There’s something special about Dispensa—it’s so unmistakably Italian and warmly hospitable in a way that reminds me of restaurants like La Ciccia or Montesacro (probably because all three restaurants are run by Italian natives). At Dispensa, Venice-born chef Michele Bevilacqua (Cotogna, Michael Mina), has built a simple menu centered around the mighty X-oven, an indoor Italian-made charcoal grill. Similar to the Spanish Josper, the X-oven doubles as an oven using a special three-layered drawer system that can reach up to 350°C (almost 700°F for us non-metrically inclined Americans). The result: meats with crispy skin and juicy centers. I like to get the Cornish game hen, which is marinated in paprika, garlic, lemon, and olive oil before being drizzled with a bright salsa verde—it’s simple, unpretentious, and delicious. 39 Taylor St. dispensasf.com
One of my favorite places in the entire world is a seventy-something-year-old sherry bar in Madrid called La Venencia. There’s only one thing to drink on the menu (sherry) and a small selection of tapas; no photos are allowed, and Hemingway used to drink there—it’s the perfect place. So when Daniel Azarkman told me La Venencia was an inspiration for his bar El Lopo in Nob Hill, I had no choice but to love the spot. Go here on a Sunday or Monday night when it’s quieter and free from potential Polk St pub-crawlers. Sit at the bar, look for a nice bearded young man (that’s Daniel), and ask for a pour of acid-forward manzanilla along with an order of briny, buttery anchovy-stuffed olives. Let Azarkman wax poetic about the wonders of sherry and learn. Maybe move on to a glass of nuttier, caramel-y oloroso or amontillado. Sip slowly and stay a while—there’s no rush. 1327 Polk St. elloposf.com
The Matterhorn had been around for over 25 years before the owners closed up shop for retirement in September 2018; thankfully, the restaurant was rescued and recently reopened by Natalie and Jason Horwath, a fondue-loving couple who lived in Switzerland for years.Natalie spent time honing her pastry craft in kitchens such as Kantine and 20th-Century Café—she’s now baking sourdough to dip in warm bubbling pots of melted cheese. I like their 18-month-aged Emmental, which adds a sharper, tangier note than the traditional gruyere version. Pro tip: let the last bit of cheese crisp up before you scrape and consume (it’s called la religieuse, or the nun, because it looks a bit like a wimple). There’s no purer pleasure than coming to this restaurant on a cold, foggy San Francisco night—it’s like stepping into Swiss cottage in the middle of the Alps. The Horwaths have done a wonderful job of preserving an institution while making it better with their love letter to Switzerland. 2323 Van Ness Ave. matterhornsf.com
One interesting thing about Mourad Lahlou is that he managed to become an award-winning Michelin-starred chef after moving to San Francisco over 30 years ago from Marrakech without knowing a word of English nor having spent a minute inside a professional kitchen. Another interesting thing about Mourad is that after all this time in restaurants and at 51 years old, he has somehow managed to get younger—the man is a real-life Benjamin Button. (The secret to Mourad’s youth may be that he does not drink alcohol.) Mourad reopened Aziza last fall, and the restaurant is better than ever. More modern and spacious than its previous incarnation, the food is well-executed, well-portioned, and well-priced. Go here with a good eater and order anything and everything that tempts you—it’ll all be good. Just do not miss the house-made bread with dips, the glazed lamb shank, and the hand-rolled couscous—it’s like eating buttery air. 5800 Geary Blvd. aziza-sf.com
I spent some time in Lisbon over the holidays, and it was like I never left San Francisco—the similarities are uncanny. From the old school trams that climb the foggy, hilly streets to the bridge that looks like the Golden Gate designed by the same folks who constructed the Bay Bridge, you’d think the two would be twin towns. Another similarity is the pasteis de nata, the creamy egg tart that was just like the delectable dan tat at famed Golden Gate Bakery back at home. The original Portuguese egg tart is found at Pasteis de Belem, where they’ve been churning out the custardy delights since 1837 (it’s a must-visit when in Lisbon). But if you aren’t planning to go to Portugal anytime soon, the perfect place to enjoy a pastel in San Francisco is Boavida, a cute café and market in the Outer Sunset by Andrea de Francisco. Andrea, whose family is from Portugal and was the original owner of Café St. George on Mission St, sources her pasteis from Silva Bakery in Hayward, but plans on making them in house soon. These are best enjoyed with coffee in the early morning when they’re still warm and fresh. Follow up that treat with a walk on Ocean Beach—it’s easy to forget it’s there. 3560 Taraval St. boavidasf.com
Illustration by Alyson Thomas of drywellart.com.