Over 10 years ago, I wrote a story for 7x7 lamenting the city’s ubiquitous Cal-eclectic menus of the beet-and-goat-cheese-salad sort. Today, dining in the city is a much more dynamic, global affair. Whether Roman, Cajun, or Japanese, restaurants are drawing diners in by narrowing their focus and digging deep into regional cuisines—with a San Francisco spin. After eating my way through the many good restaurants that opened last year, I reached the finish line in 2012. Introducing the four that have what it takes.
Praise the lord: Anna Weinberg came to her senses. In September, when the Marlowe proprietress first took over the famous Moose’s space in North Beach, she and chef Jennifer Puccio were pondering an unlikely concept. Think “Havana diner,” says Weinberg. “That idea still haunts me.”
Today, the extensive bar at Park Tavern will surely make you a mojito, but Ed’s Negroni—named after the favorite drink of the legendary restaurateur Ed Moose—would be a more suitable choice to go with the eclectic mix of modern and comforting American food. It all suits the sweeping tavern of a restaurant, which is handsomely decorated with a feminine touch: white tile floor, floral wallpaper, bistro chairs, tufted banquettes. It feels urban, grand, and lively and offers up such options as an interactive appetizer of creamy burrata meant to be spooned over fried lemon and fresh basil, as well as the best deviled eggs in town (spiced up with jalapeño and bacon). “We can’t make them quickly enough,” Weinberg says.
There are also hearty dishes such as a thick-cut pork chop with beans and pistou and the popular petit poulet rouge roasted in a cast-iron skillet. “Jenn lines up the birds in the window like they are all marching to their deaths,” Weinberg says of the little chickens. The only thing that’s missing from Puccio’s crave-worthy menu is pasta—a clear statement that this North Beach restaurant is truly meant to be a locals’ joint.
1652 Stockton St. 415-989-7300, parktavernsf.com
Cooking for this picky town leaves one open to critique. But Louisiana-born chef Justin Simoneaux of the Boxing Room found his mom to be his biggest critic when the restaurant opened in June. “She didn’t like how dark I make the roux for my gumbo,” Simoneaux says. “I’m like, ‘Thanks for the honesty, Mom!’”
The Absinthe Restaurant Group hired Simoneaux, who had formerly worked at the Moss Room, when they took over the old Citizen Cake space in Hayes Valley. His passion for the food he grew up with convinced them to go for a city-style restaurant with Deep South roots.
Today, the chef artfully merges the soulful flavors of Creole and Cajun cooking with a lighter, seasonal California touch, drawing a long counter full of patrons happily drinking beer, popping boudin balls, and digging into po’boys with fried shrimp. Beneath soaring wood-beamed ceilings, servers whisk by carrying jambalaya raised from its humble roots with house-made Andouille sausage and crisp duck confit. Vegetables get the SF treatment with a salad of celery root tossed with remoulade and topped with beets.
Save room for pastry chef Bill Corbett’s excellent desserts. A bourbon banana split arrives in the form of a banana that’s been vacuum-sealed to intensify flavor, almost giving it a chewy texture. It’s served with caramel sauce, banana cake, and creamy bourbon ice cream.
Some locals’ tastes will be challenged when Simoneaux tries something new this year. “We eat turtle in Louisiana—turtle soup, turtle piquant. I might get some backlash, but I’m going to try it,” he admits. Turtle lovers, you’ve been warned.
399 Grove St., 415-430-6590, boxingroomsf.com
Last year, the city was still getting used to the idea of Japanese food beyond sushi when it was inundated with new ramen joints and Japanese pub food such as kushiyaki (charcoal-grilled meat skewers) and other small plates of sake-friendly fare. For Nojo—which means “farm” in Japanese—chef-owner Greg Dunmore does izakaya his way, “with bigger, bolder flavors,” he says. Though his yakitori (chicken skewers) include classic preparations of thigh with green onion or chicken skin, Dunmore, who worked with chef Hiro Sone at Ame, has no problem fusing Japan with California. The end result is something very natural and hardly applicable to the F-word (otherwise known as fusion). A good example is his salad of fresh chicories with cauliflower tossed with umami-rich shavings of katsuo bushi (dried, smoked tuna) and a lemon-soy vinaigrette.
Don’t miss the white miso-glazed trout and the chawanmushi, a delicate, jiggly custard presented in a little ceramic pot and mixed with whatever’s seasonal—from crab in the winter to fava beans in the spring. Then there’s the Nojo sundae made with Humphry Slocombe black sesame ice cream, which has developed into a cult classic of its own.
Nojo serves ramen on Sundays and will soon be open for lunch as well. You’ll be able to get the tonkatsu sandwich with slaw and ponzu mayo—another nod to Americana. Dunmore says, “It’s essentially a menu of the kinds of things I like to eat.”
231 Franklin St., 415-896-4587, nojosf.com
Last spring, when Craig and Annie Stoll announced that they would open their fourth Italian restaurant, it was a Toy Story 4 kind of situation. Sequels of favorites like Delfina and its two popular pizzerias have loaded expectations. “We definitely felt the scrutiny,” says Craig, who has to live up to his James Beard Foundation Best Chef Pacific award. “There’s no under-the-radar this time around.”
With Anthony Strong, the energetic chef formerly of Pizzeria Delfina, at the helm, the Stolls have created a Roman-inspired menu. The restaurant space is both modern and classic, with geometric white Heath Ceramics tiles, midcentury-esque chandeliers, and a long bar with artisanal cocktails—libations being new to the Delfina family.
Heavenly lamb chops with anchovy and coriander come from the charcoal grill. There’s also a sprightly salad of chilled nervetti (tendon) with celery leaves and gaeta olives—a good gateway dish for those who fear bits—and a pasta-centric menu that highlights nine handmade pastas tossed with rustic sauces, from amatriciana to cacio e pepe. But a bit of cheekiness has always defined the Stolls’ restaurants, and Locanda isn’t chained to tradition. Come summer, you might even find salt-and-pepper shrimp on the bar menu—black pepper being a big spice in Roman cooking.
It’s the traditional dishes that get the most feedback, however. “A certain famous Italian cookbook author might tell you that the size of the guanciale in your carbonara is categorically wrong,” Craig says wryly. “Everyone’s got an opinion.” Clearly though, the Stolls have done something right. They’re just a few restaurants away from claiming their own regional-style of Italian cooking.
557 Valencia St., 415-863-6800, locandasf.com