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The energy of the 'new media' hub South of Market attracts chefs and visitors eager to put a nouveau spin on dining as entertainment


SAN FRANCISCO — As much as Lyons or Paris, this is a city that lives to eat, and its restaurants are a big part of its appeal to visitors. And right now the restaurant scene is booming.

Michael Bauer, the San Francisco Chronicle's restaurant critic, says he can't keep up with the openings. As dot-commers take over entire neighborhoods, restaurants follow. And these are not their parents' generation's Fleur de Lys or Masa's. What people seem to crave is a place to enjoy great food and wonderful wines in an unbuttoned setting. Sound a little like Los Angeles?

On a recent trip to San Francisco, I resisted going back to old favorites like Zuni Cafe, Bizou or Fringale. I was tempted to check in at the two most talked-about serious restaurants, Fifth Floor and Gary Danko, both from veteran San Francisco chefs. But I had a different mission: to explore what's happening in the burgeoning South of Market area (where the energy is beginning to spill over into the Mission district) and to find something fun in the Embarcadero for good measure.

From a working list of a dozen possibilities, I chose the following five. All turned out to have that rare combination--good food and a fun atmosphere. Was I just lucky, or are there simply more good restaurants per capita in the city these days? Only someone who eats out in San Francisco more frequently than I do can say, but I did leave with the impression that I had only skimmed the surface.

Gordon's House of Fine Eats

My hands-down favorite was this restaurant in what is now known as Multimedia Gulch, between the Mission and Potrero Hill. New to me, but when I got there I realized Gordon's is right next door to the Artaud Project, a longtime alternative arts complex. But what a change: Now unregenerate artist types share the neighborhood with upstart high-tech and media companies. On an unexpectedly warm spring day, people were sitting at the handful of tables in front, basking in the sun.

Inside, Gordon's is a spare, loft-like space that includes a great expanse of bar, a mezzanine dining area and, in the main room, banquettes along the walls. The food is American eclectic, and American cooking never tasted as good, at least in my recent memory.

It's a smart menu, well thought out and precisely executed. It offers "a nice matzoh ball" soup flecked with veggies and livened with a flash of heat. There's pizza adorned with Hobbs Shore's (my favorite bacon man) pepperoni and molten mozzarella.

I wanted the "big fat burger," but the waiter announced they were all out.

OK, but I had to have the hand-cut thyme fries anyway. Crisp and golden and showered with sprigs of thyme, they're everything a fry should be. And instead of the burger, I ordered the ham and Fontina sandwich, which every other person seemed to be eating. I could see why. It was about the best ham and cheese sandwich I've ever encountered: a tall pile of thinly sliced applewood-smoked ham napped with melted Fontina and sandwiched with balsamic onions in a crisp, warm bun.

After my companions and I polished off the polenta tart sauced with a wild mushroom ragu and an elegant Japanese-style salmon seared to a flat, crisp plane, the flesh beneath translucent, we had room for only one dessert: a pretty cornmeal buttermilk shortcake with lemon curd mascarpone and strawberries. But everything else sounded terrific too, especially Gordon's doughnut plate--chocolate-dipped raised doughnut, bitter orange doughnut, spiced twist, Pennsylvania funnel cake, chocolate beignet and fried coconut cream pie. Yow!

Foreign Cinema

The night before, I'd taken some young friends to this cross between an avant-garde art movie house and a French bistro. An unmarked door opens onto a hallway lined with flickering votive candles. You can choose to be seated either in the long, narrow dining room with display kitchen and bar or outside, where vintage art house movies are projected on a wall.

The sound of the actors' voices comes faintly through tinny drive-in movie speakers: "I feel like reading Goethe tonight," said Jules (in subtitles, but the French was audible). "I lent it to Jim," came the reply from the marvelous Jeanne Moreau. Mais oui, the film of the night was "Jules and Jim."

In the dark, with the flickering candles, the whispered voices, the smell of garlic and thyme, the images of the film floating across the broad wall, it felt like a dream. What's strange is, once the film stopped, the spell was broken.

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