"All of the places we're going to in Napa have Michelin stars," my sister, Andrea, boasted minutes after my boyfriend and I arrived at her North Beach apartment for a weeklong family vacation.
My continent-hopping sister looked at me -- the sibling who actually uses her stove and who subscribes to zagat.com and Food and Wine magazine -- as if I had spent my post-college years in a black hole.
Michelin is based in France and, until recently, haughtily Eurocentric. Editors of the company's respected dining guides have released only two North American manuals. New York City was the first, and San Francisco and Napa Valley, second. For good reason.
San Francisco is a food lover's paradise.
Since this was my first visit to the Bay city, my plan was to take in everything -- the Golden Gate Bridge, the redwoods, Alcatraz. But somehow I returned to Baltimore with a suitcase stuffed with wine and catalogs from organic farmers and patisseries.
Sure, we did other things. During the day, we rode bikes across the bridge, shopped at the ring of designer stores around Union Square, sipped wines in Napa Valley and weaved around the cliffs along Route 1 on the way to Bodega Bay.
But in the evenings, and sometimes for lunch, we delighted in artistic dishes featuring fresh, locally grown ingredients that succeed year-round in the region's mild and steady climate.
What follows is the weeklong "foodie" circuit selected by my chowhound sister -- and certified by the city's food elite, who leave restaurants with notes and doggie bags. The stops ranged from fine dining to Andrea's homey neighborhood trattoria.
Dinner and a movie
The Mission District is a dense, diverse neighborhood of Hispanics and dot-com hipsters, grittiness and lavishness. The sleek restaurant Foreign Cinema is all "dot-com."
We entered through a long hallway softly illuminated with tea candles, passed through polished art deco doors and were seated under a portable heater in the large outdoor courtyard. The Oscar-winning musical "Cabaret" was beamed onto a big white wall from the restaurant's second floor.
Every night, diners get both dinner and a movie. Why an American musical was showing at "Foreign" Cinema is anyone's guess, but the toned-down vocals provided plenty of entertainment as we listened to one of our guests -- an electrical engineer -- sing along with Liza Minnelli.
I ordered a Mediterranean-flavored and perfectly cooked medley of lamb, quail and duck. But it's the memories of the decor, and not the food, that have lasted.
Funky and modern
On another evening, we ordered "small plates" at the contemporary Restaurant Lulu, set in a renovated 1910 warehouse.
The eatery was again on the scale of Foreign Cinema with an airy (read: noisy) atmosphere and a Provencal menu centered around the wood-fired ovens.
We shared a wood-fired wild mushroom pizza, duck confit salad, rosemary-scented chicken, baked chevre, roasted salmon and roasted garlic and goat cheese ravioli. Everything but the lettuce tasted as if it had been slowly roasted.