Recently, I had the opportunity to pick some of the hottest places to eat in San Francisco for Saveur.com. It was hard to narrow down to 15. There’s talent all around the city, but most of the known restaurants are in the Mission District and in Hayes Valley. My one regret when I look over the list is how much was left off. Personally, I like less fancy places. Tacos, Malaysian street food, Japanese bar food, California’s new non-denominational barbecue scene. They define San Francisco, too. How to balance that with the well knowns that everyone expects to find on a San Francisco eaters’ list, like Delfina, Benu, Bar Tartine, Lazy Bear? Impossible.
Why do the same restaurants get the press? It’s not that they don’t deserve it. They absolutely do. There’s just so many that sit in the dark. Here’s what I’m trying to say: San Francisco has so much off-the-radar worth investigating, especially for those travelers who have a little time to explore the outer reaches.
Local sites that do a great job of tapping into SF eating scene are Tablehopper and Inside Scoop (I particularly like Paolo Lucchesi). Eater SF has a lot of great news, but I am so not smitten with the Heat Maps, and some of the tone is New Yorky.
San Francisco on the cusp
Yes, SF has a lot going on. That said, as I heard from one chef recently, Northern California is on a cusp. The cusp? San Francisco has access to great produce, there are great chefs, there is constant innovation … yet still what alludes us, according to this chef, is a California-specific ingredient. That is, an ingredient or dish that the region, or city, is known for. Examples from other places are Modena’s balsamic vinegar, Ireland’s butter, France’s Brie. While there are certainly cheeses from California—Cowgirl Creamery comes to mind—most are a riff on the classics. They start with the foundation from somewhere else, then add a California twist. A case could (and should) be made for Napa Cabernet. The grape may come from elsewhere, but the style is distinctly Napa.
The vegetables rule
Northern California is, of course, known for our vegetables. Al’s Place is one of my favorites in a long while. What chef Aaron London is doing is exceptional. The vegetable is a lot more complicated than one would think. Whenever I eat there, I am amazed on what new vegetable part he has butchered to perfection. I also love London’s sense of humor:
- The loophole cocktails are named after Reservoir Dogs characters, and use fantastically under-utilized spirits. (Loophole is a name given to cocktails that are made in places that don’t have a full-on liquor license. So the restaurant uses aperitifs creatively.)
- The bathroom has that familiar sign: Employees must wash hands. However, it says. Employees must wash hands. But if one is not available, please wash your own.
- London calls the bites side of the menu, “Snackles.” It is a genius word. Great cat name.
- Meats are relegated to side dishes. That’s one way that London is able to keep dishes under $20. That said, dining at Al’s Place is not cheap. Nope. Anytime I eat there, I ring up about $130 (for two).
Now, an ode to AL’s with images by Molly DeCoudreaux