I had to complete this exhaustive list for someone, so I thought I might as well post it for others to read and contemplate. I wouldn’t say the establishments are my definitive top 20, but they are among my favorites. What are yours? I’d love to know.
1. When I discovered the Hard Knox Cafe more than two years ago, it was new and virtually empty. Now I (and an increasing number of patrons) keep coming back. Maybe it’s the traditional (American-blend) mac-n-cheese and the crispy, juicy, tender fried chicken, or maybe it’s the value (where else can you get chicken fried steak, two sides and cornbread for $13?)
2. The food at A16 is a cut above the many mediocre Italian restaurants of San Francisco. Whenever I order the homemade pasta or wood-fire pizza, I’m reminded that there nothing more stunning than a perfectly-executed simple dish.
3. The Eritrean at Assab is full of flavor and served alongside perfectly porous, slightly sour injera, which absorbs all of the manifold flavors. The service is ever-welcoming and the price is unbeatable.
4. Pagolac‘s “Seven flavors of beef” is a can’t-miss dish: You’ll never look at spring rolls the same way after you roll your own. What’s more, the two brothers and sister who run this restaurant are so accommodating and genuinely gracious that you’ll leave dinner feeling like you’ve just left their home.
5. The fried chicken at Firefly is so moist that I can barely discern breast from thigh. The restaurant waitstaff are incredibly helpful, from turning to the kitchen to answer questions about ingredients to dating and describing the contents of my take-home doggie bag.
6. There’s always a line at Pizzeria Delfina, where the pizza may be thin, but the taste is always hearty. Try the classic margherita with mozzarella di bufala.
7. My Tofu House only specializes in two dishes, but they’re both stellar: the seafood soondubu, with the softest tofu and all the briny flavors of the sea, and the bibimbap, with a heated stone bowl that creates a delicious crust of toasted rice.
8. Pomelo on Church recently topped my brunch list with its global “destination” menu. Among the innovative fare: A Northwest twist on Eggs Benedict: poached eggs atop atop a hash of wild rice, red potatoes and smoked trout, drizzled with horseradish cream.
9. At Mo’s, the undeniably juicy meat is done just the way you ask, and the toasted bun is perfect in heft and size, creating an incredibly succulent cheeseburger without the mess.
10. Bong Su is has pioneered upscale regional Vietnamese cuisine, with inventive dishes like Kobe beef pho and melt-in-your-mouth seared scallops atop glass noodles. Other fine details: an elegant wine space, relevant attire designed by SF newcomer Calvin Tran and an impressive selection of teas.
11. Boulevard continues to dazzle for so many reasons: Nancy Oakes’ comforting yet refined regional American, Pat Kuleto’s ornate art nouveau interior, the backdrop of the historically significant Audiffred Building and prime views of the bay.
12. At the casual, cozy La Mediterranee on Fillmore, pretty young things serve affordable, garden-fresh assortments of Mediterranean mezze to you in a matter of minutes. The creamy avgolemono, with pureed pieces of chicken, is the best I’ve had.
13. B Star is a great alternative if you love the cultish staples at sister restaurant Burma Superstar but aren’t willing to wait. In addition, the cafe’s menu proffers other Asian dishes with a creative flair, like the green curry salmon pot pie.
14. Go to farmerbrown on a weekend night, when the fresh cocktails are delicious, the joint (courtesy of an in-house DJ) is bangin’ and you can leave the place guilt-free, knowing that your southern greens were (more than likely) grown sustainably by a local African-American farmer. The macaroni and tillamook cheddar is more cheesy than creamy, and spicy to boot; the fried chicken is thickly battered and cooked to moist perfection.
15. Enter the elegant, comfortable hearth that is Kokkari Estiatorio, relax in one of the giant chairs with a well-mixed drink, and ask the knowledgeable servers for a recommendation. The olives are perfectly cured and never too salty; the lamb chops are full of flavor and always tender; the baklava is flaky and melts in your mouth.
16. Although much of the food is classically prepared, Chapeau! isn’t stuffy or stodgy like many other French restaurants. I like to make reservations at off-hours so the small space isn’t too overcrowded for intimate conversation. A handshake and bisou from owner Philippe Gardelle adds a personal touch at the end of the night.
17. The Market Street post of Amber India hasn’t opened yet, but if its predecessor on Santana Row is any indicator, the restaurant will be the finest Indian San Francisco has to offer. The food is phenomenal, the decor understated and contemporary and the service excellent. Even the fluffy saffron rice is worlds above (the secret is the cream they add to the rice).
18. La Terrasse is the perfect spot to relax on a sunny weekend afternoon. Catch a regatta along the Marina while enjoying Belgian beer to go with your moules frites. The best part? It’s got plenty of parking, no wait and a forest as its backdrop.
19. Now that Angkor Wat is closed, Bernal Heights restaurant Angkor Borei remains the only Cambodian restaurant left standing in San Francisco. Run, don’t walk, to this mom-and-pop shop to try the fresh spinach leaves filled with ginger, peanuts, red onion, lime, chili, dried shrimp, toasted coconut and special sauce — they are an explosion of sweet, salty, spicy and sharp flavors all at once.
20. Sauce is paradise for the lover of comfort foods. Start off with the portobello mushroom “fries,” which are one-of-a-kind and just as satisfying as the real thing. The entree to try is the roasted chicken, asparagus and four cheese mac-n-cheese, which may very well be the creamiest — if not the best — in the city. For dessert, the Guiness milk shake is sure to please any beer-bellied companion.