A highly underrated SF gem. Decor is not the latest or hippest — but even better, it's mellow and unassuming. It's easy to get a reservation, you can fill up for $15, and even after 20 years, Helmand Palace remains our city's best Afghani restaurant. Although kaddo (pumpkin that is pan-fried, then baked) in yogurt-garlic sauce remains a favorite dish of mine, I'm just as crazy about aushak, Afghan raviolis filled with leeks and scallions and served in a sauce of yogurt, mint, garlic, tomato, and ground beef: Middle Eastern cuisine meets red sauce Italian.
2424 Van Ness, SF. (415) 345-0072, www.helmandpalace.com
Industry insiders sidle up to Ichi's sushi bar for impeccable fish from chef Tim Archuleta and crew. Archuleta keeps it seasonal and affordable — you'll find far less interesting slices of fish elsewhere at higher prices. There are also high quality hot plates, and a particular stand-out is the artistic beef tataki. All-natural beef is seared sous vide, then accented with radish, kimchee, white ponzu, and crispy burdock root. The meat oozes tenderness while the accompanying ingredients add dimension to the dish.
3369 Mission, SF. (415) 525-4750, www.ichisushi.com
Though everyone loves SPQR's rustic pastas and exquisite antipasti, you'll be equally satisfied at its bar with spuntini small bites and a glass of Italian wine from Shelley Lindgren's impeccable list. Executive chef Matthew Accarrino infuses Roman sensibilities throughout the menu, achieving near-perfection in snacks like milky burrata cheese, which runs over accompanying toast and is sweetened with honey, hazelnuts, and a hint of chili — savory, sweet, silky. Spiced ricotta fritters are equally unforgettable: warm, with a whisper of smoked maple syrup.
1911 Fillmore, SF. (415) 771-7779, www.spqrsf.com