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WESTERN TRAVEL | WEEKEND ESCAPE

Serving up a Bay Area gastronomic blitz

Some of San Francisco's finest fare is 'on sale' now. But pace yourself; you may get more than you bargain for.

January 01, 2006|Vani Rangachar | Times Staff Writer

San Francisco — IT was lunchtime on a Saturday at Farallon, a pricey downtown restaurant, and the place was hopping. In the bar waiting for a table, I overheard an immaculately coifed woman chatting with the bartender. She was complaining, actually, about the crowd. "It must be all those people in for the cheap meals," she said.

My husband, Barry, and I were two of those people -- here to take advantage of the city's monthlong Dine About Town promotion. Each January about 100 of the city's restaurants, including some top-rated ones, offer three-course meals at discounted prices: $21.95 per person for lunch and $31.95 for dinner, excluding beverages.

Several cities, including New York; Washington, D.C.; San Diego; and Vancouver, Canada, hold restaurant weeks in January, when business lags. San Francisco's promotion, entering its fifth year, seems to be catching on. In 2005, the city's 108 participating restaurants served 40% more diners than in 2004, the San Francisco Convention & Visitors Bureau reported.

The thought of a three-day feast in one of the world's great dining cities had me salivating long before our trip. At bedtime, I would curl up with food guidebooks and restaurant reviews, which I would cross-check against the Dine About Town list. The city was laid out before me like a menu with 108 possibilities. In the end I learned my eyes were bigger than my stomach, but not before I'd made five reservations.

To maximize our time, we arrived into Oakland at 11 a.m. on a Friday, took a BART train to downtown, dropped our bags at the hotel and race-walked to the Campton Place restaurant to make our 1 p.m. reservation.

I had chosen this restaurant, an elegant space in the boutique Campton Place Hotel, because it represented a sizable value (a four-course lunch is usually $49) and was highly rated among the guidebooks I consulted. It was our most expensive meal of the weekend -- more than $100, including tip -- because we also signed on for Wine About Town ($21.95 per person extra), which paired wines with each course. I've never spent -- or eaten -- as much for lunch, but I regret neither a penny nor a calorie.

After our harried journey from Los Angeles, the dining room was a calming influence, dressed in soothing tones of taupe and cream. A gallery of rectangular mirrors defined a wall above the banquettes; the tables were set with fine linens and china. Our waiter was attentive and generous with his knowledge of the menu and wine list; it didn't matter that we were hunting haute cuisine on the cheap.

We started with an amuse bouche of light soup, an essence of beets with apples that surprisingly was not too sweet. I followed that with crispy bonbons (which resembled empanadas but were lighter) with herb salad and aged balsamico. My first course was paired with a fruity Abbazia di Novacella Pinot Grigio, which, to my untrained palate, was good. My main course was a delicately seared wild salmon (flown in from Scotland, our waiter said) paired with a Talenti Sangiovese. The experience was a sensory delight, from the comfort of the dining room to the service and the quality of the food.

We rolled out of the restaurant for the slow walk back. At the centrally located Donatello hotel, where we were staying, we rested up for our next meal.

Before dinner, we stopped by Bix, named for 1920s jazz great Bix Beiderbecke and owned by a distant relative. Bix had nearly made the cut in my planning stage, but I'd run out of available meals. So we met my cousin Jay there for drinks.

Bix was what a supper club should be -- all dark leather and atmospheric, with banquettes and tables clustered around a grand piano. A long wooden bar that took up nearly one wall was crowded with suited after-5 types having drinks. Too bad we couldn't linger for a steak, but we had a half-mile walk back on dodgy streets south of Market for dinner at Fringale.

I had dined at the Basque-influenced Fringale seven years earlier, and I remembered that meal fondly -- good friends lingering over good conversation, food and drink. I was eager to repeat the experience.

Fringale's dozen or so tables were crowded and so was the small bar, an indication, I thought, that I had chosen well. Its Dine About Town menu was limited: soup or a salad, king salmon or braised short ribs and the signature chocolate gourmand dessert. The food was as good as I remembered, but there was no lingering. The waiter sped through the courses, so we did too, and soon we were back out in the crisp night air.

Even without the dining promotion, I wouldn't need enticement to visit San Francisco in January, or any time. The weather was sunny but cool, and we spent our time between meals shopping the winter sales, picking up pants at the downtown Nike store, books at City Lights, and shoes and toys at tiny shops.

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