Outside the Ordinary

Even when it's foggy, there's great, comfortable alfresco dining in San Francisco. Here are some of our current favorites.

Brunching in the sunshine and dining under the stars is a light-dappled, breeze-scented culinary pleasure as old as a rustic campfire, as suave as a flute of champagne on a cliffside terrace, and as convivial as good food, lively street life, and beautiful weather converging -- even in the foggy precincts of summertime San Francisco, where pockets of meteorological balminess and the latest heat lamp technology make supping alfresco absolutely agreeable. Following is an array of local open-air dining options running the environmental gamut from urban sidewalks to secluded gardens and patios. They may not offer the tropical ambience of Marrakech or Havana, but the proffered tastes, textures, and vibrations are purest San Francisco.

Medjool, 2522 Mission (at 21st St.), 550-9055. Atop the Hotel Elements building four stories above the Mission is Medjool's Sky Terrace, a dazzling rooftop annex of the restaurant's more refined street-level operation. The upstairs menu is made up almost entirely of marinated and grilled snacks and platters, giving the place the friendly, fragrant atmosphere of a neighborhood barbecue. Two grillmasters hold court at the terrace's northwest corner, the spires of downtown San Francisco rising behind them, while a pocket-size bar serves up beer, wine, and cocktails from a vantage point overlooking the central Mission, Potrero Hill, and points southeast. Scattered about are planter boxes, potted palms, a chaise longue or two, and rustic iron tables where diners feast on Mediterranean-accented delectables like moist, supple halibut wrapped in grape leaves; skewers of beef tenderloin edged with anchovy, capers, and watercress; and sweet, smoky grilled asparagus with almonds and sherry. There are pita crisps with a garlicky mustard-laced yogurt dip and wonderful house-marinated olives for snacking, and the sweeping views and urban locale create a casual yet festive mood.

Chez Spencer, 82 14th St. (at Folsom), 864-2191. This secluded SOMA destination not only serves up some of the finest French cuisine in the city, it boasts an open-air garden setting as magical as anything out of Arthur Rackham. Make your way past the neighborhood's lofts and warehouses to a fence and a gate casually etched with the restaurant's name, pass through, and you'll find yourself engulfed in citrus trees, butterfly bushes, potato vines, potted geraniums, and hanging baskets of wonderfully unruly flora. Half of the garden is snug under an awning of bamboo matting, and one of the big alfresco tables is on a raised brick landing dripping with foliage, candle flame, and antique knickknacks. It's a fine backdrop for chef Laurent Katgely's complex, adventurous creations: gold beet-Bosc pear tartare; pan-seared antelope with juniper-peppercorn jus; white asparagus risotto with salsify and truffles; hazelnut parfait with espresso caramel. Five-course prix fixe is $75; industrial-chic indoor seating also available.

The Ferry Building, Embarcadero & Market, www.ferrybuildingmarketplace.com. The best waterfront dining in San Francisco can be enjoyed at a table outside the city's beautifully reinvented century-old cynosure, where some two dozen gourmet food stalls offer up everything you need for a stellar bayside picnic. Start with buckwheat blini with sevruga and crème fraîche from Tsar Nicoulai Caviar and a dozen Kumamotos from Hog Island Oysters. A nice bowl of chowder from the San Francisco Fish Company is your next course, followed by, say, baby-back ribs from Golden Gate Meats and an earthy ratatouille from Mistral, an agua fresca from Mijita, and LuLu Petite's house-made potato chips on the side. An array of artisanal cheeses from Cowgirl Creamery, a freshly baked sourdough baguette from Acme Bread Company, and cherries, peaches, strawberries, and apricots from the farmers' market lead to a climactic smorgasbord of chocolate-dipped figs from Scharffen Berger, burnt caramel almonds from Recchiuti, lavender shortbread from Miette, a bourbon butter pecan milkshake from Ciao Bella, and a ripe-to-bursting peach galette from Frog Hollow Farm. The view's nice, too.

Betelnut Pejiu Wu, 2030 Union (at Buchanan), 929-8855.A lively street life is one of the things that separates a great city from just another town with tall buildings and a lot of people. Madrid's chateos, New Orleans' processionals, and Venice's gondolas are as intrinsic to their metropolitan allure as their nightlife, waterfronts, and criminal element. Here in San Francisco, we have the heady perfume of roasting coffee, sesame oil, and steaming cioppino tempting us into a wide array of sidewalk eateries, each offering the diner some of the nation's tastiest cuisine as well as a passing parade of cosmopolite humanity. Betelnut, located along Cow Hollow's festive main drag, combines our own street-life traditions with those of Singapore, Shanghai, and points southeast, where food stalls offer up snacks, dumplings, noodles, and platters to busy passers-by. Take a seat at one of the sidewalk tables and nosh on such Pan-Asian delights as fried peanuts with anchovies and garlic; pulled pork with grilled pancakes; oven-smoked sea bass with ginger and cucumber; five-spice wild boar with fennel and galanga. Then throw in one of the bar's evocative tropical cocktails, ignore the sound of the distant foghorns, check out the passing scenery, and enjoy this occasionally balmy, always delectable time of year.

 
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