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ABSINTHE BRASSERIE & BAR
398 Hayes St.
This Hayes Valley winner near the opera house gets a standing O for its welcoming staff, charming evocation of southern France and cut-above bistro-style dishes. Start with one of the masterful cocktails—the Galapagos is our concoction of choice—and order the addictive spicy fried chickpeas. Superb ingredients and a fresh approach keep the comfort food from becoming clichéd, so a fried duck's egg tops a classic frisée salad with bacon, fava tendrils accompany braised lamb shank, and shellfish might swim with chorizo in a tomatoey broth of Chimay blanc beer. Can't get a reservation? The lively bar's all-day menu could include oysters, caviar, baby-dandelion-green pizza with onion jam and hamburgers (from the beef of grass-fed cows) with house-made pickles that will make you feel like a lucky loser indeed.
1 Mission St.
Awarded a Michelin star, this consistent crowd-pleaser diagonally across from the Ferry Building boasts a decor as heady as its cuisine. Perhaps the closest you'll get to a Parisian art nouveau–style brasserie in San Francisco, Boulevard is divided into three distinct spaces—the waterfront side is the quietest and most romantic—with a peacock floor mosaic in the bar, hand-blown-glass light fixtures, vaulted brick ceilings, sinuous wrought-iron work and other head-turning details. Once the food arrives, though, you'll be riveted by chef Nancy Oakes' lusty cooking, which could include rabbit, wild mushroom and papini ravioli with hazelnut pesto or spring lamb three ways (chop, braised and sausage) with fava bean gremolata and other intriguing sides. The huge wine selection is a brilliant survey of California vintages.
DOTTIE'S TRUE BLUE CAFE
522 Jones St.
If going out for breakfast makes you happy, this long-standing funky cafe in the even funkier Tenderloin will seem like heaven, even though you'll barely make a dent in the famous omelets, amazing baked goods and gigantic specials. Speaking of long-standing, there will be a wait, especially on weekends. But what's an hour or so when you can ask locals for their faves, then envision tucking into the omelet made with lamb sausage with goat cheese or the smoked-trout scramble with capers, tomatoes and natural cream cheese, accompanied by buttermilk dill toast? Request the chipotle pepper jelly for your cornbread; it adds just the right sweet and spicy finish.
350 Harbor Dr.
As pretty as it is, Sausalito can get clogged with day-trippers. That's why we love to lunch at this sustainable-seafood eatery about a half-hour's walk (or a quick cab ride) from the ferry. Grab a picnic bench outside, gaze at the boats bobbing in the bay and raise your mason jars filled with icy beer or root beer floats as you congratulate yourselves for discovering Fish. Every classic here gets a West Coast spin, whether it's a lobster roll transformed into a butter-saturated bun brimming with Dungeness crab, or fish and chips—halibut chunks fried to a turn in Anchor Steam beer batter. Warning: As casual as Fish is, it's not cheap, and the restaurant doesn't accept credit cards.