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The 38 Essential San Francisco Restaurants, January 2014

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It's time to update the Eater 38, your answer and ours to any question that begins, "Can you recommend a restaurant?" This highly elite group covers the entire city, spans myriad cuisines and collectively satisfies all of your restaurant needs. Every few months, we add pertinent restaurants that were omitted, have newly become eligible (restaurants must be open at least six months) or have stepped up their game. And keep in mind, this list is presented in no particular order.

As always, a few places must depart the 38, including Gitane (which has undergone a lot of chef shuffles of late), Outerlands (which is closed for renovations), and Izakaya Sozai. Their spaces are filled by industry fave Old Mandarin Islamic, crowd-pleaser Kokkari Estiatorio, and elegant Izakaya Yuzuki. (If you're looking to find our essential bars, the Eater SF cocktail heatmap has what you're seeking.)


Rather than having a stage-four meltdown over our having excluded your favorite restaurant from the list, wouldn't it be more productive to just nominate it for inclusion?

More Eater Maps:

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· The Brunch Heatmap: 12 New Places to Try NOW
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· The 20 Dishes Eater Readers Crave the Most
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Note: Restaurants on this map are listed geographically.
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Both neighborhood standby and destination restaurant, Nopa does everything right: delicious, seasonal food that's not too precious or pricey, excellent cocktails, interesting wines, friendly waitstaff, late hours. Seven years into its tenure, it remains one of the city's toughest tickets: book early, try brunch, or go later in the evening for the awesome burger.

Frances

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James Beard-beloved chef Melissa Perello has given us Frances, an easygoing, timeless neighborhood nook, serving hearty, yet nuanced seasonal dinners. Always begin with her bacon beignets, and finish with a slice of rich, apple-filled lumberjack cake. The tiny space fills up quickly, and reservations are a must even as it's aged.

Lers Ros Thai

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Lers Ros is the only Thai restaurant in town with rabbit, frog and venison on its regular menu, but even the pad Thai rivals the best you'll find anywhere in Thailand. The pork belly, duck larb, and chili-garlic clams are perennials. A second location in Hayes Valley offers more ambience, at slightly inflated prices.

Bar Tartine

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Though it opened in 2006, the restaurant from the Tartine Bakery people continues to reinvent itself. Thanks to Nick Balla's ahead-of-the-curve Eastern European menus, this rustic neighborhood staple continues to push boundaries and palates, with an emphasis on housemade everything, from pickles to yogurt to beer. A shout is also in order for its daytime guise as a sandwich shop, touting irresistible smørrebrød on exclusive Tartine loaves like rye and porridge bread.

ICHI Sushi

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SF isn't much of a sushi town overall, as most chefs shy away from the challenge of pleasing bluefin-loving palates with offerings that suit the city's sustainable ethos. Ichi solves this dilemma by pre-dressing their quirky nigiri; order the (surprisingly reasonably priced) omakase and let the chefs take you on an aquatic journey. [Note: The restaurant will be moving across the street sometime this fall.]

Chef Matt Accarrino continues to refine his craft, serving his own irresistible brand of Italian food, that remains hearty and homey despite the use of refined technique. Try to score seats at the chef's counter and don't miss the exceptional wine list, curated by award-winning sommelier Shelley Lindgren.

Mourad Lahlou continues to redefine Moroccan cuisine in the California vernacular: from the must-order bisteeya, to sous vide short rib with carrot jam, to Melissa Chou's not-to-be-missed, anything-but-rustic desserts.

Old Mandarin Islamic Restaurant

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For an alternative take on Chinese fare, Old Mandarin is a beloved industry standby. Cumin lamb, beef pancakes, and a very generous BYOB policy (yes, despite the name) are the keys to its popularity, and while it's definitely not the place to go for health food, it's spicy and reasonably priced.

Tony’s Pizza Napoletana

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World Pizza Champion Tony Gemignani bakes every kind of pizza imaginable: New York, Roman, Sicilian, and on. His Neapolitan is an award-winner and his on-site pizza school attracts students from across the country. Bonus points for a bustling, friendly atmosphere, including a bar for date nights and booths for grandpa.

Namu Gaji

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The Lee Brothers hit a gold mine when they opened their sophomore effort on Dolores Park, serving the most nuanced, contemporary take on Korean food in town. Menu standouts include the KFC (chicken wings), stonepot rice, okonomiyaki, and dumplings. It's worth going in early for happy hour, the only time gamja fries and Korean tacos are served.

AQ Restaurant & Bar

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Chef-partner Mark Liberman's inspired flavor combinations—think 'bbq pork' with cornbread, mustard ash and licorice root—join a cocktail program and interior design that are best in their San Francisco class, bringing unprecedented energy and food quality to an unlikely stretch of Mission Street.

Four Barrel Coffee/The Mill

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SF has many excellent third-wave coffee roasters, but Jeremy Tooker's Mission/Divis duo get the nod for not only having great java, but top-notch pastries and bread from Josey Baker (on Divis) and Belinda Leong (on Valencia). And in this work-from-home town, Four Barrel's no-laptop policy really does make the atmosphere at both cafes more inviting.

In new chef Isaac Miller, Maven now has a culinary force that's the equal of Kate Bolton's always-great cocktail program. Whether you're in for a burger and a cocktail or a five-course extravaganza with drink pairings, you'll leave satisfied, and the buzzing energy of the dining room is hard to resist.

Bar Agricole

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When it opened, raves about Bar Agricole's gorgeous, cutting-edge design and its killer cocktail program rolled in endlessly. Though opening chef Brandon Jew recently departed, his former sous chef Reina Talanoa has kept standards high. The menu changes nightly, but spaghetti and housemade meat dishes are continual hits.

Nopalito

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Though it shares ownership with Nopa, Nopalito is very much its own beast, serving smart, sustainable sit-down Mexican fare that provides a nice counterpoint to the taqueria grind. From the addictive totopos con chile to the comforting tortilla soup to the killer carnitas, there's something for everyone here (plus damn good margaritas).

Kokkari Estiatorio

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A crazy crowd-pleaser (especially for parents in town), Kokkari rocks something of an older crowd, but it's hard to deny its appealing meld of Cal-Greek fare, a wood-burning hearth, and a busy, urban vibe. The zucchini cakes, hearth-grilled lamb chops, and baklava ice cream are all perennials.

From the training ground for greatness behind their bar to the always delicious seasonal menu and friendly service, Range is one of the most consistent restaurants in town. It's a grown-up place, good for date nights, dinners with the parents, and anything else that requires some peace, quiet, and space.

R & G Lounge

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The Richmond and Sunset are consistently better sources of Chinese food than Chinatown itself, but for group dining that's a notch above hole-in-the-wall, R&G is one of the few Chinatown spots that delivers. Bring a group and settle in amongst the families going to town on its famed salt-and-pepper crab, Peking duck, walnut prawns, and other Cantonese banquet favorites.

Perbacco

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Mature and stylish, Perbacco has established itself as one of the best Italian restaurants in the city. Owner Umberto Gibin is a presence in the front of house, and chef Staffan Terje continues to surprise with his seasonal and refined Northern Italian fare.

Foreign Cinema

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While the beloved brunch, flickering hearth and nightly movies continue, Gayle Pirie and John Clark are keeping things fresh at their 20-year-old Mission standby, with new North Africa and Mediterranean menu leanings and a deepened wine program.

Super Duper Burgers

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Although it's lovely that there is Straus milk in the shakes and 100% Niman Ranch beef in the patties, what really matters is taste, and Super Duper's burgers—with their perfect ratio of meat to bread and cheddar cheese—continually rank among the best in the Bay Area.

Rich Table

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Evan and Sarah Rich's inventive food may have been slightly overshadowed by the other couple that opened a great and deeply personal restaurant in SF this year, but this spot is every bit as good as State Bird, with wildly inventive, consistently delicious food and a smart wine selection and cocktail program. Don't miss the sardine chips, flatbreads, and pastas.

Izakaya Yuzuki

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Elegant and transporting, this lovely Mission izakaya is a must for its pristine chawanmushi, homemade tofu, chicken karaage, and other delights. Somewhat underrated in the local scene, it's definitely more expensive than your average izakaya, but the superb food (and sake collection) is worth the extra cost.

Greens Restaurant

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Annie Somerville's been quietly putting out excellent vegetarian fare down at Fort Mason for more than 30 years, and dishes like mesquite-grilled tofu brochettes and potato griddle cakes will win over even the most die-hard carnivore. The water views are pretty great as well.

Flour + Water

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The opening media buzz has died down, but F+W continues to gather lines at 5 p.m. nightly, packing the house with its sophisticated pizzas and pastas served in a lively, casual atmosphere.

Mission Chinese Food

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Try crossing the studied, Sichuan-laced creations of a workhorse young chef with a kickback dive atmosphere, pumped up by ghetto rap and a 60-foot dragon. Now you’ve got the biggest Chinese restaurant adventure in San Francisco. NYC's branch may have made Danny Bowien into a household name, but SF has the claim to the original (and to its insane lines).

Commonwealth

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Jason Fox's food continues to evolve now that Commonwealth is three years in, and paired with the sleek, Mission-hip atmosphere, reasonable prices for the high-end fare, and the charitable outreach of the space, it's a hard combination not to love.

La Taqueria

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It wouldn’t be San Francisco without The Mission’s squadron of gut-busting taquerias. This one continues to lead the pack with unwavering rave reviews for its sublime, spot-on Mexico staples.

La Ciccia

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Not so much San Francisco Italian as pure unadulterated regional Italian (Sardinia, to be specific), this family-run sparkler is free of pretension and full of love. Don’t miss the spicy octopus stew, the sea urchin pasta, and the unusual wine selection.

Delfina/Pizzeria Delfina

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You can make the argument that no restaurant in the last decade has changed the dining landscape quite like Delfina and its pizzeria offshoot next door, which turned the Mission into a dining hotspot. They're both still winners: Delfina's Cal-Ital fare pleases picky parents and fawning foodies alike, and Pizzeria Delfina's pies are fresh, seasonal, and best enjoyed with a glass of rosé on the sidewalk as the world passes by.

La Torta Gorda

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When a "hole-in-the-wall" turns out to be a bright family-run stop with outrageously good tortas and super authentic Puebla eats, that's 38 material. The pierna enchilada (pulled pork) torta is the perennial, but they're all good, and huge; no need to order the large unless you've got a hefty appetite or a hellish hangover.

Zuni Cafe

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Besides "the" chicken, Zuni's burger, Caesar salad and bloody Mary have all been called the best in the city. It's the utility belt of restaurants: good for brunch, for late-night dining, for oysters and a cocktail at the bar, or for a lovely sit-down meal with a date. And did we mention that chicken?

State Bird Provisions

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San Franciscans endure three-hour waits to eat State Bird Provisions' whimsically Californian menu, served dim-sum style. Whether it's savory pancakes stacked with local cheese, delicious crudos, or a new take on tofu skin, the flavor profiles are always eye-opening, making State Bird one of the most exciting restaurants in town, if not the country. [Note: They're closed for renovations at the moment, and should reopen sometime in mid-October.]

Yank Sing

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It's expensive for dim sum, but you pay for what you get at Yank Sing. Here, flavors are cleaner than you'll find anywhere else, and the xiao long bao and custard tarts are exemplary.

There's only room for one ultra-fancy, ultra-pricey spot on the 38, and while Benu and Quince are top-notch contenders, it's Daniel Patterson's constantly evolving, deeply innovative, yet pristinely seasonal food that most consistently wins praise from readers. A tasting menu is $175, but for a special occasion, passionate food-lovers will be in for a treat.

Humphry Slocombe

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This town takes its ice cream seriously, and among a bevy of great options like Bi-Rite and Mitchell's, Coi and Zuni alum Jake Godby's inventive flavors, like hibiscus beet and peanut butter curry, stand out. The Secret Breakfast (bourbon and caramelized cornflakes) is always on the menu and a must-order for first-timers.

Cotogna

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They had us at housemade ricotta. Then the warmth of the flickering hearth in the kitchen, great service, an innovative $40 fixed price wine program, and Michael Tusk's pasta throwbacks from the old Quince days (Saffron chittara with clams, anyone?) make Cotogna an easy E38 pick.

Swan Oyster Depot

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Open only for lunch, Polk Street’s 100-year-old gem still churns out the best crab, oysters and sourdough in town. Anthony Bourdain unfortunately clued the tourist crowd into this one a while back, so get there early to snag one of the handful of seats (and a prime view of the quirky, old-school staff).

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Nopa

Both neighborhood standby and destination restaurant, Nopa does everything right: delicious, seasonal food that's not too precious or pricey, excellent cocktails, interesting wines, friendly waitstaff, late hours. Seven years into its tenure, it remains one of the city's toughest tickets: book early, try brunch, or go later in the evening for the awesome burger.