Whether you’re looking for a cozy neighborhood bistro or feel like venturing to the outer Mission or beyond (have you heard of the town of Port Costa?), here are three very different, equally exceptional establishments to pique your culinary sense of adventure.
Nestled on the hill at 1385 Mason Street, Mason Pacific (formerly the Spanish tapas bar, Lalola) straddles Nob Hill, Russian Hill, and Chinatown. Owners Jay Thomson and Shannon McTiernan Thomson, and executive chef Sean McTiernan (Rose Pistola, Delfina, as well as time spent in Europe at Taillevent, Le Bellecour, and La Table de Robuchon in Paris) have created a warm and inviting neighborhood bistro that over-delivers on both food and service. The restaurant is divided into two spaces—there is a beautiful marble bar with seating for six and several tables facing Pacific Avenue; across the way, the dining room seats 24. Pristine tablecloths, molded ceilings, and tufted banquettes create a welcoming ambiance. Where you decide to eat will color your dining experience—the dining room is somewhat formal and tranquil; the bar and adjoining eating area is lively and casual (the bar is always a great place to dine with a partner or on your own).
McTiernan’s menu of small and large plates is seasonally driven and—although it shows a French influence, particularly in the presentation and technique—it is decidedly northern Californian in terms of the ingredients. Start with the salad of fall chicories (Hosui pear, crumbled gorgonzola, blue d’Auvergne dressing). The pear arrives at table perfectly ripe, and the combination of blue cheese and radicchio is a great palette opener. Another must-try is the starter of buttermilk fried chicken (sauce Rémoulade, green Tabasco). The dish comes with a leg and a thigh and is perfect for sharing. The Mediterranean octopus (garlic yogurt, soppressata, shaved fennel) is another delicious alternative. For a main dish, consider indulging in the New York steak (celery root puree, kale, baby carrots, chestnuts, orange gastrique), or the market fish (braised green cabbage, chestnut, radish, rutabaga “spaghetti”). The wine list is compelling, thanks to sommelier Eric Railsback (RN74, Wine Cask in Santa Barbara, and Gordon Ramsay and Mozza in Los Angeles). In addition to an eclectic selection of wines (many Champagnes) by the glass, there are also aged wines from Thomson’s personal collection, as well as a carafe program featuring Copain wines, made exclusively for Mason Pacific. Open Tuesday through Sunday, from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m.
BULL VALLEY ROADHOUSE
Port Costa is a town that is lost delightfully in time. It’s located right off Interstate 80 (14 Canyon Lake Drive), south of the Carquinez Bridge in Contra Costa County. With a population of 190 and a downtown radius of about one block, the town is known by only a few people, let alone the restaurant and adjoining Burlington Hotel. But this is changing. Last year, owners Earl Flewellen and Samuel Spurrier took over what was called the Bull Valley Restaurant, and meticulously remodeled it to its former glory (once upon a time, Port Costa was the world’s largest wheat-shipping port, welcoming and feeding thousands of sailors). Surprisingly, the town is only 40 miles east of San Francisco, and the restaurant has already garnered rave reviews from high places. Once you pass over the threshold with a giant golden ox hanging over the door, you’ll enter another world, punctuated by a bar and lounge filled with Victorian furniture and period portraits of men and women from the 1800s. Sidle up to the bar and order one of Erik Adkins’s (Slanted Door) pre-Prohibition cocktails. Once you have relaxed and settled into the old-world vibe, move on to the dining room for a proper American comfort meal.
Co-owner and chef David Williams (also a Slanted Door alum) has crafted a homey American menu, served family style. Nearly all of the ingredients are sourced from nearby farms. Choose from comforting classics such as the dry rubbed St. Louis pork ribs (maple, fennel seed, and Port Costa peppercorn) or the steamed PEI mussels (white wine, shallots, fries, aioli). Larger entrees include slow-roasted pork stew (polenta, tomatillo, guajillo chili, lime, crème fraiche) and grilled rib eye steak (roasted shiitake, bunshimeji, and king trumpet mushrooms). The sides are equally soothing—try the roasted macaroni gratin with gruyere and parmesan. Bull Valley Roadhouse is a perfect stop on the way back from Lake Tahoe. And, if you are too relaxed to continue the drive back to San Francisco after dinner and libations, just wander next door to the newly restored Burlington Hotel. The restaurant is open Thursday from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m.; Friday from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m.; Saturday from 4 p.m to 10 p.m.; Sunday from 4 p.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday brunch from 10:30 a.m. until 2 p.m.
Recently opened inside the Chapel Bar and music venue at 777 Valencia Street, The Vestry is a new restaurant from owner Jack Knowles (Oakland’s À Coté and Rumbo al Sur). The historic, two-story building with a mock-Tudor interior used to be a mortuary with an attached chapel. Knowles redesigned the building’s layout, but preserved and repurposed nearly all of the original carved doors, support columns, and lead-glass windows. The former slumber rooms (intended for wakes and viewings of the deceased; can you dig it?) were opened and transformed into bar and restaurant spaces. Even the narrow dining room tables were salvaged from wood framing from the walls. The feel is rustic yet warm and intimate, and it is right at home in this well-gentrified part of the Mission.
Chef Matthew Colgan (also from À Coté) is in the process of building a California-influenced menu of small and large plates. The Moroccan fritto misto, with large gulf prawns and various seasonal vegetables, is triumphant in every way. Take it over the top and ask for some of the restaurant’s house-made hot dipping sauce to go with it. Other dishes to order include mussels with Pernod, chicken tortelloni with chanterelles in brodo, and two house-made Alsatian and Toulouse sausages with accompaniments. Or, try the Chapel burger with Point Reyes toma, caramelized onions, and tomato jam on a pretzel bun. The restaurant’s full bar is manned by Darren Crawford (Bourbon & Branch) and showcases vintage cocktails using house-made syrups and lesser-known spirits. Open for dinner every night, from 5 p.m. until 1 a.m. Weekend brunch from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.
James Stolich’s CookWithJames.com provides regional Italian and Spanish dishes for all occasions. He has been featured in UrbanDaddy.com, AgencySpy.com, and Jenn Garbee’s intriguing book, Secret Suppers, about rogue chefs and their little known culinary lives.