Los Angeles has often been accused of having an inferiority complex about San Francisco. I, as a proud native, have never suffered from this complex. And yet, every time I go to the Bay Area and eat, I am filled with longing. It’s just a fact: San Francisco does certain types of restaurants better than L.A. does. That’s okay — L.A. dominates in other ways.
I’m just back from a mini Bay Area vacation, where, without really intending to, we ended up eating at places that are so essentially of the Bay Area that they could be nowhere else. This was thanks to my friend Bob Goldstein, who’s spent the last two years commuting from L.A. to San Francisco for work.
Here’s the short list of the stars. Next I’ll come up with a short list of great L.A. places, the likes of which San Francisco just doesn’t have.
Blue Bottle. It was an easy walk from our South of Market hotel to this light-filled café behind the old Mint, and we returned every morning, despite the slow-moving line and struggle to find a bit of space to sit. Started by a guy so obsessive about coffee that he carries his own grinder on airplanes when he travels, Blue Bottle sells its small-batch organic beans directly (within 48 hours of roasting) and has a cart at a few farmers’ markets and a kiosk in Hayes Valley, but this is the only café. You can choose an espresso drink or brewed coffee (siphon-brewed or filter-drip), made from beans ground to order, and you may never have a richer, smoother, more delicious coffee in your life. (I know, we have Intelligentsia and LA Mill in L.A., and they’re great, but they’re still not Blue Bottle.) Add an order of fat Acme toast with gorgeous yellow butter or a fluffy phyllo-crust quiche studded with La Quercia prosciutto, and you will be considering moving to this neighborhood. Chez Panisse now serves Blue Bottle coffee, which pretty much sums it up.
66 Mint St., SOMA, no phone, bluebottlecoffee.net. Mon.-Fri. from 7 a.m., Sat.-Sun. from 8 a.m.
Chez Panisse. I can’t say anything about Chez Panisse that hasn’t already been said in the last 38 years, except that it still delivers the goods. The downstairs dining room has a wood-and-copper glow so warm it makes you feel like Christmas; there’s a sense of occasion in the air, but no stuffiness. Every bite of our four-course, $75 dinner was superb, especially the astonishingly tender and flavorful duck with tiny corn kernels, chanterelles and a zucchini cake. Sometimes I say that Lucques is our Chez Panisse, but that’s just a way to compliment one of L.A.’s best restaurants. In fact, we have nothing like Chez Panisse. But neither does any other town in America.
1517 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley, 510.548.5525, chezpanisse.com. D Mon.-Sat. Modern American. $$$$ – $$$$$
Ferry Building. This astonishing example of urban renewal is worth a trip to San Francisco alone. Oh, it may seem just too foodie-yuppie precious for words, but only the heartless cannot be won over by its dazzling array of shops (Cowgirl Creamery, Scharffen Berger, Boccalone Salumeria — home of “Tasty Salted Pig Parts” — McEvoy Ranch olive oil), cafés (chowder from San Francisco Fish Company, asparagus quiche from Lulu Petite) and restaurants (including the exceptional modern Vietnamese Slanted Door). On Tuesdays and Saturdays, a huge farmers’ market wraps around the outside of the building. L.A. has nothing remotely like it. Neither does New York. In fact, a marketplace so wholly focused on local, hand-crafted, expensive food could probably exist (or at least thrive) only in San Francisco.
1 Ferry Building (end of Market St.), Embarcadero, 415.983.8000, ferrybuildingmarketplace.com. Open daily; hours vary by business.
Foreign Cinema. The Mission may appear to be full of 20-something, fedora-wearing indie kids looking for the coolest bar, but it’s still mostly a struggling, working-class, largely Latino community. If you walked by the facade for Foreign Cinema, you’d never guess at the world within. Walk down a candlelit, red-carpeted hallway to enter a vast, open dining room (once a two-story department store) that opens to an equally vast patio, whose west wall serves as a screen for classic (if soundless) films. There’s a small bar in back manned by a terrific bartender (try the huckleberry-lemon concoction), a separate bar called Lazlo, an art gallery that serves as an extra dining room, an oyster bar and a staff of exceptionally competent people, including a dapper, 70-something host in a business suit with Chamber of Commerce-style lapel pins. The longtime chefs are Chez Panisse and Zuni alums, and the food is spot-on modern SF fare, including an amazing curry-flavored fried chicken, meunière-style petrale sole that had me imitating the opening scene of Julie & Julia, and a perfect chocolate pot de crÃ¨me. The day may come when Boyle Heights has a place like this, but for ten years now, Foreign Cinema has been an only-in-San-Francisco experience.
2534 Mission St., Mission District, 415.648.7600, foreigncinema.com. D nightly, brunch Sat.-Sun. Modern American. $$$ – $$$$
Lulu. For 17 years, this South of Market pioneer has remained the sort of unfussy but upscale restaurant that San Francisco does so well. I can’t think of a single place in L.A. like it, except for Twin Palms back in its much-missed early days. The airy, bow-truss-ceiling room is warm and lively but not too noisy, with a luscious aroma of wood smoke from the rotisserie oven. Dishes are generous and family-style, encouraging everyone to share, and if you order well, the prices aren’t bad. My group of four shared superb steamed mussels, an appetizer assortment including a rich, eggy leek-and-goat-cheese tart, rotisserie-cooked squab that was too blood-red rare, and a good pizza with heirloom tomatoes. The bar makes excellent gimlets and martinis, the wine-by-the-glass list is good, and you know you are in San Francisco.
816 Folsom St., SOMA, 415.495.5775, restaurantlulu.com. L & D daily. Modern American. $$$ – $$$$
Tony’s, On Saturday we took a road trip through Marin and up to Tomales Bay, and Bob and Katrin took us to this weekends-only seafood shack, which they’ve been going to since they lived in Marin in the ’70s. It dates to 1948, and inside it’s pretty much still 1948, except that a seafood meal costs $14 to $17 instead of $2. Everyone gets a plate of the oysters drenched in barbecue sauce, and all four of us got the calamari, tender filets cut from big calamari caught nearby and pounded to within an inch of their once-rubbery lives. Meals come with fries and a heap o’ salad, and while this is not food that will send Alice Waters swooning, you’re eating fresh local seafood right on top of the water in the middle of California nowhere, and it’s a beautiful, beautiful thing.
18863 Hwy. 1, Marshall (Tomales Bay), 415.663.1107. L & D Fri.-Sun. Seafood. Cash only. $$