Having been a restaurant critic for many, many years the San Francisco Chronicle's Michael Bauer has had the pleasure of experiencing great restaurants all over northern California, the country, and the world for that matter. Having eaten with him many times I can tell you that Michael loves fried chicken as much as he loves white truffles and caviar.
He told me that as a restaurant critic it's very hard to go to a restaurant and just experience it the way a regular diner would. "You experience things a little differently as a critic. To help me judge a restaurant I separate its main components; food, ambiance, service, wine list and service, so my perspective is slightly skewed. Then I weave the various components together in the course of three visits. Usually, one of the three visits I try to experience it as a regular diner would." For more on how Michael goes about his work, check out his How to Evaluate a Restaurant section on his Between Meals blog.
His San Francisco and Napa Valley restaurant experience picks had mostly surprises and one obvious choice:
French Laundry: I know everyone would think I was going to pick the French Laundry, but the fact of the matter is that Thomas Keller really is doing incomparable food there. The restaurant has a certain magic that I find in very few places. My gold standard for serious dining experiences was Freddy Girardet, the recently retired 3 star Michelin chef that many people felt had the best restaurant in the world in Lausanne, Switzerland. His restaurant was my pinnacle of dining. I remember a lunch on December 21, 2004 at the French Laundry with Marion Cunningham and Chuck Williams (of Williams-Sonoma), the food was wonderful, we all felt so great and so special just sitting there, that it replaced Girardet in my mind as the ultimate dining experience. I went back a few months ago and it was just as good.
Bistro Don Giovanni is another absolutely fantastic dining experience in wine country. It has this big outdoor fireplace, you're overlooking this gorgeous vineyards, and overall it has this extraordinarily warm ambiance. The pastas there are so great, and so is the pizza. I love restaurants with a strong sense of place, with a strong local feel, and at Bistro Don Giovanni you always see 3 or four vintners from the area eating and drinking wine.
Foreign Cinema: I had a birthday dinner there recently. We had them do fixed price meal with selections from the regular menu. The two chefs here, Gayle Pirie and John Clark, worked for 10 years at Zuni and Chez Panisse, so their food has a real California sensibility. The space itself is this big indoor warehouse with a huge covered patio. In between the two spaces they project foreign films on the wall. It's a huge theatrical space with a bar and a gallery that's just really cool. When it opened, it was trendy and the food wasn't very good. Then Gayle and John took it over and completely transformed the restaurant.
SPQR is a new Roman restaurant by Shelley Lungren, who has the excellent Neapolitan restaurant A15. The food at SPQR is kind of familiar, but when I ate there it was amazing; perfect fried chicken livers, delicious pasta with pork soffrito, hearty pasta with tripe and tomato sauce and mint. I think it adds immeasurable to an Italian restaurant experience when the owners focus on the food and wine of a specific region or city. SPQR also has an amazing wine list and Shelley herself is often there suggesting wines. She has this incredible passion for what she does and she makes you feel well taken care of, which is something I look for when I am judging a restaurant.
Laiola is a casual but serious Spanish-inspired place that just opened in on Chestnut Street, which is known for its bars and hangouts more than its restaurants It feels more like a lounge or a bar than a real restaurant, but Mark Dunham's food (formerly of 42 degrees) is fun, unpretentious, and seriously delicious: stuffed dates with chorizo wrapped in bacon, lamb meatballs with cumin yogurt, grilled octopus with fresh shelling and romano beans, and a killer mixed grill with suckling pig. Plus, it has a great Spanish wine list and terrific cocktails. Most of all Laiola has great energy, and I love to feel the energy of a restaurant when I'm eating.