The salty swimmers finally get their due in SF's eateries
When it comes to sardines, you have to think outside the earthquake shelter. On the flavor-o-meter, the tinned food of last resort (served on tarps with Saltines and stale water) bears no resemblance to its wild, fresh self. Even a humble sardine doesn't deserve to be jammed in like a sardine, oil slicked, and left to age in the farthest reaches of the cupboard.
As several San Francisco eateries are ably proving, sardines, when treated with respect, are a tasty addition to the dining table. And healthy. And sustainable (they're on the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Super Green list!) Everyone from Andrew Weil to the Italian grandmother we all wish we had proclaim the virtues of the pungent silver herring. And with good reason: its tiny, 25-calorie body is packed with essential fatty acids, iron, protein, and calcium.
Let's face it, the good people of Sardinia didn't get their beautiful skin and convivial personalities from eating schweinebraten on spätzle. They're all high on EFAs. Sardine EFAs.
Pesce was one of the first and finest restaurants to introduce San Franciscans to the joys of sardine cuisine. The casual Russian Hill restaurant offers small plates of fish, pasta, and vegetables (and please, can we call it cicchetti, as they do, instead of "Italian tapas"?) patterned on the cooking of Venice. Pesce serves its sardines (all from Monterey Bay) simply — grilled, on a bed of mixed greens and pickled vegetables with a wedge of lemon. The result is tart, briny, and clean. If you're still on the fence about sardines, Pesce is the place that will convert you to a bona fide a-fishyanado.
2227 Polk, SF. (415) 928-8025. www.pescesf.com 
In Provence, shmear means aoli. They put it on meat; they put it on vegetables; they put it on fries; they put it on fish. Heck, they probably put it on ice cream. At Ragazza, the new relative of Glen Park's Gialina Pizzeria on Divis, the chefs splat a huge dollop of it on its sardines. Apart from the aoli, Ragazza takes an Italianesque approach, stuffing them with an earthy mixture of breadcrumbs, olive oil, garlic, oregano, and onion and baking them in the restaurant's gas-fired Wood Stone oven. The result is a crispy exterior over sardines that almost melt away on the fork. Add some mixed greens and a robust Italian red and you can practically feel your arteries unclogging. Oh, Ragazza also has pizza.
311 Divisadero, SF. (415) 255-1133. www.ragazzasf.com 
There's locavore, 100-mile radius locavore, and there's ultra-loca, five-mile radius locavore. While most of the city's sardine-serving restaurants get their sardines from Monterey Bay, Nopa gets its from our very own San Francisco Bay. This is great news because our local sardines nearly went extinct in the 1950s. And — sardine cognoscenti consider the Pacific sardine as flavorful as those on the Sardinian coast (take that, overpriced cans from Norway). Speaking of flavorful, Nopa serves the little San Franciscans baked in its wood-fire oven with fingerling potatoes and frisee. The only thing missing is an order of flatbread, a gems salad, wine, and the burnt honey crème brulee.
560 Divisadero, SF. (415) 864-8643. www.nopasf.com 
You have to give Barbacco credit. Unlike most of the restaurants that have rediscovered the sardine, Barbacco doesn't seem to be operating on the principle that sardines are an after-5 p.m.-only food. Although not exactly in the let's-have-herrings-for-breakfast! camp, Barbacco at least believes that noon is a perfectly reasonable time to start the jonesing. The bustling, suits-heavy Financial District eatery is the creator of what may be the city's only sardine sandwich (if this isn't true, we'd like to know). Barbacco also breaks the don't-get-too-weird-with-sardines taboo, pairing its sardines with a hefty piece of seared calamari. Not most people's first choicem perhaps, but the two get along swimmingly, especially when served on an Acme torpedo roll and slathered with arugula and Barbacco's housemade "roasted tomatoe condimento."
220 California, SF. (415) 955-1919. www.barbaccosf.com 
When you don't want others dictating what you can and can't have on your sardines, duck into Ferry Plaza Seafood. This celebrated purveyor of all things aquatic sells wild, locally caught sardines (and by this we mean our our SF as well as Monterey bay) when available. "We love sardines," said one salty staffer. "Especially the local ones. They just glisten." They recommend bringing out the glisten by brushing with olive oil, salt, and pepper; grilling a few minutes on each side; and dressing with lemon. Call first for availability, these guys swim in and out of supply.
One Ferry Building, #11B, SF. (415) 274-2561. www.ferryplazaseafood.com