Northern California, the city by the bay, a jumble of hoofable little ‘hoods and axle-busting hills, micro-climates and macro-views, eye-crowding cityscapes and vast green parks.
A casual, come-as-you-are attitude combined with big-city sophistication, inspired food at taco trucks and gastronomic temples alike, and a sublime conspiracy between city and nature to assault the eye with beauty at every turn.
SFO is one of several international airports in the area. Fly, drive, hitch a ride; just go west. It’s harder to leave than to come.
Fill your bag with sweaters and scarves if you’re planning to visit during the summer. Fog regularly rolls off the Pacific, creeping between the hills and pouring through the Golden Gate most days from June through August. Watching it swallow the city from the top of a hill is a dramatic sight to behold, but for a dose of sun, try points south and east — or make a day trip to wine country or the East Bay.
For decades, most San Franciscans were familiar with two kinds of Japanese restaurant: cheap sushi places and fancy sushi places. A typical order at the former would consist of a bunch of things that weren’t sushi at all (tempura, teriyaki…), which is fine, and other things that were technically sushi, but sushi that was problematized, as a comp. lit. student might put it, by, like, avocado and mayonnaise and maybe the use of a deep fryer. The fancy places were often marked by a hushed seriousness — temples is the metaphor everyone uses — and the presence of toro (fatty tuna) or otoro (very fatty tuna) and, more recently, by delicacies like uni (urchin) and ankimo (monkfish liver).
Today, San Franciscans can choose from all kinds of Japanese restaurants, none more attention-grabbing over the past few years than the izakaya. The concept dates back to Japan’s Edo period, and it has evolved a lot in the interim, but, fundamentally, it’s simple: a casual restaurant that’s as much about the drinking as the eating. Dishes are usually small, meant for sharing and for ordering one after another, the drinks increasing appetite, the food calling for more drinks — a happy feedback loop. One of the first in the recent wave was Hotel Kabuki’s O Izakaya Lounge, which opened in 2007. At the time, it must have seemed a strange choice for a hotel restaurant: a sports bar–style re-imagining of a then-obscure restaurant genre favored by the after-work crowd in Japan, not exactly a cynical appeal to the mass market. This was around the same time that the Japantown hotel was taken over and revamped by the Joie de Vivre group, and like their overhaul of the hotel itself, the bold new restaurant was a success.
A few years after O’s opening, there are popular izakayas throughout the city, everything from old-school traditionalists that hew close to the earlier Japanese form (Sozai, Oyaji) to places that emphasize the local and sustainable (Nojo, Ki) to an izakaya called Hecho, in the Financial District, that gives classic Japanese sushi and bar food a Mexican twist. Eating at Hecho, you can see two culinary traditions arriving at the same conclusion — that grilling all sorts of meat over a flame, from chicken thigh to tuna collar, is a good call — in the Yakimono section of the menu, while the small plates fuse genres in a more explicit way, as in tuna tartar with lime and avocado, or cured hamachi with jalapeño candies and lemon oil.
Of all the izakayas in San Francisco, Nombe, in the Mission, may be best at honoring the genre’s drinking tradition. The word “izakaya” translates to “sitting in a sake shop,” and “Nombe” simply means “drunkard.” The restaurant’s kaiseki menu pairs one of its ninety sakes (and in one case a saison) with each of its seven courses, and for a quicker meal, they also do excellent ramen — a heap of noodles, some rich broth and a slice or two of pork belly just the thing to soak up a few rounds of drinks. Nombe is the second izakaya from Gil Payne, who opened Sozai back in 2007, when, as he remembers, “We had to explain to many customers why we didn’t carry, in their words, ‘traditional Japanese food, like California rolls.’”
Across town, in the Marina, Chotto has one of the best izakaya happy hours, with half-price wine, sake specials, and $2 kushiyaki (skewered meats cooked over Japanese charcoal). If you don’t get your fill at Chotto during that brief 5:30–6:30 window, back in Japantown there’s a longer culinary adventure to undertake at Hotel Tomo’s Mums restaurant. The draw there is all-you-can-eat shabu-shabu (veggies, noodles, and thin-cut steak, all cooked in a hot pot at the table) and all-you-can-drink beer and sake. In case you get a little too much into the spirit of things — all in the name of honoring tradition, of course — you might want to book a room.