IT was lunchtime on a Saturday at Farallon, a pricey downtown restaurant, and the place was hopping. In the bar waiting for a table, I overheard an immaculately coifed woman chatting with the bartender. She was complaining, actually, about the crowd. "It must be all those people in for the cheap meals," she said.
My husband, Barry, and I were two of those people -- here to take advantage of the city's monthlong Dine About Town promotion. Each January about 100 of the city's restaurants, including some top-rated ones, offer three-course meals at discounted prices: $21.95 per person for lunch and $31.95 for dinner, excluding beverages.
Several cities, including New York; Washington, D.C.; San Diego; and Vancouver, Canada, hold restaurant weeks in January, when business lags. San Francisco's promotion, entering its fifth year, seems to be catching on. In 2005, the city's 108 participating restaurants served 40% more diners than in 2004, the San Francisco Convention & Visitors Bureau reported.
The thought of a three-day feast in one of the world's great dining cities had me salivating long before our trip. At bedtime, I would curl up with food guidebooks and restaurant reviews, which I would cross-check against the Dine About Town list. The city was laid out before me like a menu with 108 possibilities. In the end I learned my eyes were bigger than my stomach, but not before I'd made five reservations.
To maximize our time, we arrived into Oakland at 11 a.m. on a Friday, took a BART train to downtown, dropped our bags at the hotel and race-walked to the Campton Place restaurant to make our 1 p.m. reservation.
I had chosen this restaurant, an elegant space in the boutique Campton Place Hotel, because it represented a sizable value (a four-course lunch is usually $49) and was highly rated among the guidebooks I consulted. It was our most expensive meal of the weekend -- more than $100, including tip -- because we also signed on for Wine About Town ($21.95 per person extra), which paired wines with each course. I've never spent -- or eaten -- as much for lunch, but I regret neither a penny nor a calorie.
After our harried journey from Los Angeles, the dining room was a calming influence, dressed in soothing tones of taupe and cream. A gallery of rectangular mirrors defined a wall above the banquettes; the tables were set with fine linens and china. Our waiter was attentive and generous with his knowledge of the menu and wine list; it didn't matter that we were hunting haute cuisine on the cheap.
We started with an amuse bouche of light soup, an essence of beets with apples that surprisingly was not too sweet. I followed that with crispy bonbons (which resembled empanadas but were lighter) with herb salad and aged balsamico. My first course was paired with a fruity Abbazia di Novacella Pinot Grigio, which, to my untrained palate, was good. My main course was a delicately seared wild salmon (flown in from Scotland, our waiter said) paired with a Talenti Sangiovese. The experience was a sensory delight, from the comfort of the dining room to the service and the quality of the food.
We rolled out of the restaurant for the slow walk back. At the centrally located Donatello hotel, where we were staying, we rested up for our next meal.
Before dinner, we stopped by Bix, named for 1920s jazz great Bix Beiderbecke and owned by a distant relative. Bix had nearly made the cut in my planning stage, but I'd run out of available meals. So we met my cousin Jay there for drinks.
Bix was what a supper club should be -- all dark leather and atmospheric, with banquettes and tables clustered around a grand piano. A long wooden bar that took up nearly one wall was crowded with suited after-5 types having drinks. Too bad we couldn't linger for a steak, but we had a half-mile walk back on dodgy streets south of Market for dinner at Fringale.
I had dined at the Basque-influenced Fringale seven years earlier, and I remembered that meal fondly -- good friends lingering over good conversation, food and drink. I was eager to repeat the experience.
Fringale's dozen or so tables were crowded and so was the small bar, an indication, I thought, that I had chosen well. Its Dine About Town menu was limited: soup or a salad, king salmon or braised short ribs and the signature chocolate gourmand dessert. The food was as good as I remembered, but there was no lingering. The waiter sped through the courses, so we did too, and soon we were back out in the crisp night air.
Even without the dining promotion, I wouldn't need enticement to visit San Francisco in January, or any time. The weather was sunny but cool, and we spent our time between meals shopping the winter sales, picking up pants at the downtown Nike store, books at City Lights, and shoes and toys at tiny shops.
We browsed the outdoor stalls in Chinatown and soaked up the sun at the Ferry Building in the shadow of the Bay Bridge. The Saturday morning farmers market had attracted a large crowd sampling produce and gourmet offerings inside and out. We were tempted too but had a lunch date at Farallon.
The restaurant was crowded and the service slow, giving us ample time to admire its fascinating marine-themed decor designed by restaurateur Pat Kuleto -- arching ceilings, painted mosaics and chandeliers that resemble sea urchins -- and catch up with the friends who'd joined us. All of us had the only entree offered: tuna seared (with varying degrees of success) and served with French lentils.
Tuna was again on the menu for dinner at the well-reputed Japanese restaurant Kyo-ya, tucked inside the Palace, the ornate 19th century grande dame hotel on Market Street. Kyo-ya is minimalist by comparison, with black lacquer on blond wood. Our waitress was all business, and a waiter pulled away my plate, asking, "Are you done?" while I was still chewing. I enjoyed the meal -- what I ate of it -- which included some of the best sushi I've had. But Barry had to ask for the included dessert, green tea ice cream, and when it arrived, it turned out to be vanilla. We were back on the street in half an hour.
By then, our fourth multi-course meal in two days, I was beginning to think that not all the restaurants and their staffs were as enthusiastic about the Dine About Town concept as I.
Then too, I was just getting fed up, period. We'd skipped breakfasts and walked everywhere from the conveniently located Donatello, even adding a heart-stressing climb up Nob Hill to the Top of the Mark for martinis at sunset. We had Sunday lunch reservations at Butterfly, an Asian-influenced restaurant on the Embarcadero, but I couldn't stomach the thought of one more multi-course meal. We canceled.
Instead, Barry and I walked along the Embarcadero, dodged abortion foes rallying in front of the Ferry Building and went inside to graze lightly from its dozens of shops and eateries. There, we created a moving feast: crab croquettes from Delica rf-1, apple turnovers from Frog Hollow Farm, bread from the Acme bakery and a dozen oysters from Hog Island Oyster Co. It was an antidote to the gorging of the previous two days.
I had bitten off more than I could chew with Dine About Town. And I wondered whether that was true for some of the restaurants as well. Perhaps San Francisco's finest meals are best savored -- and better served -- at well-spaced intervals.
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What's on the menu?
From Los Angeles, it's about 380 miles to San Francisco. From LAX, Burbank, Ontario and Orange County, United, Southwest and American offer nonstop flights to San Francisco or Oakland. From Long Beach, only JetBlue flies nonstop, and only to Oakland. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $170.
WHERE TO STAY:
Some hotels have special rates for the promotion; see the Dine About Town website (below), or www.sfvisitor.org.
Donatello hotel, 501 Post St.; (415) 441-7100, thedonatellosf.com. Comfortable, colorful, modern rooms with king-size beds near Union Square and the theater district. Doubles from $149.
WHERE TO EAT:
Not all of the restaurants we chose are participating this year. Here are the ones that are:
Bix, 56 Gold St.; (415) 433-6300, www.bixrestaurant.com. Lunch and dinner.
Campton Place, 340 Stockton St.; (866) 332-1670, www.camptonplace.com. Lunch only.
Fringale, 570 4th St.; (415) 543-0573, www.fringalerestaurant.com. Lunch and dinner.
Farallon, 450 Post St.; (415) 956-6969; www.farallonrestaurant.com. Lunch only.
TO LEARN MORE:
Dine About Town, which includes about 100 restaurants this year, runs through Jan. 31. Three-course lunches are $21.95; dinners, $31.95. It's a cross-promotion with Visa, but we didn't always have to use the credit card. For the 2006 list of participating restaurants, see the Dine About Town website, www.sfdineabouttown.com.
Reservations are highly recommended. We made ours online at www.opentable.com.
-- Vani Rangachar