1760 Polk St., Nob Hill
On Friday and Saturday nights, this sprawling space feels and sounds like a rowdy dining hall and tables are spaced just far enough that you can hear your neighbors' conversation without bumping elbows. The floor-to-ceiling windows look out onto busy Polk Street, which adds to the buzzy vibe. Menu-wise, it’s all small plates that change seasonally, however, the lobster ceviche, lollipop kale, and uni bucatini have become signature dishes. Come with a friend or a date for cocktails and a few sharing plates.
20th Century Café
198 Gough St., Hayes Valley
This café came to us by recommendation from Kim Alter, who calls it one of the neighborhood's hidden gems. Inspired to open up shop after visiting cafés in Prague, Vienna, and Budapest, owner and chef Michelle Polzine is known for knishes; linzer tortes; a drool-worthy, 10-layer Russian honey cake; and for her eclectic collection of vintage dresses and aprons. As Alter told us, "She's just the whole package."
633 W. 5th St., Downtown
This new destination dining spot on the 71st floor of the US Bank building downtown is, unsurprisingly, best known for its breathtaking 365-degree views of the city. Dinner is a three-course pre-fixe menu for $70 but, if you’re in the market for drinks and snacks, the lounge offers excellent cocktails and small à la carte menu. This place is busy, so be sure to make a reservation in advance and consider paying the extra fee for a window seat.
12565 W. Washington Blvd., Culver City
This space is just that: An open A-Frame, dotted with communal picnic tables lined with flimsy paper napkins and a smattering of condiments. The menu is modern, Asian-inflected comfort food, and it's all intended to be shared: Beer can chicken (complete with Kimchi) and Kitchen Fries (made from Korean sweet potatoes) are must-orders as is a punch bowl (not to be attempted alone).
913 Vermont Ave., Koreatown
The soup known as al tang embodies so much of what we love about Korean food: hot and spicy; packed with paengi beoseot (long, delicate bunches of white mushrooms), tofu, daikon, generous heaps of fish eggs; and punched up with chili powder and garlic. The best version in Los Angeles is at A-Won, a low-key spot that also specializes in hwe dup bap (the Korean version of sashimi), which is really more like a poke bowl. It’s mixed with seaweed, watercress, sliced cucumber and carrots over rice, along with plenty of chili paste.
2355 Chestnut St., Cow Hollow
Though the southern Italian cuisine here is delicious, the highlight is definitely the wine. The owner and sommelier, Shelley Lindgren, finds little-known wines to pair with, among other things, the wood-fired thin-crust pizza, which is not to be missed. Be sure to pick up the A16 cookbook by Nate Appleman and stop by sister restaurant SPQR.
398 Hayes St., Hayes Valley
Absinthe was an early pioneer both of the craft/artisanal cocktail scene in San Francisco (the absinthe cocktails are still amazing) and of the Hayes Valley neighborhood (they were one of the first in the area). The cuisine slants French, but not in a restricting way—you’ll find a Hawaiian swordfish alongside their famous French onion soup and coq au vin. The upstairs private space is unique in the city for being completely separate, with an exclusive-use bar and entrance.
1915 Main Street, St. Helena
Chef Chris Cosentino has earned a reputation as one of the culinary world's top talents (he's held his own in the TV sphere as the winner of Top Chef Masters). At Acacia House, his penchant for classic American dishes is evident on the menu. For the vegetarians among us, the whole roasted eggplant is exceptional, finished with capers, pistachios, and blistered tomatoes. If you're looking for a heartier protein, go for the Striped Bass. And if you happen to find yourself tiring of wine, there's an inventive cocktail list from which to choose, which includes a traditional Mexico City margarita.
1722 Sacramento St., Nob Hill
Acquerello has been serving upscale Italian in Nob Hill for 25 years now—with excellent food and a decidedly grown-up setting, it’s exactly the kind of place you want to go to for special occasions. Run by a father-son team from Bologna and an executive chef/partner that’s been with them from the beginning, the classic Italian dishes are unshakably good. There are two private room options that are both relatively formal.
2365 Midway Dr., Santa Rosa
Every inch of this roastery and café is considered, from the clean industrial interiors to the perfect cold brew.
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