Communal dining spirit enlivens new spots: Mission Bowling Club, Mozzeria, Castagna, and Claudine
APPETITE Incredible burgers in a bowling alley, SF's deaf community gathering over Neapolitan pizzas, brothers serving food from their hometown of Nice in a tiny restaurant, dining around a U-shaped counter off a FiDi alley... each of the restaurants below opened within the last 6 months, providing a unique communal experience (and, most important, fine food to go with) that makes one feel like actually engaging with, rather than ignoring, fellow diners.
Mission Bowling Club (MBC) is one badass bowling alley. Squeaky clean hipster all the way: there's no funky smell or dated dinginess in this brand new space. Open and industrial, it boasts a front patio, separate dining room downstairs and one upstairs overseeing six lanes and a wood-lined bar area. Cheer on bowlers from comfy couches while sipping a cocktail (solid, though not noteworthy drinks) and filling up on French onion casserole.
As soon as I heard chef Anthony Myint, Mission Chinese Food and Mission Street Food wunderkind, would oversee the menu, it was easy to guess MBC was going to boast exceptional food. The beloved Mission Burger ($15, $10 during happy hour) is back. I missed the rich, granulated patty, lathered in caper aioli. An avowed carnivore, I was shocked to find the vegan burger ($10) is almost as exciting. A fried chickpea, kale, shitake fritter is brightened up with sambal (Indian chili sauce), guacamole, and fennel slaw. A juicy sausage corn dog ($7) arrives upright in molecular fashion, standing watch over a dollop of habanero crema. Only a hard, small "everything pretzel" ($5) disappointed. Not bad for a bowling alley.
3176 17th St., SF. (415) 863-2695, www.missionbowlingclub.com 
Brothers Jerome and Stephane Meloni from Nice infuse their Italian heritage and French upbringing in Italian and Niçoise dishes. I enjoyed Stephane's cooking at their former Restaurant Cassis, a far roomier Pac Heights space, but their tiny new Castagna lends itself to connection. Stephane cooks within full view, Jerome interacts with diners, and I found myself in conversation with tables next to me. On a good night, it exudes that neighborhood conviviality found in similar-sized restaurants around Europe. Decor isn't particularly memorable, though red walls always bring a space to life.
Sticking closer to tradition is the best way to navigate Castagna's menu. Stephane's classic Niçoise caramelized onion tart ($7.50) is the best dish, silky with caramelized onions in a flaky crust, with (the good stuff) white anchovies on the side, which they explained neighborhood diners weren't quite ready for — I say place them on top and let diners sort it out. I found the steak in my steak frites ($18) too well done (medium rare, please) despite a lush green peppercorn sauce. I'd opt instead for French-style campagnarde pizza ($15), in the spirit of flammkuchen (Alsatian flatbread), covered in potato sauce, bacon, crème fraîche and raclette.
2015 Chestnut, SF. (415) 440-4290, www.castagnasf.com 
The communal award could easily go to the Mission's Mozzeria. Maybe we didn't need an umpteenth Neapolitan pizza place, but there's none quite like this, run by a deaf couple and staff. San Francisco's deaf community gathers en masse at a hangout where speaking with your eyes and hands is as important as speaking verbally. Of course, verbal processors are welcome, too.
The dining bar is my preferred perch, particularly to engage with chef Russell Stein (who co-owns Mozzeria with wife Melody). He's hilarious and reads lips like a master, joking with diners as he spreads ingredients over wheels of dough before popping them into a wood-burning oven. His heartwarming Neapolitan pizzas ($12-18) are topped with the likes of caramelized onion, pancetta, mozzarella or goat cheese and eggplant. I must admit, my favorite item, Mozzeria bar ($8), isn't the most gourmet, but hearkens back to my Jersey youth. Let's call it what it is: a fried mozzerella cheese log doused in pomodoro sauce and basil. Sheer comfort.
3228 16th St., SF. (415) 489-0963, www.mozzeria.com 
Claudine's chic cafe charms. Big picture windows and corner space on an alley up a half flight of stairs appeal, while a u-shaped bar creates a convivial dining experience, the bar is so small so you can't help but exchange good will with neighboring patrons. You can dine at a table, but the bar is far more fun, and works for a casual meal all day.
Much has been made of the meatball, kale, and fregola soup ($7/10), and rightly so. It is an unexpected culinary delight: olive oil-laced broth, laden with Parmesan, onions, carrots. I can be bored by broth soups at times, but this one holds my interest with plump veal-pork-beef meatballs and pleasantly soggy kale. Roasted mussels ($12 and $17) arrive aromatic with fennel sausage in lemon and white wine, while even avocado toast ($12) delights topped with dill gravlax, Spanish black radish, and lemon. Leave room at the end for Claudine favorite s'mores ($7) baked in a glass bowl with layers of marshmallow and chocolate on graham cracker crust. My meals at dinner have been more satisfying than at lunch, but each visit improves my opinion.
8 Claude Lane, SF. (415) 362-1988, www.myclaudine.com  *
Subscribe to Virgina's twice-monthly newsletter, The Perfect Spot, www.theperfectspotsf.com