Feature

14 San Francisco Restaurants That Should Be Getting More Love

By Trevor Felch  |  March 21, 2016
Credit: Virginia Miller

In San Francisco, the combination of one-after-another restaurant openings and an established stable of stalwarts make it easy for excellent restaurants to fall off the radar of even the most educated diners. It's too bad, but that's the reality with such competition. We're here to remind you about some young San Francisco restaurants that deserve your attention, from what might be the city's most exciting Thai menu to a far-from-formulaic "hotel restaurant," plus a major restaurant neighborhood that is a national park.

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  • Aster

    Brett Cooper accomplished the impossible as chef at Outerlands: convincing diners to travel to the far reaches of the Outer Sunset and wait without reservations in the coastal cold. Now he's in the Mission, and his solo debut is exhilarating for its creative, seasonal cooking without gimmicks, items like a bowl of sprouted and puffed grains with dates, vadouvan and yogurt that is anything but boring hippie cuisine. The smart menu format means diners can pick any dish from four à la carte categories for a choose-your-own $59 prix fixe dinner. It’s a mystery why Aster isn’t one of the city's most coveted reservations.

    Must-Order: Soft-cooked egg with salmon roe, crispy potato and bacon vinaigrette; any seasonal salad composition

    1001 Guerrero St.; 415-875-9810

  • Credit: Virginia Miller

    The Presidio

    With four distinct restaurants opened within the past two years, the Presidio is trying very hard to be more than just a former military post turned national park with museums and nature trails. These restaurants would be packed nightly if they were in the Mission or Hayes Valley. Traci des Jardins' duo of Mexican-Californian restaurant Arguello and Spanish-Californian concept The Commissary leads the way. Both serve terrific cocktails and un-fussy, hearty-with-an-edge food (don’t pass up the carnitas sopes at Arguello and the city’s best-by-a-landslide version of patatas bravas at The Commissary). On the Marina side of the Presidio, enjoy Presidio Social Club's seasonally driven comfort cuisine for weekend brunch or dinner, and the spacious Sessions' noteworthy beer selection and California cuisine with many ingredients sourced from George Lucas' Skywalker Ranch. Yes, this quartet is isolated but worth the trip (a big perk: parking is free at dinner).

    Must-Order: Arguello: carnitas sopes; The Commissary: patatas bravas; Presidio Social Club: PSC hamburger; Sessions: buttermilk-fried quail

    Arguello: 50 Moraga Ave.; 415-561-3650
    The Commissary: 101 Montgomery St.; 415-561-3600
    Presidio Social Club: 563 Ruger St.; 415-885-1888
    Sessions: 1 Letterman Dr. #150; 415-655-9413

  • Fine & Rare

    Surrounded by water on three sides, San Francisco has surprisingly few seafood-centric spots. In part of the old Stars venue near Civic Center, one such spot only serves lunch, but it’s hard to beat the smoked trout and goat cream cheese sandwich or salad, livened up with celery root, fennel and grapefruit. Lunch jumps beyond the sea too — don’t miss the Kansas City barbecue brisket sandwich on bread baked in-house. Another part of Fine & Rare that deserves love: the numerous special wine dinners, and monthly Seafood Stories dinners focused on sustainable seafood supply chains.

    Must-Order: Smoked trout sandwich; mushroom cheese "steak" sandwich

    5500 Golden Gate Ave.; 415-521-1442

  • Credit: Virginia Miller

    Lord Stanley

    In an area known as San Francisco’s fraternity row, Lord Stanley is the exact opposite with its muted gray-and-white-hued serenity. Husband-and-wife team Rupert and Carrie Blease, a pair of English expats, create some of the purest, most thoughtful California cuisine around. The restaurant has a quirky character traits, but in good ways: there's a biodynamic wine list and the unconventional serving plates and bowls are elegant and abstract. After a bite of the house-baked bread, diners learn that it's the food that does the talking. Chicken-liver parfait profiteroles set the scene for hit after hit, like cured black cod and cauliflower purée, which becomes a sort-of fish dip, scooped up with a dark-as-night black olive supper roll.

    Must-Order: Sweet potato with fresh curds and yellowfoot mushrooms; chocolate ganache dessert

    2065 Polk St.; 415-872-5512

  • Credit: Virginia Miller

    Montesacro Pinseria-Enoteca

    What’s the difference between a pizza and a pinsa? Well, a pinsa is a stretched-out concave oval flatbread, first given a 72-hour rise, then cooked at a blistering temperature for about 90 seconds in an electric Cuppone oven. Montesacro says pinsas came from ancient Rome and inspired pizza, which in turn has taken on countless variations. The SoMa restaurant also claims to be the only pinseria in the country. Maybe it’s the pinsa label that makes pizza lovers hesitant to rave about it, but whether covered with the spicy pork spread nduja or the eyebrow-raising duo of fish sauce and kale, pinsas are as rewarding as any of our pizza-crazy city’s best “pizzas.”

    Must-Order: Garbatella pinsa; housemade porchetta antipasti

    510 Stevenson St.; 415-795-3040

  • Farmhouse Kitchen

    Farmhouse Kitchen is in the same red-hot dining corner of the Mission as Trick Dog and Flour + Water, but unlike at those wildly popular neighbors, diners still don't realize that Farmhouse Kitchen’s extensive menu of street-food and countryside dishes provides one of the city's leading Thai experiences — in decidedly more pleasant surroundings than its competition too. Cool the burn of a deftly spiced tom yum soup with a Vermont apple cider or pair a Willamette Valley Pinot Noir with a slow-braised short rib in panang curry with blue-stained rice that gets its color from a flower imported from Thailand.

    Must-Order: Mok salmon; neua num tok rolls

    710 Florida St.; 415-814-2920

  • MKT Restaurant and Bar

    Yes, it's a restaurant and lounge in a luxury hotel, but get past that label to sample MKT chef Alexander La Motte's creations, like a vibrant lobster and heart of palm ceviche and pristine wild sea bass in a smoked sunchoke and clam nage. Hotel-generic food and drinks? Hardly. This is the Four Seasons, but it’s not an exclusive suit and tie expense account, grand piano music place like its predecessor. Just consider the riveting Smokin’ Negroni made with mezcal that combines all the hip cocktail trends in San Francisco at this moment: smoky, bitter and a sleek riff on a classic. MKT is just like that — a bold shift from old to new.

    Must-Order: Duck with sour cherry mustard foie gras jus; lobster ceviche

    757 Market St.; 415-633-3838

  • Precita Park Cafe

    Rachel Herbert and Dana Oppenheim's Dolores Park Cafe and Duboce Park Cafe reflect the sunlight hours and casual feel of a day at the park. The newest addition to the group is similar by day, but changes it up later with full-service dinner. Charlie Palmer Group alum Richie Wilim runs Precita Park Cafe's kitchen, serving a concise Italian-tinged menu with king snapper and citrus mascarpone on beluga lentils and making his own pastas and burrata. Out of San Francisco’s abundance of parks, barely anyone knows quaint Precita Park (it’s in Bernal Heights and has a butterfly garden!), and even fewer residents know the park has a nearby restaurant deserving a visit after the sun sets.

    Must-Order: Confit seppia with snail butter; braised pork and Swiss chard gnudi

    500 Precita Ave.; 415-647-7702

  • The Keystone

    Formerly the venerable Annabelle, the Moser Hotel's restaurant and bar across from Moscone Center was reborn as The Keystone in summer 2015. The equal emphasis on drinks and eats in the brick-heavy rustic atmosphere defines what a modern California tavern should be. Chef Banks White effortlessly blends comfort with a global touch in a duck confit main course atop Chinese pork sausage fried rice and huckleberry-hoisin sauce. Drinks are playful, whether it's the Porcini Negroni (not as bizarre as it sounds) or the Thai-spiced Muay Thai margarita with pineapple gum syrup. With election season upon us, order a cocktail from the current #VoteWithYourThroat section. Sanders, Clinton and Trump are all winners, drinks-wise at least.

    Must-Order: Cocktails; confit duck leg; collard green lumpias

    68 Fourth St.; 415-777-1200

  • Credit: Franklin James Clary

    Huxley

    Two storylines dominated Huxley's rookie year: its status as a rare destination-worthy restaurant on the Tenderloin fringes and the departure of its delicious avocado-uni toast. Earlier this year (before being named a James Beard Awards semifinalist), chef Sara Hauman left to help open Mister Jiu’s, and the avocado-uni toast went with her. Fortunately, the 25-seat spot still packs a mighty punch with Manfred Wrembel now in charge. His beef tartare gets tossed with a juniper smoked egg yolk for a delightful forest-evoking jolt. The messy Hux Deluxe burger needs to be in the running for one of the city's best elite burgers. Pro tip: sit at the counter and watch the two chefs busy at work. It's remarkable how such a diminutive kitchen produces such a high-caliber menu.

    Must-Order: Beef tartare; Mt. Lassen trout with seeds, sprouts, spinach and sunchokes

    846 Geary St.; 415-800-8223

  • Credit: Kevin McCullough

    Mina Test Kitchen

    We’re being creative with this last selection. Just because Michael Mina's experimental project in the Marina is a series of roughly three month-long pop-ups in the same venue, rather than a traditional restaurant format, doesn’t mean the Mina Test Kitchen can't be treated like one of the city’s top restaurants. First came the Middle Eastern–Mediterranean mix of Middle’terranea, then Little Italy. Now on stage is The Company, which for the moment is the most thrilling Indian restaurant in the city. Each of these pop-ups might one day be its own fulltime establishment in Mina's constantly growing group. You never know. We’re the city of start-ups and entrepreneurial incubators letting the start-ups grow. If this were our board room, we would say "yes" to each of the Mina Test Kitchen pitches so far. We can’t wait for what is next.

    Must-Order: Spiced crab salad with mustard-lime aïoli; Kakori chicken kebabs

    2120 Greenwich St.; 415-625-5469