To find under-the-radar gems, head out to the neighborhoods. Often run by husband and wife teams, these noteworthy spots are just off the beaten path. But they are definitely not just for insiders only. Try one out on your travels to the Bay Area to dine like a local in San Francisco.
Noe Valley is known for many things—it’s where Mark Zuckerberg resides (along with the church that was featured in Sister Act)—but it’s not typically a dining destination. However, there are a couple of places that are destination-worthy including Contigo. Opened by a chef with a passion for Barcelona and his wife who runs the front of the house, the menu offers both tapas and larger raciones both cold and hot. Staple items since day one include wood oven-roasted Half Moon Bay sardines with avocado toast served with pickled red onions and smoked salt and Catalan coca flatbreads with seasonal toppings. A must-order dish is the Monterey chipirones (squid) a la Plancha with arroz negro, chorizo, squid ink, and aioli. Make a reservation at Contigo.
Spaghetti Brothers is off the main drag of the Marina and practically on the edge of the Presidio. True to its name, the spaghetti with uni could make an Italian diner weep tears of joy. The restaurant’s dark interior, strong drinks, and retro specialties, such as toasted ravioli served with marinara, garlic bread, and a chopped salad with feta, sharp cheddar, and salami give it an old school Italian-American vibe. In a word, it’s fun. Don’t miss the lively happy hours and the popular brunch, which is served until 4PM on Sundays. Make a reservation at Spaghetti Brothers.
Chef Kris Toliao is a rising star to be sure. His skills were honed working for Dominique Crenn and at a 2 Michelin star kaiseki restaurant in Tokyo. His wife, Yuka Loroi, smoothly oversees both the front of the house and the beverage program. The reasonably priced wines, beers, and sakes perfectly complement Toliao’s imaginative cuisine. Dishes include the creative use of grains, housemade pickles, cured salts, and jams. Locally sourced fish is a specialty often combined with seasonal ingredients in dishes like Seared Catalina Island Yellowtail with summer corn, olive oil-poached carrots, summer kale kimchee, and bacon black rice. Even simple salads are elevated to something special, such as the Sonoma Little Gem, Green Beans & Strawberry Salad with Armenian cucumbers, dried blueberries, herbed crème frâiche, crispy brown rice, and almonds. Make a reservation at Cassava.
1601 Bar & Kitchen
Another restaurant owned by a husband and wife team, 1601 Bar & Kitchen serves food from chef Brian Fernando that is a fusion of Sri Lankan and California flavors — and positively compelling. In fact, you can’t go wrong with a single dish on the menu. There are two choices for dining — a tasting menu or small plates. And the small plates are very well portioned for sharing. A few of the dishes on the tasting menu, such as the street food favorite egg hopper, are available as a small plate as well. It’s a lacy rice flour and coconut milk crisp crepe, topped with an egg and served with sambals. It’s in a decidedly odd location South of Market but still well worth seeking out. Though the house-smoked salmon and bavette steak are incredible, the vegetarian dishes, including a kale salad with coconut, Parmesan, and black garlic vinaigrette and the crispy okra with cashews, are equally satisfying. Make a reservation at 1601 Bar & Kitchen.
1760 is on a stretch of Polk Street more known for late night drinking than eating, and yet it’s fitting that it’s the perfect spot to indulge in a post-work drink or a leisurely brunch on the weekends. The current chef adds welcome Filipino touches to the menu. On the menu, you’ll find Crab Fat Congee with crispy pork, a soft-cooked egg, and heirloom tomato, and on the dinner menu Pork Sisig with sieved egg, kohlrabi, and ginger aioli. These dishes are so tasty it, will make you wonder why Filipino food has yet to take the country by storm! Make a reservation at 1760.
On the other side of Noe Valley is La Ciccia, San Francisco’s only Sardinian restaurant. Husband and wife owners Massimiliano Conti and Lorella Degan offer a large wine list and unique dishes you probably haven’t tried before, such as fregola with tomato, sea urchin, and smoked pancetta and the Sardinian paper-thin and crisp bread Pani Guttiau baked with extra virgin olive oil and Pecorino. In addition to pasta, seafood and lamb are both specialties. It’s a warm, friendly neighborhood spot, but worth a detour even if it’s nowhere near your neighborhood. Make a reservation at La Ciccia.
This energetic spot is set back from Market Street and just beyond the theaters in Hayes Valley, but it’s probably the best place for those seeking authentic Brazilian food and sunny Brazilian hospitality. You’ll find the classics here, such as the seafood stew moqueca, the black bean dish feijoada, and Camarão na Moranga, an offering composed of shrimp and red and yellow bell peppers cooked in a tomato base with fresh herbs and served in a whole pumpkin. Prices are very reasonable, and there is live music and as well as plenty of tropical cocktails. It may be somewhat off the beaten path, but it’s got everything going for it. Make a reservation at Minas.
With a Michelin star, you might expect Nico Restaurant would be packed every night, but thanks to a neighborhood location in Pacific Heights, it has an almost insider feel. The French cuisine is decidedly modern and always looks as stunning as it tastes and is a favorite spot for those in the restaurant industry as a result. The five-course tasting menu changes daily and features the freshest seasonal produce. Often seafood or meat is combined with not just vegetables but fruit and herbs in unique ways. Past dishes include a sunchoke puree topped with yellow foot mushrooms and bottarga and pork loin served with turnips cooked in butter, orange, and onion jus. It’s a perfectly cozy spot for an intimate celebration or upscale date night. Make a reservation at Nico.
While Traci des Jardins’ taqueria in the Ferry Building is often overflowing, Arguello remains a deliciously hidden spot in the Presidio. With a large patio and inviting bar, it’s a prime spot for taking a break from hiking or exploring the main post. But it’s the fresh and scrumptious Mexican food that will have you returning again and again. Brunch offers some particularly tempting options, including polenta with housemade chorizo, tomato salsa, rajas, and a poached egg in addition to excellent renditions of huevos rancheros and chilaquiles. Service is friendly, prices are reasonable, and there’s plenty of parking. Make a reservation at Arguello.
Perhaps Press Club isn’t under the radar, but it is underground. Set in a swank cavernous space just off Market Street, it’s broken up into areas to fit any size group from a cozy twosome to parties of up to 40. It’s convenient to both those South of Market as well as downtown and right near a BART stop. Sommelier and beverage director Mauro Cirilli offers an impressive list of off-the-beaten-path wines. Flights and sparkling wines are particularly fun to try here. He also teaches equally entertaining and educational “Taste Wine Like a Pro” classes. Along with the wines is a seasonally changing menu of nibbles supplied by Taste Catering. The food is specifically designed to go with the wines so you really can’t go wrong, whether you’re stopping by for a drink after work or want somewhere to spend the better part of an evening. Make a reservation at Press Club.
Amy Sherman is a San Francisco-based writer, editor, blogger, and cookbook author. She is the publisher of the food blog Cooking with Amy. She currently contributes to numerous online publications including Food Network, Fodor’s and Refinery 29 and never says no to a warm donut. Follow her @cookingwithamy.
Photo credits: Chloe List (Spaghetti Bros.); Albert Law (Cassava).