San Francisco/Berkeley (September 2013):
Chez Panisse — finally made it to this Bay Area institution; went for both lunch and dinner, preferring lunch; lovely, comfortable setting, with an old house feel; we found the prices to be on the high side, even for the area; excellent wood oven roasted mussels and nicely done pizza at lunch; the 4-course prix fixe ($100 on weekends) dinner (different every night and posted a week in advance on the restaurant’s website) was true to the place’s reputation — simple, with very fresh ingredients, well-executed: salmon crudo, fried squash blossom salad, wood oven roasted squab, and some type of berry/cake dessert; we may be in the minority and perhaps it was the particular night’s menu, but we probably wouldn’t make the trek across the Bay if we found ourselves in the area.
Flour + Water — highly lauded Mission-area pizza and pasta place; casual, contemporary setting; very tough reservation, with long waits if you don’t have one; we went for the tasting menu, with multiple courses, including many pasta dishes, although we didn’t try the pizza; every course was very good; service was a little scattered.
SPQR — lovely spot for Sunday lunch in the Fillmore Street area; reservations are a must unless there’s space at the bar; wonderful biscuits, suckling pork confitura, chicken liver mousse, and pasta with blood sausage ragu.
Napa Valley (April 2013):
Auberge du Soleil — we re-visited the site of our wedding 5 years ago to the day; lunched on the patio, and the weather, service and food were fabulous; this is upscale dining in St. Helena, with reservations required at lunch, particularly to sit outside; beautifully executed dishes (asparagus soup, lobster salad, seared halibut) with creative, interesting flavors and innovative touches, warranting the Michelin one star.
The Restaurant at Meadowood — this was our special evening dining experience; Michelin three-starred, with chef who very recently won the James Beard award for the California area; georgous serene, contemporary dining room, amidst the wooded hotel property; wonderful, friendly service; personalized, handwritten welcome notes for each table; 8 course ($225) or 15 course ($500) tasting menu; very pricey wine list, with the wine pairings the same price as the meal; we were more than happy with the 8 course menu, which ended up being quite a few more courses; with a focus on creativity and innovation, varying with cold and hot dishes, highlights included whipped yogurt with black sesame, abalone liver, hot beef consomme served over frozen shaved beef fat, clams and caviar with lettuce and asparagus, sturgeon cooked in onion fat, and on and on; like French Laundry, this is a place foodies should try at least once
Solbar — we didn’t see any celebrities at this trendy, busy venue near Calistoga (reservations strongly advised), but we very much enjoyed lunch on the lovely patio; petrale sole soft tacos and an ahi tuna burger were delicious; also Michelin one-starred
Bottega — Michael Chiarello’s spot is as popular as ever in Yountville, just as good as our first experience; possibly the best pasta ragu we’ve ever eaten; comfortable, fun atmosphere; a great place for a group; tables book quickly
Farmstead — our only disappointment after really enjoying this St. Helena restaurant on our last visit to the area; food was good but it didn’t wow us; the burger was overcooked and the brick chicken didn’t rival some of the better versions we’ve had of that dish
Redd Wood — very popular, new’ish, casual venue down the street from the same chef as the much lauded Redd in Yountville; incredible fried calamari and great wood oven pizzas; very good pasta ragu (but not as good as Bottega); make reservations
Hog Island Oyster Company — in Oxbow Market in the town of Napa; very casual, sit at the counter or outside; good (and pricey) grilled oysters; decadent dungeness crab mac ‘n cheese; go for lunch or a snack
San Francisco (May 2012):
Frances — very popular Castro-area bistro; tough reservation to get; menu is focused on seasonal ingredients with many items designed to share — we tried baked clams and smoked bacon beignets; entrees were nicely done grilled quail, linguini with clams, and a side of spring onion and farro gratin; friendly, very accommodating service; small space, tables close together, bar area is first come first served for dining
Scoma’s — we couldn’t resist returning to this Fisherman’s Wharf spot; the oysters rockefeller and raw oysters were delicious, as was the whole roasted dungeness crab (once again) with garlic and olive oil; great service from seasoned waiters
Fleur de Lys — a major disappointment; tasting menu (3, 4, or 5 courses) from nationally recognized French chef, Hubert Keller; overworked dishes, with too many disparate components, some items overcooked (petrale sole starter), some good flavors but nothing particularly impressive; restaurant obviously caters to special occasions, and we were seated in what appeared to be the two-top celebration area in a side dining room that lacked the lush beauty of the formal main dining area; polished but unfriendly service; multiple desserts (with the mignardises being one of the better executed items of the evening) appeared to be designed to give a good final impression when the rest of the meal didn’t wow
Slanted Door — one of the most popular restaurants in San Francisco per Zagat; billed as modern Vietnamese cuisine; lunched outside at the ferry building location overlooking the Bay Bridge; enjoyed the spring rolls, lemon grass pork shoulder vermicelli noodles, and chicken claypot; very good food, fresh flavors
Delfina — another very popular Castro-area restaurant; also a tough reservation; crowded, close quarters but reservations were honored on time; very much enjoyed the warm olives, grilled calamari, roast chicken (a house specialty and deservedly so), and boar ragu pasta; next door was an affiliated pizzeria (no reservations) where the pizza looked quite delicious (and was judging by the mass of people waiting outside); skipped dessert for the fabulous ice cream at Bi-Rite Creamery (a San Francisco institution) just down the street
Napa Valley (December 2010):
Bouchon — Thomas Keller’s French bistro in Yountville; lively, warm atmosphere, traditional French menu; well executed dishes, but nothing super special; not as impressed as we’d hoped to be
Bottega — Michael Chiarello’s very popular Italian eatery in Yountville; large restaurant, with every table filled; reservations are a must although light plates are served in the bar area; great food (particularly the dungeness crab special)
Farmstead — St. Helena restaurant focusing on locally sourced items; one of our new favorite spots in the area; everything we tried at lunch was delicious (cheeseburger, pulled pork sandwich, mac ‘n cheese, french fries)
Auberge du Soleil — went for Sunday brunch at this lovely, somewhat formal setting up the hill overlooking the valley; three course meal, with a variety of choices for each course; elegant service; everything was beautifully done; special occasion place (particularly for us since we were married there)
San Francisco (July 2006):
Gary Danko — Zagat rated #1 in both most popular and food categories in San Francisco; very tough to get a reservation; you pick whether you want 3, 4, or 5 courses, and then select among a number of options in various categories; seafood items were particularly outst
anding (notably, the poached oysters topped with a generous amount of caviar); we weren’t as impressed with the meat and poultry dishes (lamb was particularly disappointing); the cheese tray was amazing; from start to finish, the service was some of the best we’ve ever experienced.
Scoma’s — lunched at this Fisherman’s Wharf institution that is somewhat touristy, but has very good seafood; the whole baked dungeness crab in olive oil and garlic was particularly delicious, as was the pan fried petrale sole; we could have skipped the calamari.
Farallon — upscale seafood restaurant in the Union Square area; also highly rated in Zagat; beautiful interior, complete with chandeliers shaped like jellyfish; enjoyed the seafood bisque and soft shell crabs; one of us even forewent seafood for duck which was great.
Napa Valley —
Redd — one of the newer, trendy places to dine; it’s a difficult reservation, so call well in advance; chef/owner was formerly chef at Auberge du Soleil; food was very good although not exceptional; fish entrée was overcooked.
Taylor’s Refresher — very popular walk-up burger joint; looks like a Dairy Queen, but even serves wine; great late afternoon snack spot for well prepared greasy food (try the Patty Melt, it will heal all that ails you) after a day of wine tasting.
Bistro Don Giovanni — bustling Italian restaurant with a very pretty outdoor terrace; recommend reservations even at lunch; tried the risotto and pizza; food was fine but sitting outside was the best part.
Bistro Jeanty — cozy French bistro; call well in advance for reservations; classic French fare, including such dishes as pigs feet and frog legs (neither of which we tried); interesting duck confit and goat cheese pate; cassoulet and coq au vin were very good versions of these traditional dishes. (If, like us, you didn’t call exactly 60 days in advance at the appointed hour to snag one of the much coveted reservations at Thomas Keller’s foodie temple, The French Laundry, you might also try Keller’s bistro style restaurant, Bouchon.)
San Francisco/Berkeley (September 2013):