Now Playing

The Undersung 50

The restaurants, bars, and food-industry players that rock our world—and would rock yours too if only someone would tell you about them.

 

San Francisco’s burgeoning inventory of so-called hot restaurants isn’t lacking for attention: When Bon Appétit isn’t busy declaring the city the best food destination in the country, the James Beard Foundation, Michelin, and various national media outlets are happy to step in and add to the adulation. That’s all well and good, but the Bay Area contains a whole galaxy of establishments—and food companies and chefs—that don’t get nearly enough recognition. Trying to rectify that situation is a complicated and inherently contentious task: One person’s favorite under-the-radar restaurant is another’s underwhelming snooze. And, frankly, what ego-driven restaurateur doesn’t feel perpetually underappreciated? That said, we asked around and ate around, and came up with a list of 50 people, places, and things eminently deserving of your recognition. Needless to say, it could have easily grown to 500.

1. Boulibar (for dinner)
This restaurant alone is reason enough to consider the Ferry Building an after-dark destination. Amaryll Schwertner and Lori Regis’s sequel to Boulettes Larder serves the same seasonal Cal-Med cooking as its older sibling but (unlike Boulettes) also offers a dinner menu. It’s stocked with beautifully executed, wildly comforting dishes, like a rich pork-and-hen ragù with meltingly tender braised greens. 1 Ferry Building (at Embarcadero), 415-399-1155

2. Rancho Gordo tortillas
Rancho Gordo’s beans have earned justifiable acclaim—and overshadowed the accomplishments of its heirloom-corn tortillas. They’re pliant, flavorful, and so good that you’ll want to eat them hot and unadorned. You can find them at Rancho Gordo’s Ferry Building shop. 1 Ferry Building (at Embarcadero), 415-576-1279

3. House of Xian Dumpling
Yes, it’s a little rough around the edges, but when the braised-beef noodle soup is this good, you focus on the positive. And there’s plenty to like about this typically half-occupied hole-in-the-wall, from that spicy, soul-warming noodle soup to the brisk but friendly waitstaff who ferry it to your table. It may not win over health inspectors, but it’s got us hooked. 925 Kearny St. (near Columbus Ave.), 415-398-1626

4. Red Dog
Il Cane Rosso owner Lauren Kiino’s first full-service restaurant has a menu of generously portioned, exuberantly flavored New American grub: The $24 roasted half chicken, served with walnut-bread salad, deserves a place in the poultry canon alongside Zuni’s. Red Dog is located in a weird, chilly no-man’s-land stretch of SoMa, but if you brave the tumbleweeds, you’ll be warmly and richly rewarded. 303 2nd St. (near Harrison St.), 415-692-0211

5. Il Pollaio
The decor isn’t fancy, and the menu isn’t particularly inventive, but what matters here is the roasted half chicken, which is beautifully charred, succulent, and at $10 a total bargain. You can get it with a salad or very delectable fries, and amiable servers will deliver it to you. Really, what more could you want? 555 Columbus Ave. (near Union St.), 415-362-7727

6. Sam’s Burger
As legend has it, Sam’s became the first short-order burger joint in North Beach when it opened in 1966. Fifty years later, it’s still the best, with affable owner Mike Shawa cooking up patties that satisfy both physical hunger and a deeper craving for a part of San Francisco that is unchanging and good. 618 Broadway (near Columbus Ave.), 415-391-1539

7. Darwin Cafe
Yes, it’s known for its perpetual lunch lines and magnificent sandwiches, but some would argue that the real magic happens at dinner, when this wee SoMa spot serves a menu of killer seasonal small plates. There’s charcuterie and albacore tuna served with blood orange aioli and, happily, the renowned kale and prosciutto salad. Perhaps best of all, there are no endless lines. 212 Ritch St. (near Bryant St.), 415-800-8668

8. Split Pea Seduction
A spectacularly seedy block in SoMa wouldn’t seem the likeliest location for wholesome salads, excellent sandwiches (a shoutout to the $9 pulled pork), and split pea soup that is as alluring as advertised. But that’s exactly what you’ll find at this little take-out spot. With its Kermit-green walls, it’s a welcome oasis of substance and style. 138 6th St. (at Minna St.), 415-551-222 

9. Tuyet Mai
At this wee family-run Tenderloin Vietnamese restaurant, the $9 bun bo Hue (Hue-style beef noodle soup) doesn’t skimp on the beef or the noodles, much less on the lemongrass, shrimp paste, and rich stock that give it such glorious depth and complexity. The imperial rolls are also good, and the atmosphere is plain but homey. 547 Hyde St. (near Geary St.), 415-931-4899

10. Pinecrest Diner
Pinecrest is one of San Francisco’s very few remaining old-school 24-hour diners, and one of even fewer serving truly remarkable omelets. Big, fat, fluffy, and stuffed to the point of near obscenity, they are meals unto themselves, particularly when eaten with a side of crunchy, enjoyably greasy hash browns. 401 Geary St. (at Mason St.), 415-885-6407

11. Pasta Gina
True to this diminutive noe valley shop’s name, the biggest draw here is the fresh pasta, or rather the many varieties of it. The four types of lasagna alone merit a trip, as does the lemon pappardelle. Owner Gina Ginsberg also sells sauces, cannoli, and pretty much everything else one could require to service a serious Italian craving. 741 Diamond St. (near Elizabeth St.), 415-282-0738 

12. Firefly
There’s nothing showy or hip about Firefly—least of all its location on a steep stretch of 24th Street in Noe Valley. The only thing that demands attention is the food, which is as cozy as a mitten—here, the braised beef brisket comes doused with gravy, and brussels sprouts ($12) nestle under a shower of parmesan. It’s a little bit grandma, a little bit norCal, and 100 percent consummate neighborhood spot. 4288 24th St. (near Douglass St. ), 415-821-7652

13. Haight Street Market
This venerable mom ’n’ pop supermarket has both history (it was opened by the Vardakastanis family in 1981) and heart—not to mention row after row of pristine, often organic produce; gorgeous meat and seafood; a counter serving some truly killer sandwiches; and, perhaps best of all, prices that don’t make you feel like you’re living in present-day San Francisco. 1530 Haight St. (near Ashbury St.), 415-255-0643

14. Bambino’s Ristorante
Like Zazie, Bambino’s is located in Cole Valley. Unlike its nextdoor neighbor, it rarely has a line for brunch. Maybe it’s because the Italian restaurant, which has been in the neighborhood for over three decades, is so unassuming. Maybe it’s because we’re all lemmings. Whatever the case, its exemplary eggs Benedict and the cornflake-encrusted brioche French toast ($12.50) deserve a line of their own. 945 Cole St. (near Parnassus Ave.), 415-731-1343 

15. Contigo
Brett and Elan Emerson refer to their Noe Valley tapas restaurant as a love letter to Barcelona, but you could also call it a shrine to balanced, perfect flavors. From the salty ham that comes buried in a crispy croquette to the sweet-hot smokiness of a wood-roasted padron pepper, there’s not a false note to be found, only pleasure. 1320 Castro St. (near 24th St.), 415-285-0250

16. 1601 Bar & Kitchen
Its setting on an unloved corner of Howard Street isn’t doing this SoMa restaurant any favors, but ever since chef-owner Brian Fernando decided to express his heritage, gastronomically speaking, it has been turning out bold, exciting riffs on Sri Lankan cuisine. There’s fire, and funk, and a crepe-like egg hopper with the texture of lace. If 1601 is a secret, it deserves to be passed on. 1601 Howard St. (at 12th St.), 415-552-160 

17. The Lunchpad
At this sandwich shop, which operates six days a week inside Hayes Valley’s Noir Lounge, the turkey sandwich achieves impressive heights. Chef and co-owner Adam Hubble makes not one but three versions, including the renowned Turkey Drizzle. Loaded with cashew pesto, Swiss cheese, habañero-candied bacon, balsamic reduction, and caramelized onions, it’s a $12 kaleidoscopic vision of poultry utopia. 581 Hayes St. (near Laguna St.), 415-522-6647

18. Sun Fat Seafood Company
The next-best thing to standing on a dock and waiting for a fishing boat to come in is standing at the counter of this Mission seafood shop. The catch boasts both variety (the oyster selection alone contains multitudes) and incredible freshness, while the staff who prepare your order are as helpful as they are efficient. 2687 Mission St. (near 23rd St.), 415-282-9339

19. Holy Mountain
While Hawker Fare’s Mission outpost has generated plenty of buzz, its second-floor bar has largely eluded the spotlight. Named after a 1973 Alejandro Jodorowsky film and decorated with leather engravings of pyramids, phalluses, and tarot card iconography, it makes a pleasantly surreal, semi-hidden refuge from the Valencia Street crowds—and has excellent cocktails to boot. 680 Valencia St. (near 18th St.), 415-400-5699 

20. Marthita’s
Its Yelp listing says that it’s closed, and yeah, it looks pretty run-down, but this Mexican restaurant is serving some of the liveliest food in the Bayview. Get the fried shrimp tacos, the chicken mole, or the chicken soup, but whatever you order, make sure to douse it in the restaurant’s homemade hot chili oil. 1401 Egbert Ave. (at Jennings St.) 

21. Eskender Aseged
Born and raised in Ethiopia, Aseged spent two decades working for the likes of Jeremiah Tower and Daniel Patterson before opening Radio Africa & Kitchen in 2012. His food, which draws from the Mediterranean, the Middle East, and his homeland, is self-assured in execution and generous in flavor, the work of a chef with hospitality in his bones. 4800 3rd St. (at Oakdale Ave.), 415-420-2486

22. Pissed Off Pete’s
One of the best of San Francisco’s dwindling supply of old-school dives, this Excelsior stalwart got a contemporary twist in 2014, when it hired a couple of real, live chefs to produce solid, inspired dishes—think buttermilk-fried chicken with Chinese five-spice pickled onions, and housemade lemon-pepper pork rinds with mole poblano and queso. Plus, there’s cold beer in the front and a pool table in the back. 4528 Mission St. (near Santa Rosa Ave.), 415-584-5122

23. Sungari Dumpling House
The dumplings here actually occupy only a small part of the menu, which would be an issue if the rest of it weren’t so good. Northern Chinese food gets its due with chewy, pliant handcut noodles and dishes like ma po tofu ($6.95) and bitter melon with pork. And, for the record, the shrimp-and-chive dumplings are quite good. 4543 Mission St. (near Santa Rosa Ave.), 415-333-3681

24. Geneva Steakhouse
Located in the Excelsior since 1940, the Geneva is a total time warp, right down to the unparalleled value of its $14.99 club steak dinner. But its food—from those steaks to the kebabs and rice pilafs added to the menu by the restaurant’s Persian owner—has a quality and freshness that feel utterly contemporary. 5130 Mission St. (at Geneva Ave.), 415-586-6685

25. The Dark Horse Inn
An oasis of California craft beer, the Dark Horse is run by hardworking people with a great eye for detail: This is one of very, very few bars anywhere in the Bay Area—not to mention Crocker Amazon—where you can (a) get a kimchee Reuben and (b) get a kimchee Reuben containing housemade pastrami. Only four years old, the Dark Horse is a classic in the making. 942 Geneva Ave. (near London St.), 415-469-5508

26. Roxie Food Center
Located on a quiet corner in the Excelsior, this little market is an unlikely shrine to the Dutch crunch roll, which is used as a foundation for sandwiches of both heft and beauty. To experience the Roxie Special (ham, mortadella, salami, and artichokes)—or, really, anything on the Roxie’s menu—is to experience the form’s Platonic ideal. 1901 San Jose Ave. (at Havelock St.), 415-587-2345

27. The Cliff House (for drinks)
Forget the restaurant, with its overpriced food and tourist clientele, and head straight for the bar, which is often trimmed with locals just hanging out and enjoying the live music. The drinks, such as the seasonal tomato martini, are as strong as the view is fantastic. 1090 Point Lobos Ave. (near Pacific Ocean), 415-386-3330

28. Marla Bakery
Though plenty of people know Marla’s breads and pastries, far fewer are acquainted with its Outer Richmond storefront café and restaurant. And that’s too bad, because it’s a lovely, understated place—and between its ethereal brioche French toast and its creamy baked eggs, it offers one of the best brunches in the city. 3619 Balboa St. (near 37th Ave.), 415-742-4379

29. Tee Off Bar & Grill
With its wood-paneled walls and hodgepodge of memorabilia, there’s not much to distinguish the Tee Off from any other hole-in-the-wall sports bar—until you taste the food. It’s not every dive that tops its double pork chop with achiote and apricot relish or turns out fish-and-chips ($12) endowed with such lacy crunch. It’s grub to line the stomach and comfort the soul. 3129 Clement St. (near 33rd Ave.), 415-752-5439

30. Bill’s Place
Open since 1959, this self-proclaimed Home of the Hamburger earns its name with patties that are pleasingly pink on the inside and made from meat that’s ground fresh daily. While the burgers, many of which are named after bygone celebrities—Herb Caen, Carol Doda—are the main draw, the thick, bountiful shakes are themselves worth a trip to the Outer Richmond. 2315 Clement St. (near 24th St.), 415-221-5262

31. Joe’s Ice Cream
Make no mistake: Joe’s has a dedicated following. But compared with the likes of Bi-Rite Creamery and Humphry Slocombe, it doesn’t get the attention it deserves. Open since 1959, the family-run Outer Richmond operation makes all of its ice cream, from black walnut to wasabi. The cones are big and creamy and induce deep pleasure, just as ice cream should. 5420 Geary Blvd. (near 18th Ave.), 415-751-1950 

32. Good Luck Dim Sum
There are no frills at this tiny space, just a ruthlessly efficient gang of Chinese ladies who prefer to save the luxury for their dumplings, fried sesame balls, and pork buns. You can stuff your face for $6: One good way is with the greasy, plump shrimp-and-chive dumplings. 736 Clement St. (near 9th Ave.), 415-386-3388 

33. Old Mandarin Islamic
The service isn’t particularly polished, but if you have a hankering for halal Chinese food, this is the place to find it. The star of the show is arguably the Beijing-style hot pot, which is ordered with an array of meat (no pork, of course) that you dip into its bubbling depths. It’s the perfect foil to a head cold—and the foggy chill of the Outer Sunset. 3132 Vicente St. (near 43rd Ave.), 415-564-3481

34. Grocery Cafe
Some of the best and most uncompromising Burmese food you aren’t eating is being served on a quiet residential street in east Oakland, in a restaurant whose generic name gives no hint of the pleasures found within. The soups are hot and pungent, the fried samusas ($9) are extra-crispy, and if you order a tea-leaf salad, owner William Lue may well bring it to your table and mix it himself. 2248 10th Ave. (near E. 23rd St.), Oakland, 925-566-4877

35. B-Dama
When it moved from its original Piedmont location to Swan’s Market in mid-2014, Chikara Ono’s izakaya gained a new home without losing an ounce of quality or soul. The udon soup is still a piping-hot umami bomb, and the chicken kara-aga still sports an ethereal battered crust. And the prices, which top out at $18, are still some of the most affordable you’ll find. 907 Washington St. (near 9th St.), Oakland, 510-251-1113

36. Injera
Ethiopian and Eritrean food gets its due and then some at this immaculate but low-key Alameda spot where chef Aron Haile serves soulful, deftly seasoned wats (onion-based stews) and tibs (stir-fries). His vegetable combo platter is terrifically fresh, while the restaurant’s namesake bread is, appropriately, some of the best of its kind in northern California. 1305 Park St. (near Encinal Ave.), Alameda, 510-865-6257

37. JP Seafood Co.
Teriyaki salmon. Those two words sum up the wonder of this Alameda fish counter secreted away in a produce market. The care that owner Joey Pucci takes in smoking his fish and lacquering it with a subtle sweet-tangy glaze extends to all of the seafood in his display case, which is sashimi-quality fresh, often locally caught, and all but guaranteed to inspire repeat visits. 2300 Central Ave. (at Oak St.), Alameda, 510-865-3474 

38. Thai Time
Overshadowed by the nearby King of Thai, this speck of a restaurant has a handful of tables and an abundance of fresh, full-bodied curries. The pad Thai and tom yum pak—the latter a sweet-and-sour fantasia heaving with tofu and lemongrass—are known to induce swoons of gratitude. 315 8th Ave. (near Clement St.), 415-831-3663

39. The Alley
It’s hard to know where to begin when enumerating the virtues of this 83-year-old Lake Merritt piano bar. There are the drinks, which are strong and cheap. There’s the food, which is good and cheap (hello, $12 steak dinner). There’s the comfortably off-kilter decor, replete with tall booths and constellations of business cards stapled to the walls. And then, of course, there’s pianist and singer Rod Dibble, whose weekly performances will make you happy to have left your house. 3325 Grand Ave. (near Elwood Ave.), Oakland, 510-444-8505 

40. Fred and Elizabeth Sassen
What puts the husband-and-wife team behind Homestead among the Bay Area’s best and most resourceful chef-owners? We could talk about their highly comforting seasonal food, much of which is cooked over open flame. We could talk about their addictive sourdough, which is part of their fantastic bread program. We could talk about their proclivity to pickle, ferment, candy, smoke, and preserve almost everything in their path. Or we could just tell you to go to Homestead, now. 4029 Piedmont Ave. (near Glen Ave.), Oakland, 510-420-6962

41. Gaumenkitzel
“Fresh” and “clean” aren’t adjectives typically associated with German food, but they describe the inspired, authentic, and well-sourced fare served at this Berkeley winner. The goulash ($15.50), made with grass-fed beef, is lush; the sausages are fat; and the mild but decadent north German butter cheese is a miracle unto itself. 2121 San Pablo Ave. (at Cowper St.), Berkeley, 510-647-5016

42. King Tsin
Though it’s been around since 1969, this north Berkeley institution got a new lease on life—and a new menu—when it reopened last May with a chef and management team who’d defected from Albany’s vaunted China Village. Today, it’s serving Szechuan cuisine notable for its complexity and, of course, heat: The chili-pepper fish fillet in chicken broth, for example, arrives at your table under a carpet of red chilies. There are less incendiary options, like the smoky cumin lamb, but this is a restaurant on fire. 1699 Solano Ave. (near Ensenada Ave.), Berkeley, 510-525-9890

43. Haverton Hill Creamery
Their relatively recent entry into dairy farming hasn’t prevented the Adiego family from producing some of the best sheep’s milk products on the market. The creamy butter has a pleasant barnyard edge to it, while the ice cream is quiet luxury personified. Good, sheepy things, in other words, are happening in Sonoma County. 

44. Dick Blomster’s Korean Diner
A Korean pop-up operating permanently in a nondescript Guerneville diner sounds like a gimmick—until you experience the heavenly, crunchy funk of its garlic-, seaweed-, and chili-enhanced Seoul fries ($5) or the bounty of its Kurobuta pork bo ssäm. While fusion may be a dirty word in some places, here it’s just another way of saying “More, please.” 16236 Main St. (near Church St.), Guerneville, 707-869-8006

45. Primavera’s tamales
Yes, we live in a veritable Mexican-food wonderland, but for those nights when you have no desire to eat out or cook, Primavera’s tamales fill the void beautifully, and then some. Made in Sonoma from stone-ground masa, they’re firm but creamy and generously endowed with various (mostly) vegetarian fillings. They are, in short, hard-pore cornography at its finest.

46. Refuge
If you’re a smoked-meat aficionado, this Menlo Park pastrami shrine (there’s also a location in San Carlos) is aptly named. Cut from the navel, smoked inhouse, and served warm and juicy on toasted rye bread, the pastrami here rivals that found in New York—and in your wildest dreams. 1143 Crane St. (near Oak Grove Ave.), Menlo Park, 650-319-8197

47. Jack Epstein and Marilyn Sitkoff
The endlessly knowledgeable owners and curators of Chocolate Covered, Epstein and Sitkoff have accumulated an inventory of over 350 cacao products—local, foreign, bean-to-bar, and otherwise—in their modest Noe Valley shop. Chocolate lovers across the Bay Area owe them a debt of gratitude. 4069 24th St. (near Castro St.), 415-641-8123

48. Brian Wood
Yes, his kouign amann has attained cult status, but Starter Bakery owner Brian Wood is no one-trick pony. In addition to the buttery Breton pastry, he produces an impressive array of pies, tarts, cookies, croissants, Danish, and bread. Heck, the guy even makes a mean quiche. Wood doesn’t have a storefront to put him on the map—he’s wholesale only and farmer’s market only—but since when has greatness rested on GPS coordinates?

49. Mercado y Taqueria de Amigos
One of the best taquerias in Northern California happens to be located inside a Pescadero gas station, and no, it’s not some sort of hipster pop-up. It is, rather, the textbook definition of “hidden gem,” offering heaping burritos, supremely delicious tacos, and a vast salsa bar. When people say that they come here to fill up, they’re not talking about their gas tanks. 1999 Pescadero Creek Rd. (at Stage Rd.), Pescadero, 650-879-0232

50. Dough & Co.
As any stoned college student will tell you, high-quality cookie dough that can be consumed raw without fear of salmonella has a price above rubies. Which is why Omar Mamoon’s little upstart company deserves a dedicated fan club: While some might say that the man is making extremely delicious egg-free cookie dough, others will point out that really he’s doing God’s work. 
 

Originally published in the February issue of San Francisco

 

Have feedback? Email us at letterssf@modernluxury.com
Email Rebecca Flint Marx at rmarx@modernluxury.com
Follow us on Twitter @sanfranmag
Follow Rebecca Flint Marx at @EdibleComplex