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San Francisco

West Coast Magnet

San Francisco is a sculpture of tiered hills wrapped by a commanding bay. It is fog, a famous red-gold bridge— Golden Gate—and a city of surprises and secrets. It is a cacophony of sounds: the gong of a cable car, the clatter of pigeon wings in Union Square and the sea breeze rustling at the Pacific’s edge. It is a blend of exhilarating smells: freshly baked sourdough bread, salt-scrubbed air and the vapors of espresso escaping from hissing machines.

Always a magnet for foreign visitors and American tourists, too, it draws the creative and restless young. Half of San Francisco’s population is under 35, most of them migrants seeking to carve out new lives. The youthquake has given the city an energetic boost with added hotels, restaurants, shops and attractions.

Cable Car, San Francisco
(credit: Mark Snyder)

But the city has not lost its familiarity and the old sites bear revisiting, especially on foot. If you want to cover a great deal of ground in one day, walk the Barberry Coast Trail using the map and guide published by the San Francisco Bay Historical Society (415-775-1111). It covers 3.8 miles of almost entirely flat or gently sloping streets. The official guide for this tour includes historical data and places to stop along the way. The San Francisco Convention & Visitors Bureau (415-391-2000) distributes a brochure of four neighborhood walks—Fisherman’s Wharf, North Beach, Chinatown and Union Square—encompassing from 17 to 35 blocks.


One of many reasons for booking accommodations at The Argent Hotel is its address. The neighborhood, SOMA (South of Market), was once studded with factories and industrial warehouses. No more! Galleries, museums, studios, a ballpark and a shopping and entertainment complex replace them.

Although the hotel is a mere 17 years old, it has undergone two renovations since it started accepting guests. Completed in the summer of 2000, the latest design was inspired by the Art Moderne style so prevalent in Europe in the ‘30s. The Argent is, nevertheless, a hotel for the new millennium. The lobby is bold and contemporary, but not overwhelming. Furniture, carpets, fabrics, paint and decorative accessories all have a fresh look.

Enhanced VIP service is offered on the executive level floors where all rooms have floor-to-ceiling windows with sweeping views of the city from the Bay Bridge to Twin Peaks and from the Golden Gate to downtown. The rooms are both luxurious and comfortable. Service is excellent. The 33rd floor lounge is always full of people enjoying themselves. Three repasts and drinks are complimentary. A varied and delicious spread, such as sushi and sashimi, an assortment of pates or vegetables and shrimp and dips, is served at the cocktail time.

The Argent Hotel, 50 Third Street, San Francisco, CA 94103. Tel. 877-222-6699, 415-974-6400. Rooms on the executive floor start at $309. www.argenthotel.com

Unfortunately, there is only one outpost of the luxury Japanese-managed Nikko chain here in the United States, but it most belongs in San Francisco with its large Asian presence. Recently renovated to the tune of $8 million, the 13-year old hotel maintains its East-West flavor. The soaring new lobby bursts with drama. Water cascades over white marble; tall orange glass lamps open like flowers. Wall coverings, textiles and art reflect softer tones. Rooms are decorated in earth colors, plush fabrics and sycamore and maple woods from around the world.

The top five floors where the suites and deluxe rooms have been located are designated Nikko floors and have panoramic views of the city skyline and the Bay. Nikko floor guests have exclusive use of a lounge with internet access where breakfast, afternoon snacks and a light cocktail buffet are served along with wine and beer.

The health club features a 48-foot atrium enclosed pool and an outdoor terrace. You can enjoy a true Japanese experience here in the Kamaburo relaxation room where the temperature is 100 degrees. Guests unwind by lying on wooden palettes that are set on heated rocks.

The hotel offers the use of complimentary Visors operating the Palm system and including information about transportation, dining, entertainment and shopping, which can be updated daily by the concierge. You can also program your own schedule.

Hotel Nikko San Francisco, 222 Mason Street, San Francisco 94102. Tel. 415-394-1111, 415-394-1159. Rates begin at $395 on the Nikko floor. www.hotelnikkosf.com


Offering both sushi and sashimi and “steakhouse” beef in a quality restaurant seems risky. At Anzu in the Hotel Nikko, they marry perfectly. Two chefs, one Swiss born and the other from Tokyo, are responsible for separate parts of the menu. Selections from the Japanese kitchen are meant to be ordered as starters. When you have a hankering for sushi and your companions turn up their noses at raw fish, Anzu is the perfect compromise. There’s even a maki roll for the uninitiated; it’s filled with cooked duck and lamb. The halibut and tuna sushi were terrific.

Some of the pristine fish come from Japan while top-notch prime Midwestern steak—filet mignon, ribeye, strip and porterhouse—is shipped from Chicago. Choose from among seven sauces like Bernaise, lime-curry and hoisin barbecue. A signature potato puff melts in your mouth and is tremendously satisfying. But the best accompaniment of all is an extraordinary custardy mushroom pudding made with brioche. The warm and oozy bittersweet chocolate cake makes a fine finale.

In keeping with the latest fad Anzu serves 55 cocktails created in-house.

The simple decor is a melange of quiet colors—taupe and beige—with spare accents in jade and malachite green.

Anzu, Hotel Nikko, 222 Mason Street, San Francisco, CA 94102. Tel. 415-394-1100. Expensive. www.restaurantanzu.com

When a chef trains and works in many countries, the menu he designs for his restaurant is bound to be eclectic international. Joel Guillon, executive chef at Cafe Fifth Three, The Argent’s four-star dining room, and Maitre Cuisinaire de France, a distinction he shares with only 300 other chefs worldwide, runs a kitchen that turns out dishes that are not overly contrived. He prepares an appropriate number of choices so that ordering does not become an impossible decision. For appetizers the lively Watsonville beetroot salad made with three kinds of beets is given some umph with a tangy dressing and goat cheese. Grilled asparagus are firm; sharpness and crunch are added with feta cheese and roasted hazelnuts.

Chicken breast filled with spinach, ricotta and pine nuts sitting on grilled polenta and topped with Marsala sauce and preserved artichokes is dependably savory. Veal scaloppini and basil fettucine with port mushroom sauce is prepared with distinction.

To match the look of the hotel, Cafe Fifty-Three has a nouveau-European design. It is divided into three distinct areas so that diners do not feel overwhelmed in a cavernous room. They will also appreciate the well-spaced tables.

Cafe Fifth Three, The Argent Hotel, 50 Third Street, San Francisco, CA. Tel. 415-974-6400. Moderate.

In a recent Travel & Leisure reader’s poll San Francisco was the winner as the most desirable city in the United States and Ana Mandara was named as its table of choice. No surprise. If you can’t get a reservation, go for a drink and some wonderful nibbles in the upstairs lounge. Among the house cocktails is a light and pleasant gin-based drink, the Ana Mandara. The modern Vietnamese food is innovative and extraordinarily delicious. Dungeness crab baked in bamboo leaves and stuffed rice flour crepes topped with crispy noodles remind you of how delicate this cooking is.

You know that the chef is a perfectionist when he imports fish, Mekong Basa, which is specially farm-raised for his use. A cross between sea bass and catfish, it is served with spicy lemon sauce. Quail grilled over charcoal sit on a pile of heavenly sticky rice. No meal here is complete without fragrant jasmine rice studded with bits of vegetables and ham and steamed in pandanus leaves. Unlike some Asian menus, Ana Mandara’s desserts are not predictable. Perhaps they are not authentic either, but they are adventurous. Basil blends beautifully with lime sorbet. Rich caramel sauce complements banana flambé in filo with chocolate mousse and creme anglais.

The restaurant whose large second story windows overlook Fisherman’s Wharf combines many elements from Vietnamese architecture. Built on two levels, you can see the beauty of two pagodas and their exquisite interiors as you look down upon them from upstairs. Khmer sculptures, hmong art, cement lanterns, bamboo shades and large palm plants are reminders of this gentle culture. Specially created uniforms, tableware and linens enhance the Vietnamese experience.

Ana Mandara, 891 Beach Street, San Francisco, CA 94109. Tel. 415-771-6800. Moderate. www.anamandara.com

When you find a formula that works, stick with it and educate your customers’palates. Fusion cooking was an unproven concept in 1985, the year Tommy Toy’s Cuisine Chinoise first opened its doors. But diners soon realized that French and Chinese do mix. As proof, the signature dinner hasn’t changed and regulars order it repeatedly. Tackling six courses involves a lot of eating, but the dishes offer a contrast in textures and tastes and the service is unhurried.

The meal begins with traditional dim sum, crisp lettuce folded around minced squab, and is followed by a fresh coconut filled with seafood and bisque and sealed with puff pastry. In this setting it seems more Asian than Gallic. The first entree is a whole shelled lobster and angel hair noodles napped with peppercorn sauce. The second is sublime Peking duck served with lotus buns rather than the usual pancakes. The buns taste like white bread and are the only disappointment. Charred beef with herbs on a base of four-flavored fried rice is comparable to the very best quality porterhouse. The meal ends with peach mousse. No fortune cookies here!

The dining room, copied from the Ching Dynasty Empress Dowager’s Reading Room in the Forbidden City in Beijing, is filled with Oriental art, antiques and fine furnishings.

Tommy Toy’s Cuisine Chinoise, 655 Montogomery Street. San Francisco, CA 94111. Tel. 415-397-4888. Reasonable. Signature dinner is $55. www.tommytoys.com

On a Thursday evening at 6:30 would-be patrons were turned away from Farallon. The restaurant has garnered many kudos in its three-year existence, including best seafood eatery in town. But the menu does not list fish exclusively and the chef refers to his cooking as coastal cuisine. Iced shellfish indulgence, a mountain of oysters, shrimp, cockles, crayfish, periwinkles, crab claws and clams with a tangy dipping sauce is meant to be shared.

Squab confit tortellini with corn salad and fig compote are sublime. Roasted sablefish, an unusual fish that is rarely served, is juicy and full of flavor. The kitchen produces stellar grilled squab, which are moist and tender.

Desserts are completely original and the unusual pairings of ingredients work well. Mixed berry hazelnut financier with corn ice cream and spiced compote is a winner. Other surprising ingredients that are used in the sweets to enhance flavor are black pepper and balsamic vinegar.

To match the food, the restaurant’s design is a fantasy of underwater whimsy. Jellyfish-shaped frosted glass fixtures with colorful tentacles are suspended overhead. Portholes, paintings of the wharf, starfish and marble-tiled fish set in the floor also add to the amusing ambiance.

Farallon, 450 Post Street, San Francisco, CA 94102. Tel. 415-956-6969. Moderately expensive. www.farallonrestaurant.com

Angled on a corner across the edge of the bay on San Francisco’s Embarcadero is one-year-old LiveFire, named after the wood oven on which signature American fare is grilled. The food is inconsistent, but when it is good, it dazzles. For starters paprika-battered calamari is tasty, but the spicy lemon aioli for dipping is bland and the presentation on a black canvas napkin to soak up the grease is an eyesore. Another appetizer, chunks of Caribbean marinated and grilled salmon on skewers served with slivered red onion and fennel slaw is better.

Entrees are leaps above the appetizers, which clearly need refinement in preparation and plating. Trifecta of duck breast over Chinese long beans and fruitwood grilled sweet potatoes, topped with crispy fried taro chips is enjoyable. Duck is well complemented by smoky caramelized potatoes. Hearty lean grilled pork loin coupled with Thai bean sprouts and peanuts is delicious, but should include greens or another more substantial vegetable. In addition to the specialty pizzetas, fish, poultry, lamb and steak, there are several vegetarian pasta dishes for herbivores.

Similarly, desserts are a mixed bag. Apricot sorbet is pungent and not too sweet, the macadamia nut brittle ice cream creamy and addictive. Both are served in chocolate-dipped waffle shells. Strawberry sorbet in lemon gratin with mixed berries is insipid, gooey and does not look appealing. The restaurant’s wine list is vast with many reasonably priced selections starting at $12. The service is too laid back.

In the open kitchen flames dance over cherry, maple, walnut and almond logs, warming the front room and active bar. Beige leather banquettes and cherry and blond wood floors are accented with art deco lamps and saffron-colored gourds. Matte chrome counters and bars line the front room and black and white photos of maritime life in the early-19th century cover the walls. Both provide a cool counterpoint to the autumnal hues. In an airy and quiet dimly lighted back room fitted with white tile columns and walls, the tables are set wide apart. Bossa nova and bebop play softly.

Though this lively, hip eatery has to work out some kinks, the chef seems talented enough to smooth the edges. With its appealing design and simple, unfussy cuisine, the restaurant could graduate to the neighborhood’s stellar circle of eateries.

LiveFire, 100 Brannon Street, San Francisco CA 94107. Tel 415-227-0777.

If the Greek gods Artemis, Demeter and Dionysos were meeting for a business lunch, they might have chosen a divine spot like Kokkari. An upscale Greek taverna in Jackson Square, it represents the hunt and harvest, as well as wine and revelry much like the deities do.

Chef Jean Alberti fuses Aegean cuisine and California fare with flair and novelty, focusing mainly on game and seafood. Kokkari’s two large earthy rooms defined by exposed wooden beams, a long active bar, and logs ablaze in a stone fireplace combine charm with rusticity. With its solicitous service and warm ambiance Kokkari manages to be both down-to-earth and heavenly, recalling ancient Mediterranean banquets that lasted well into the night.

We began our meal with black rice dolmathes wrapped in cabbage leaves that are salty and hearty, but fortunately lacking in the usual excess of oil. Next we enjoyed a classic Greek salad with cucumber, pepper, tomato and onion lovingly arranged with tangy dressing and smooth goat-milk feta cheese. The heirloom tomatoes in a salad are refreshing, firm and flavorful. Tossed with basil and honey dressing and topped with mild, melted Manouri cheese, the dressing is a bit too sweet and the sinfully creamy cheese lacks complex flavor.

Our entrees included traditional moussaka with eggplant, lamb, potato and yogurt béchamel sauce served in a brown clay pot. The moussaka is rich and heavy without being mushy. All the layers keep their distinctive tastes; the lamb is lean and the eggplant smooth rather than acidic. A whole striped bass with braised greens in lemon-oregano vinaigrette is a light and simple main course, delicate white flesh glowing on the plate. Paired with salty and well-seasoned chard, this dish could have fed two people.

We also sampled spicy braised rabbit with okra and pearl onions that is perhaps the weakest item on the menu. The texture of the rabbit is mealy and the sauce overpowered it. A Herculean-sized grilled lamb chop is too fatty, but the side of oregano-laced potatoes that came with it is delicious.

The red wine from Naxos that our server recommended is also excellent. With dessert we enjoyed Greek coffee that is warmed in a copper pot over volcanic sand from the Aegean islands. A choice dessert is nectarine semolina custard wrapped in filo and served with lemon thyme ice cream. It is sweet and airy, a fruity cloud of citrus on the tongue.

Even when you are tucked away in a cozy booth, the restaurant is noisy. However, in response to our request, management did turn down the music. The friendly service was flawless.

Kokkari is named after a small fishing village on the island of Samos where Orion supposedly fell in love with the daughter of the King of Chios. To honor this passion, Orion hunted for wild game and seafood to serve at ceremonial banquets. The restaurant tries to serve food fit for the gods that would rival Orion’s legendary feasts. With its attractive atmosphere and some well-prepared fare, Kokkari almost succeeds.

Kokkari, 200 Jackson Street, San Francisco, CA 94111. Tel. 415-981-0983. www.kokkari.com

Emily Fancher

Spring 2001