A few weeks ago I found myself with two free days in San Francisco before a weekend trip outside the city. I knew I needed an afternoon to explore the Museum of Modern Art, a must-visit destination since its reopening after a major three-year renovation, but beyond that the only dilemma, and always the big question when I travel, where to eat and can I get any good dinner reservations last minute? In food-obsessed San Fran, that’s not an easy question. Did I want to revisit the classic Zuni Café and order their legendary roast chicken and Caesar Salad made famous by the late chef Judy Rodgers? Would I have time for an early breakfast at the new Tartine Manufactory, a bakery, coffee/wine bar, restaurant from the folks behind the beloved Tartine Bakery? Could I squeeze in a dim sum lunch of pork buns and siu mai at Yank Sing? There wasn’t time to enjoy the beautiful room and whole baked fish and grilled lamb chops at upscale Greek Kokkari Estiatorio or the excellent pasta at Flour + Water. Would I commit this time to getting to State Bird Provisions at 4:30 to join the line before it opens for a coveted seat? Even after some five-plus years, the wait for a table can be up to three hours. (Though they now take limited reservations 60 days in advance of the day.) Could I convince my husband who was joining me at dinner to ‘dine’ at Atelier Creen or the newer Petit Crenn, featuring multi-course set menus, a more formal meal than his tastes? After all, he hadn’t watched chef Dominique Creen on Netflix’s amazing series ‘’Chef’s Table’’ and been mesmerized by her poetic style and aesthetic. Had we been a larger group, I would have considered Cockscomb, where Top Chef Chris Cosentino’s open kitchen is the heart of the buzzy SoMa restaurant, and meat is the star with large format plates meant for sharing. I would have liked to try the upscale Mexican fare at Cala in Hayes Valley or the new Burma Love in the Mission, the latest and hipper sibling from Burma Superstar in Richmond. Oh, and where did a walk through the Mission's Dolores Park savoring a salted caramel ice cream cone from Bi-rite Creamery fit in?
I considered it quite a feat that I secured a reservation online at Mister Jiu’s, especially as Bon Appetit magazine named it one of the top ten restaurants in the country for 2017 and tables are hard to come by. Ok, I wasn’t thrilled with the 6 pm early bird seating time slot, but at least we’d get to taste Chef Brandon Jew’s modern take on Chinese food. Breathing new life into an old space in Chinatown the contemporary setting and open kitchen is unexpected and lovely. The food, a fusion of the chefs Chinese-American heritage mixed with a San Francisco style thanks to stints at Zuni Café and Quince make for a unique menu with dishes that are layered, complex and oh so good. Something as simple as the fermented cabbage was somehow intoxicating and once we had the wontons with pork and Monterey squid followed by a roasted quail with sticky rice we were fans. The only negative of our night was that we were only two, and I was envious of the groups dining around us, sharing and sampling more of the menu.
One way around having no reservations is going early to a restaurant that accepts walk-ins, and we knew that the red-hot Liholiho Yacht Club does just that. Leaving about a third of their tables free and all bar seats first-come-first-serve, we thought we’d wing it. We arrived what we thought was early at 5:45 and already the wait for a table was two hours, but we got lucky and secured a bar seat after only ten minutes. It was fun to have a front-row seat to the excellent cocktails our bartender, and friendly host for the night was mixing. (The restaurant will text you when your table is ready, so you can grab a cocktail somewhere else while you wait or why not head downstairs to Louie’s Gen-Gen, Liholilo’s cocktail lounge on the lower level that has a different food and drink menu.) Liholiho is a high energy, fun space in lower Nob Hill (bordering the notoriously dicey Tenderloin) with food inspired by chef Ravi Kapur’s upbringing in Hawaii; a mix of Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Filipino influences. Start with the standout tuna poke on nori chips and manila clams with curry, before moving on to the fried game hens and hopper shrimp with chicken fried broccolini. Every other table seemed to have an order of the slab of beef ribs with kimchi chili sauce and miso butter, but it was a significant dish meant for a group to share. Once again, I was jealous that it was just us.
So two days and two standout meals, both unusual, fun and with memorable dishes that were creative without being fussy—the kind of food you want to eat again and again. Book my ticket back, and this time, please come with me!