Our favorite new Bay Area hot spots
There's been plenty of activity in the world of food in the last few years, especially in San Francisco. Street food madness reached an all-time high, spawning festivals and an array of carts, trucks, and stands from established and new chefs. Pop-up restaurants appeared in cafes, backrooms, and undisclosed locations. Overall, prices actually went down (while quality remained high) and deals proliferated. (See ... economic news isn't all bad.) There also have plenty of top-notch restaurant, café, and bar openings. Here are a few of our favorites.
From beginning to end, dinner at this new Outer Richmond District eatery is a thrill. With most small plates from the novel-length menu (grouped by fish, meat, and veggie) hovering under $10, it's easy to have a feast for as little or as much as you want to spend. Plus, the offerings aren't the usual bento-or-sushi fare Americans have come to expect from Japanese cuisine. You'll hardly recognize the tempura, covered here in various nuts and grains. Pork belly in aromatic broth is a revelation. And butter-grilled scallops are so good you'll want two orders. Don't bother asking too many questions unless you speak Japanese. Fortunately, you won't need to: everything is fantastic.
5524 Geary, SF.(415) 221-5353
Even before opening this North Beach café, owner and nine-time World Pizza Champion Tony Gemignani was famous for his world class pies. We can see why. We love the classic Margherita ($18), which won the 2007 World Pizza Cup in Naples, Italy. But what's really stellar is the Cal Italia ($18), Gold Medal winner of Food Network's Pizza Champions Challenge. Made from imported Italian ingredients, like all Gemignani's pizzas, this one's covered in four cheeses (asiago, mozzarella, Gorgonzola, and fresh Parmesan), then salted with proscuitto di Parma and sweetened with an aged balsamic drizzle and fig preserve. Not feeling the pizza pie vibe? Tony's also offers pasta, a range of antipasti options, and a full bar all in a sophisticated setting.
1570 Stockton, SF. (415) 835-9888, tonyspizzanapoletana.com
A true taste of Spain isn't easy to come by in these parts. Sure, there are tons of "tapas" joints serving small plates of Mediterranean-inspired fare, but finding the delicately-prepared, authentic dishes that go so well with Spanish and Portuguese wines is more of a challenge. Thanks to Brett Emerson, though, the search has gotten easier. Contigo's chef and owner pays homage to his time in Catalonia with gorgeous sardine dishes (served a number of ways, including on toast with chickpea puree or alongside blood oranges and beet relish), crowd-pleasing croquetas de bacalao (salt cod fritters), and a range of imported jamons (aged anywhere from 12 to 36 months). Also delightful (and delightfully authentic) is the choice of coques or Catalan flatbreads available with rapini and carmelized onions, anchovies, Txistorra sausage, or a Marin Sun Farm egg. A cozy, heated back patio, vegetable garden, and modern but rustic space add to the culinary charm.
1320 Castro, SF. (415) 285-0250, www.contigosf.com 
Spanking fresh minimalist interior meets urban BBQ and American food in this one-of-a-kind FiDi restaurant, which opened this June. Whether you're enjoying a Scotch egg to start ($11), chicken sandwich ($12) with creamy coleslaw at lunch, a satisfying dinner of slow-roasted smoked sturgeon with lobster, cornbread cakes and parsnip mash ($21) or a dessert of inside-out root beer float with house-made vanilla soda and Humphry Slocombe ice cream ($6), you're guaranteed a chic downtown meal that simultaneously manages to be feel down-home. Best of all? Wexler's serves a mean mint julep.
568 Sacramento, SF. (415) 983-0102, www.wexlerssf.com 
One of my two favorite cafe openings of the year is this postcard-sized spot in the TenderNob. I was drawn in by the beautifully bitter espressos, strong cappuccinos, and other finely prepared coffees from Verve Coffee Roasters in Santa Cruz. But it's the baked goods and organic lunch items that'll keep me coming back. Unless you follow the friendly staff on Twitter, you never know what'll be on the menu offerings could be anything from apricot bread pudding to sloppy joes. But there's never a question that it will be good. Plus the welcoming, relaxed atmosphere will encourage you to stay and lounge, whether it's at a communal table inside, sidewalk seating, or near the picturesque (and usually open) window.
754 Post, SF. (415) 292-7089, www.farmtablesf.com 
You may have already heard about the chicken and waffles proffered from a window in an alley from the folks who brought us Farmer Brown. But it's the Southern/New Orleans-influenced specials (all under $10) that get me going. In particular are the grits: usually the right mix of savory with a hint of sweet, with additions like cheese, andouille sausage, and a touch of maple syrup or bacon, brown sugar, and pecans. Worth noting too are the po'boy sandwiches, which come loaded with changing specials of shrimp, sausage, eggs, and more.
360 Ritch, SF. (415) 777-2777, www.littleskilletsf.com 
Is it a coincidence that my other favorite new café is also tiny? Maybe. Or maybe there's something inherently charming about a lovely little spot that only a handful of people can enjoy at a time. Either way, I'm delighted by this Sunset District purveyor of coffee and garden/home décor items. The java (from Ritual Coffee) is prepared with finesse and delicious alongside delicate truffles and baked goods. The staff is friendly. And thanks to the owner's interior design training, the low-ceilinged, narrow space is a visual wonderland worthy of Victorian poetry or J.R.R. Tolkein.
1435 Irving, SF. (415) 242-4119
With sausage slingers making appearances all over the city, perhaps we should declare 2009 the "Year of the Dog." There's the delightful Zog's Dogs in FiDi. Among my favorite mobile offerings are Ryan Farr's, which he serves some Sundays outside Elixir and Thursdays at the Ferry Plaza farmers market. True, Rosamunde Sausage Grill is a reliable classic, but my vote for best new dog restaurant is Showdogs. Brave the trek to the less-popular stretch of Market Street next to the Golden Gate Theater to be rewarded with fine beers on tap (available in 4-, 8-, and 16-ounce pours) and dogs showcasing the Bay Area's best sausage and hot dog makers (including Farr's 4505 Meats). There's something for everyone classic, lemon chicken, Louisiana hot link, a crispy (and huge) corn dog, duck sausage with kimchi, and even a boudin noir and none cost more than $8.50. The only way to improve a Showdog meal is to include a side of buttermilk onion rings ($4).
1020 Market, SF. (415) 558-9560, www.showdogssf.com 
There's never quite enough German food around, especially now that we're losing long-timer, Schnitzlhaus, leaving us with the fabulous but few: Suppenküche and Walzwerk. That is, until the gracious (and smart) owners of Walzwerk opened this new spot in the Mission District. A casual deli with German groceries for sale, German beers on tap, and a spare, beer-hall feel to the clean dining room, this spot provides everything you need for your own mini Oktoberfest (minus the lederhosen). Best of all, their spaetzle, sauerkraut, and house-made sausages are even better than Mom would make, with prices generally under $12. Specials like veal schnitzel also make their way onto the menu, along with baked goods from Esther's German Bakery in Mountain View. Guten appetit!
2400 Folsom, SF. (415) 401-0200, www.schmidts-sf.com 
No one can argue with RN74's stunning 3,000-plus wine list, thanks to sommelier par excellence, Rajat Parr. Some argue with the food or rather, the price for "wine bar" fare but foodies know this as a metropolitan restaurant with a wine focus (highlighted by the French train station sign showcasing available bottles). I posit that the food completes the picture. Whether you keep it simple in the bar with a glass of wine and creamy, lemony smoked sturgeon rillettes on toast ($9), or you splurge for a bottle and a dinner of silky foie gras terrine ($22), or succulent grilled Maine sea scallops ($29), there's no question you'll feel indulgent.
301 Mission, SF. (415) 543-7474, www.michaelmina.net/rn74