  Also...
                                  "yes, a neighborhood restaurant, but then, San Francisco is all about neighborhoods"

                                  Huh? I wasn't pointing out that it's in a neighborhood, I was attempting to create more realistic expectations for the quality of food they serve.

                                  I'm saying La Ciccia doesn't deserve the hype. Nothing about it warrants national attention. Someone needed to say it.

                                  1. re: sugartoof

                                    'I wasn't pointing out that it's in a neighborhood, I was attempting to create more realistic expectations for the quality of food they serve. '

                                    and my point was simply that whether or not it is a neighborhood restaurant does not have a direct bearing on whether it is what the OP is looking for, nor is being a 'neighborhood' restaurant in any way an indication that food deliciousness is less. Just IMHO of course, your mileage may vary.

                                    and p.s. I am not sure the OP is looking for something on a national scale.

                                    1. re: susancinsf

                                      " nor is being a 'neighborhood' restaurant in any way an indication that food deliciousness is less."

                                      It was in the way I intended it. I was clearly being dismissive, and saying it's fine for locals, but not worthy of the accolades. I don't think it's destination worthy at all, but acknowledge most have enjoyed their meals.

                                      SF has better to offer, and frankly, it's reached the status where no matter what the suggestion, people default to naming La Ciccia even when it does not apply.

                                  2. re: susancinsf

                                    I would only do crab after the season opens (ie, soon), and, generally, the seafood in NYC is so much better than in SF that you'd want to do dish-by-dish as you've said.

                                    Re: Aziza, there have been a lot of reports of changes and less satisfying meals in the last few years. Much less of the original influences. I can't comment because I wasn't there before and since (still on the short list, but the neighborhood isn't one in any of my usual flight paths).

                                    1. re: bbulkow

                                      yes, my recommendation was for Dungeness specifically, not for seafood generally.

                                      1. re: susancinsf

                                        You can actually get Dungeness in NY.

                                        A traditional Crab Louie is probably more difficult to find, but frankly, the Dungeness Crab flavors, much like sourdough, are tastes that takes some effort to find proper versions of in SF. Anchor Oyster Bar and Swan's are pretty much it for reliable options.

                                        1. re: susancinsf

                                          Just to chime in here:

                                          La Ciccia is certainly enjoyable, but I agree that it may not be a "can't miss" for someone from NYC. For someone from Phoenix? Yes. I feel in NYC you can get similar quality.

                                          Aziza - quality has gone done. Uniqueness of dishes is lower than the past (~2012, imo), but cocktails are still enjoyable!

                                          Dungeness - a NYC friend of mine is coming to visit over Thanksgiving and we have a dungeness crawl planned :) The freshness and quality are a huge draw for her.