Thanks again to you all for your thoughtful recommendations. General impressions? From the very small sample I experienced, SF chefs are clearly concerned with the freshest and most seasonal of produce, and they clearly have access to high quality material. Seafood was uniformly excellent. Service was uniformly friendly and competent. Reservations were uniformly hard to come by. Wine lists were not terribly exciting, but there was almost always something good to drink. Very high quality food is available, and if it were NYC, it would be two-three times more expensive and created in a far more precious atmosphere. Overall, I had a great eating experience and look forward eagerly to the day I can go back.
I ate dinner at Bar Tartine and it was outstanding. It's a comfortable and stylish space without any pretense. We tried 8 dishes and all but one was excellent, a few were superb. The assortment of pickles was skillfully done - the apex of pickling, if you will. Red cabbage, for example, was enlivened with just the right touch of ginger. Mushrooms were toothsome and not oily at all, chioggia beets were draped in buttermilk and the result was thick but lively, and completely delicious. Terrine of beef tendon with horseradish and fresh greens was complex and delicious. Raw halibut with seaweed was excellent, so was fisherman's stew with green chili, so was spätzle - the lightest I've ever had. We drank two excellent wines with this feast. 2004 Karthäuserhof Eitelsbacher Karthäuserhofberg Riesling Spätlese was in a great place for drinking, so balanced and lovely, so good with the food. And 2010 Knoll Riesling Smaragd Ried Schütt, which was young, reduced, and altogether reticent, but still after 45 minutes showed how good it's going to be. We loved our dinner at Tartine and I would recommend it to anyone without hesitation, and I cannot wait to go back myself.
That same buddy and I ate an impromptu early dinner at Commonwealth one night. We tried to go to State Bird Provisions, but could not get in. We arrived at 5:07, the restaurant opens at 5:30, and there was already a line of about 24 people in front of us, none with reservations. That place must be interesting, and probably quite good, and one day I will try again. Commonwealth was a fantastic replacement. Okay, so I was with a good old pal and we would have had fun wherever we went, but Commonwealth really delivered. So comfortable and airy, everything so beautifully presented, so fresh and balanced in flavor. We had the tasting menu and it was a perfect meal. Yup, I said perfect and I mean it.
I took a long walk from the Embarcadero to the Mission one day and ate lunch at Local's Corner. Everyone I mentioned this to said they like Local's Corner, and I liked it too, but I didn't love it. There was no wine I wanted to drink and the beer taps were down, but my lemonade was very good. People were genuinely friendly, and it felt good to be there.
Taconic on Bedford, so that's something. I would go back if some one else suggested it, but I doubt I would return on my own.
Zuni Cafe was a bit disappointing.The food was tired, that's the best way to describe it. Nothing was plated in a terribly attractive way, salads were overdressed, lamb was underwhelming, but none of this mattered one bit because I was with good friends and had a ball. I don't remember what I had for dessert but it was delicious. But I suspect that this place is past its prime. One thing - we drank very well at Zuni - Larmandier-Bernier Blanc de Blancs was delicious, as was 2010 Roulot Meursault (!). We had a weird experience with our red wine, but that's a story for another time.
Oh, and by the way, I stopped by Terroir one late afternoon, not having planned to, but I was 3/4 of the way through a tremendous walk, and it was relaxing and nice. The dudes who worked there were friendly and there was a load of enticing wine on the wall. Not a lot of which was actually for sale at Terroir, but that's fine. After asking for 5 different wines that turned out not to be available, I took the guy's recommendation and drank a glass of 2009 Puffeney Savagnin. It was delicious and I enjoyed taking it upstairs and lounging on a comfy club chair, leafing through Jay McInerney's wine book.
Local's Corner and Zuni aside, it's obvious to me from Tartine, Commonwealth, and Hog Island that there is fantastic eating to be had in SF. Thanks again for your recommendations.