Howdy. This is a little long, spun off from recent email with Frank, a longtime pen-pal. To support his introduction to this region and his restaurant planning, I promised Frank some nutshell orientation information (history/geography) and it includes a few restaurants further down. I'm posting it here in case of wider interest. I'm a student of both food and local history, and have useful books, acquaintance with Bay Area food and wine innovators way beyond what I cite online, and my ancestors have been in the SF region since Civil-War times.
SF itself grew fast from 1848 for obvious reasons (gold), and for about 75 years was the main port and urban center on North America's Pacific coast. Coastal cities now much larger are also younger: Los Angeles surpassed SF's population only in the 19-teens. Census data show SF's population from 1900 to 2000 roughly doubling (from 343,000 in 1900), while LA's population over the same century grew by 132:1. A basic reason is SF's land area is constrained at the tip of a peninsula. Bay Area (BA) population grew instead in adjacent subregions, south on the peninsula and Santa Clara Valley, north in hilly Marin County across the Golden Gate, and east in the long region adjacent the bay, backed by hills, where Oakland, later Berkeley and other cities now are. "Suburbs" doesn't well describe the outer regions that developed dense population centers too; they themselves have classic suburbs. North and East-Bay population centers communicated to SF by ferry until two vast bridges connected them in the 1930s.
Modern restaurant history:
In my grandparents' and even parents' time, SF proper supplied a de-facto downtown for the whole region, and people went "to the City" for much special-occasion dining. I heard about Old-Guard high-end restaurants (The Blue Fox, La Bourguignonne, L'Etoile, L'Orangerie, and of course Ernie's*) in the 1970s when Jack Shelton's Private Dining Guide advised people (Robert Finigan later bought the publication, focusing then on wine IIRC). Alas I didn't experience those restaurants, only the offbeat SF Trader Vic's on Cosmo Court.
The geographical shift, of high-end restaurants tending to open outside SF, developed in the 1960s. Restaurants widely known for "destination" appeal first became prominent in the East Bay; the North Bay since became even more famous for them; most recently the South Bay arrived on the gastronomic map (no less than the very SF-centric San Francisco Chronicle proclaimed this so, a few years back). Growing up in the East Bay I witnessed early examples first-hand. Too young to experience Hank Rubin and Narsai David's seminal Potluck in the 1960s, I did manage good 1970s meals at two immediate successors, Narsai's and Chez Panisse. (Panisse opened near my family home when I was a teenager.)
Bay Area restaurants today:
Despite consisting mostly of distinct self-contained neighborhoods,** SF itself overall retains a more metropolitan "feel" than nearby cities. It has the highest restaurant density, and a demographic that eats out a lot. Often, at modern popular restaurants like A16, I notice a busy sophisticated crowd, different from restaurant crowds elsewhere in the BA. There's even a pool of skilled career restaurant servers unlike any elsewhere in the region. Here in silicon valley, as realtors write their newspaper articles predicting effects on the real-estate market of the Next Big IPO (currently Facebook), they always mention that young high-tech workers who can afford it prefer to live in The City even if it means 30-40 miles of commute down the Peninsula by train or car.
I notice nowadays the BA restaurants that get "buzz" occupy three groups. Modest unique neighborhood places (as in any region). High-end destination places with Michelin stars, which today tend toward "new international" cuisine, just as 50 years ago high-end restaurants tended toward Guide-Culinaire French. People who pay attention to this and travel for food often comment how similar today are the kitchen sensibilities, even particular dishes that become fashionable, in prominent high-end restaurants whether in major US food cities or Europe. I know many such around the Bay Area. There are clear exceptions: SF's Acquerello comes to mind (though I haven't been there in a few years).
A third and IMO interesting category was already well illustrated by Mark Lipton: Restaurants of strong kitchen integrity offering regional European or Asian cuisines, with skilled cooks from those regions. In SF, many well-known ones, like Delfina, do regional Italian cuisines. These places are cheaper than the high-profile high-end. They get constant buzz on the Bay Area Chowhound board. (Which is dominated by a modest population of regular posters, and gets incessant queries of a type that annoy the regulars -- like "Top 10 restaurants in SF today?" or "24 hours in SF, where should I eat?" from people who didn't bother to read the board history and the answers to the 2000 previous similar queries.)
* Ernie's was immortalized in Alfred Hitchcock's unique 1958 movie Vertigo. A point of extreme Bay Area restaurant trivia (I'll elaborate only by email, but you should be able to find this info): Ernie's last chef was also, I believe, the first one US-born; anyway he currently has a Bay Area restaurant, mentioned earlier in this thread. Frank and Mark will certainly know the one I mean, and I trust them to keep it to themselves!
** It doesn't get as much buzz for Chinese food as in the past, since newer waves of immigrants spread over the whole region; but SF's Chinatown developed during the transcontinental railroad project 140 years ago and has traditionally had the largest expat Chinese community in the Americas (chiefly from south China). Experts trace some common US terms for Chinese cooking ("stir-fry," "pot-sticker," etc.) to Y. R. Chao, distinguished professor of Chinese in Berkeley's Oriental Languages department many decades ago.