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Restaurants That Aren't Part of the Popular Crowd

If San Francisco's restaurant world was a high-school cafeteria, there would be one table in the middle where the cool kids sit: This table perpetually has seats reserved for the Delfinas, the Zunis, the A16s, the Slanted Doors.

But we (and I include myself in this) so often forget about restaurants on the periphery—the wallflowers, the Duckies (am I dating myself with this reference?). The restaurants that open quietly, in true neighborhood spirit. They often don't have a publicist or even … a website. There are plenty of these establishments, and in 7x7's ongoing quest to bring to you the latest and greatest, I unfortunately rarely find the time to patronize them.

But the other night, on a whim, I went out with my husband for a truly local dinner at a spot called Vega in Bernal Heights where we live.

Vega was purchased seven months ago from Valentino (and to show you how popular it is, it only has seven—albeit positive—Yelp reviews). I pass it every other day on my way to do my usual Cortland shopping routine. It's owned by husband/wife duo, Giuseppe Manna from Rome and Vega Freeman-Brady from Berkeley. They also own Vino Rosso's wine bar down the street.

We sat down in the tiny room and were handed a menu encased in a plastic cover, written in no particular font. The restaurant's straight-forward quality, its lack of hipness, actually reminds me more of the places where I've eaten in Italy than the Delfinas and A16s—restaurants which might be "Italian" but are ultimately San Francisco through and through.

The room was half full. Our server seemed vaguely put off with us for being there. But overall, it was pleasant—just an everyday night out in a town where dining is treated like an Olympic sport. We ordered the calamari with beans (a true leap of faith in an unknown restaurant), a salad with spinach and gorgonzola and a pizza with bresaola and arugula. A bottle of delicious red wine.

And what came to us took me by surprise. The salad was restrained in a good way, short on gorgonzola and lightly dressed. The pizza was crisp and tasty, if not perfect. But it was the calamari that really opened my eyes: The beautifully cooked beans came topped with fresh, tender and perfectly charred calamari all tossed in a bracing bath of meyer-lemon, olive oil and herbs. I say "opened my eyes" figuratively because I realized that if I had closed them, I could have been at Delfina, Zuni—dead-center at the popular table.