Fine Dining: The New Normal

Casual but upscale dining is a national trend that only seems to keep growing in San Francisco. These restaurants turn on the culinary firepower yet keep the setting refined, luxurious and low key. Great food, a fun vibe , and maybe even a Michelin star. It is all here.

Chef’s Counter at Saison
Neighborhood: SOMA

Saison's Abalone

Saison’s Abalone

Chef Josh Skenes recently scored three stars from the Michelin guide for his 18-course, $250 menu at San Francisco’s Saison. He brings the same exacting technique – and prices – to the menu designed especially for the Chef’s Counter at Saison. Call it a free-form tasting menu and eat as much or as little as you like of dishes such as Saison reserve caviar and grilled seaweed bread; broth of rockfish and thistles roasted near the fire; and wild strawberries in wild strawberry juice & milk ice cream. The linens are luxurious and the glassware is delicate but the lack of a dress code means come as you are.

For more information and to make reservations, please visit: or call 415.716.6008.

Neighborhood: The Mission

Californios Hama Hama Oyster

Californios Hama Hama Oyster

Queso. Arroz. Frijoles. The spare descriptions of dishes on Chef Val Cantu’s current tasting menu read like a puzzle. Grab a seat on a golden-hued, tufted banquette and allow the simple beauty of Cantu’s interpretation of Mexican-influenced cuisine to unfold dish by dish. Grilled Moulard duck has a surprising crystalline crunch and a quick hit of pickled heat while huevos Californios is a marvel of suave creaminess pricked with chile heat. The elegant food arrives at tables dressed in creamy white linens while some of the plates and the occasional Mexican flag express the chef’s sense of humor and a certain multi-culti resonance. The price – about $60 per person for anywhere from seven to 14 courses – belies the quality of the food. Forget the menu. Sit back, relax and enjoy.

For more information and to make reservations, please visit: or call 415.757.0994.

Neighborhood: Laurel Heights

Nico Sardine and Cucumber, photo credit: Eric Wolfinger

Nico Sardine and Cucumber, photo credit: Eric Wolfinger

Named one of the top 10 new restaurants of 2014 by the San Francisco Chronicle, neighborhood favorite Nico has become a destination for its $55 three course menu. (A five-course menu for $65 is also available.) Ladder-back chairs, long wooden benches and unadorned wood tables add to Nico’s casual, every day vibe, but the food is anything but quotidian. Chef Nicolas Delaroque’s comfortable yet sophisticated food includes informal brasserie dishes such as broccoli rabe glazed with miso and mustard alongside uni elegantly dressed with corn and coffee. A meal here is the epitome of affordable luxury.

For more information and to make reservations, please visit: or call 415.359.1000.

Neighborhood: Financial District

Roast Chicken and Sides at Mourad

Roast Chicken and Sides at Mourad

The soaring windows of this 6,000 square-foot restaurant in the former Pacific Telephone Building invite your gaze upward but the soulful yet modern Moroccan cuisine of Chef Mourad Lahlou refocuses attention on the plate. A tasting menu of “snacks” translates to a $120 meal but the joy of Mourad is the family-style plates. A lamb shoulder platter, heaped with greens and dusted with cumin salt is enough for a family or intimate business dinner. Somewhat smaller dishes like softshell crab with avocado, plum and zhug make nice shared appetizers or a meal for one on those days when less is more. Narrow, natural wood tables and a gleaming tile floor complete the vibrantly-hued scene.

For more information and to make reservations, please visit: or call 415.660.2500.