The restaurant scene in San Francisco is constantly changing. When you’ve finally booked a reservation at that new spot everyone was talking about last week, your in-the-know friend starts raving about another place you’ve never heard of. While this can be stressful, it’s also incredibly tasty and fun. There is always a great fresh eatery to be discovered in the City by the Bay. So, if you’re planning on heading to SF soon, these five spots have to be on your radar.
Just because you don’t know how to pronounce the name of the restaurant doesn’t mean you won’t enjoy a wildly memorable meal there. The newest establishment from the Ne Timeas Restaurant Group and The Bon Vivants (the masterminds behind the Mission District’s beloved Flour + Water, Central Kitchen and Trick Dog) features the finger-licking good regional cuisine of Spain. Aaxte (pronounced ahh-CHAY and means “young bull” in Spanish) is a sleek space on Market Street above the Cafe du Nord. The lighting is low, the tables are wooden and the countertop is marble. There’s a chef’s counter that overlooks a compact kitchen that’s run like clock work — a young woman pulls out perfectly crisp potato cubes to be plated with a spicy red sauce and creamy aioli — quite possibly the best patatas bravas you’ll find outside of Spain; a gentleman slowly and carefully carves thin slices of melt-in-your-mouth jamón ibérico; and executive chef Ryan Pollnow stands watch over everything. He wipes a plate of succulent garlic shrimp dusted with spicy nora chile clean before passing it to the waiter. He drizzles olive oil lightly over Spanish fried rice, a masterful variation of paella that has crispy chorizo and rich bits of classic tortilla Española. Everything about Aaxte is clean and calculated, but in a relaxed and unpretentious way. But watch out: the tapas are so scrumptious you’ll probably have to ask for your menu back halfway through the meal to order a few more.
The Barrel Room
On a recent Thursday night, downtown San Francisco’s The Barrel Room was filled with stylish professionals, wide-eyed tourists and die-hard wine lovers. Fun music played in the background, waiters bustled here and there and mouthwatering smells lingered from the kitchen. Although The Barrel Room actually opened in 2011 as a small wine bar, it set up shop in a new space with a completely different concept this past May — and this new and improved Barrel Room is a force to be reckoned with. Part bottle shop, part tasting room, part restaurant and part speakeasy, the spot is a destination that offers something for everyone. We recommend going hungry and going often. Everything on the menu, from the wine list to the cocktails to the cuisine, changes quarterly to focus on a different type of regional food. Latin America was up first and the menu featured seared scallops in a flavorful spicy broth, fish tacos with jicama and pineapple salsa, and pork belly with pine nut butter. The restaurant just debuted a new menu with an Italian focus. Everything from the baked fontina cheese to the rack of lamb with pecorino polenta sounds to die for and, if cooks apply the same precision they displayed last quarter, the results will be nearly as delightful.
Dirty Water opened in the middle of July below Twitter’s headquarters. The massive, masculine space has high ceilings, pumpkin orange walls, sanded wood tables and warm brown leather chairs. When you walk in, you’re greeted by a busy bar scene and a smiling hostess. (Fun fact: Dirty Water refers to the name of whiskey during prohibition.) You can chill out front but, if the scene is too rowdy, ask for a table in the back where it’s notably quieter and you can watch the chefs while they work. You’ll notice large brewing tanks; Dirty Water is set to release its house-brewed beer program any minute now. The meat-centric cuisine isn’t for the faint of heart, but it certainly is memorable and delicious. First, there is an unparalleled section of charcuterie and cheese from all over the world. Selections come served on a rustic wood board with smoky grilled ciabatta bread. From there, you’ll have to try Dirty Water’s specialty, the axis deer tartare. Small chunks of venison surround a bright yellow smoked egg. The item is rich, but balanced thanks to crisp marinated harvest beets. Everything on the menu is thought-provoking and tasty. The charred peppers and cultured grits are classic but modern. The grilled rainbow trout with quinoa and a foaming onion soubise brings to mind campfire fare, but in the most elevated way.
If you only have time to try one of the restaurants listed here, make sure it’s this one. While your mind won’t be blown away by any wacky gastronomic techniques or adventurous ingredients here, you will have a spectacular meal that showcases simple Californian cuisine. Trestle is the third concept from the Stones Throw and Fat Angel’s team and it’s definitely the best one yet. Located on the cusp of North Beach and Jackson Square on a quiet section of Columbus Street, Trestle is an intimate restaurant with exposed black brick walls, modern black and white abstract art, foraged leaf and branch arrangements, and other whimsical details like a serving platter turned on its side and hung to the front door as a menu display. The daily changing menu is a three-course prix-fix one (a pasta course can be added for a nominal fee) that is shockingly good. When you take the fist bite of the heirloom tomato salad with crispy lavash, creamy ricotta and basil pesto, you’ll wonder how they can serve such exceptional food for such meager prices. The roast chicken, stuffed with thyme and garlic and served on a bed of pain perdu, melted leeks and foraged mushrooms, is one of the finest fowls we’ve ever had in the city. It’s incredibly flavorful with lots of different layers, but also insanely comforting and nostalgic.
Dominique Crenn is an award-winning chef and owner of Atelier Crenn, a high-end restaurant in the Marina with a shelf of industry honors. In early August, she debuted this second restaurant, a casual all-day spot that pays homage to her French mother and grandmother and brings to mind lively Parisian bistros. There are two seatings (6:00 and 8:30 promptly) every Tuesday through Saturday for the five-course, meat-free dinner menu. The all-seafood and vegetable options will take you back to your fondest French memories (or daydreams). From the delicate oysters to the fire-roasted whole trout, everything is fresh, impeccably prepared, and tastes as if it was shipped directly from Crenn’s hometown of Brittany. The only thing missing from the outing? The cool, salty air off the Atlantic.