December means one thing for food writers – end of year lists. Whether it’s trends, best new restaurants or food stories of the year, the bombardment is about to begin. First up is a topic not discussed much, but which has come up multiple times – the most underrated restaurants.
The question is, what makes an underrated restaurant? When the question was first posed to me by a fellow diner, it struck me as a fairly simple one, but yet something truly difficult to answer. When most people think underrated, hole-in-the-wall neighborhood restaurants jump to the top of the list. But I threw those out as I think that could be a whole separate list unto itself. My definition of underrated – amazing, authentic cuisine, great service, food that is priced fairly, consistency and finally a restaurant that might make it onto the message boards at Chow, but not necessarily hyped by the other “mainstream” food blogs. So after lots of thought, here is my very own list of some truly underrated gems in San Francisco.
Izakaya Yuzuki – When I was initially asked the question about underrated restaurants, this was the first place to come to mind for me. Although I have never traveled to Japan, from a food perspective, I truly believe it is one of the most authentic places in the city. Dishes are prepared with care and there is a real sense of soul and meaning behind each menu item. Chef Takashi Saito truly brought me back to my childhood by offering dishes reminiscent to what my grandparents and parents used to make for my sister and I when we were growing up. Izakaya Yuzuki owner Yuko Hayashi, who I have gotten to know fairly well over the last year, is still learning on the job as a first-time restaurant owner. But one thing that is easy to see is that she puts here heart and soul into the restaurant each day she is there, from greeting guests to serving tables to her friendly demeanor. It is the place I suggest to all my friends and family when asked about Japanese food in San Francisco. Izakaya Yuzuki is located at 598 Guerrero Street.
ICHI Sushi – Quick disclaimer; I consider ICHI owners Tim and Erin Archuleta friends. But before you think this is a biased opinion, I can assure you it is not. Tim and his staff have quickly moved to the top of the list as one of the best, most authentic sushi restaurants in San Francisco. I consider myself kind of a “sushi snob.” I don’t really do rolls, just nigiri. The first thing I examine when I am eating sushi is the sushi rice itself – fish is fish and at most places in San Francisco, it is going to be fresh, good and plentiful. Tim does sushi rice the right way; it has the right texture, the right stickiness, the right amount of vinegar to be flavorful but not overpowering. His presentation of nigiri is spot on as well. Most pieces don’t need shoyu (soy sauce). The restaurant is very small (although expansion is underway), but it is truly what Tim and Erin are about – the neighborhood, being themselves, enjoying spending time with customers and having a good time, all while providing an authentic meal. ICHI Sushi is located at 3369 Mission Street.
La Ciccia – I have a lot of friends that don’t live in San Francisco but know that I write about food. That leads to many requests for restaurant suggestions. The two most frequent are for restaurants near Union Square and Italian restaurants. And whenever they ask for Italian, I try to send them to La Ciccia in Noe Valley. It is the epitome of a neighborhood restaurant. Husband and wife owners Massimiliano Conti and Lorella Deegan welcome guests nightly into their own Sardinian home. Lorella works the front of the house with a smile and almost motherly quality about her while Massimiliano brings the flavors and dishes that are native to Sardinia. Service is friendly and very helpful, whether guests are looking to navigate through the menu or Italian wine list. The quaint restaurant fits everyone’s needs: it is great for food-lovers, those looking for a comfortable, homey meal and can even be a great date spot for a night out. La Ciccia is located at 291 30th Street.
Contigo – The idea of dining via small plates has really picked up steam over the last 4-5 years. While it is not for everyone, I love it. I think it really gives a full sense of a restaurant, trying multiple dishes from each section of the menu. One of the restaurants that exemplifies this type of dining is Contigo. The rustic menu of chef Brett Emerson features Spanish and Catalan cuisine with mainly smaller-portioned plates. The food is rich in flavor and hints at what one might find in Barcelona. While the focus in on local produce from farmers and growers in the region, there is a genuine authentic nature to each dish that really evokes feelings of a different culture. Service is friendly and welcoming and the four distinct seating areas allow for a different experience depending on the occasion. Like all the above restaurants, the quality and execution of the dishes really give diners a wonderful experience and sense of harmony from the chef to the kitchen staff to the servers. Contigo is located at 1320 Castro Street.
The one quality I love about all of these restaurants is that they give diners an unbelievably well-rounded culinary experience, touching on all the senses. From the sight and smell of food to the ambiance and setting to the taste and touch of each dish. Dining out is becoming harder for many people these days and more and more often, restaurants are stepping up to provide their guests a memorable experience. At Izakaya Yuzuki, ICHI Sushi, La Ciccia and Contigo, from start to finish, diners get that whole experience. Four wonderful restaurants that I will shout to the top of my lungs about until I’m red in the face.