Passion Plates

In 1967 hippies were at the helm of a global social experiment that combined drugs, grassroots street theater, free love, and free — if not very fancy — food. Nowadays, we've eased off a bit on the drugs and political dramaturgy, but even the most moderate San Franciscans have a place in their heart for food and love — particularly a two-for-one special.

And why not? With all the fancy restaurants and obscure little grottos schlepping cassoulets, lobster tails, and artisanal cheeses ad infinitum, San Francisco is an epicure's wet dream. You can canoodle over flirty mixed drinks with that saucy new co-worker, re-light a spark over a voluptuous cheesecake, or snap up a suitor with your scintillating wit and knowledge of where the city's best oysters get shucked. Add to your sweet 'n' savories some unparalleled views and posh-yet-never-snooty ambience, and you'll soon be re-creating your own summer of love. Just remember, while the love might still come free, whatever's on the menu will definitely cost you.

Foreplay. One word: oysters. The aphrodisiacal potential of this bonne bouche was first noted in the second century, when Roman satirist Juvenal described in great detail the carnal tendencies of ladies who dined on wine and “giant oysters.” The oceanic delicacy has since become something of a lover's cliché, but for the sake of tradition and the obvious visual metaphor, the best way to ease past first base is still over raw oysters.

Bar Crudo (603 Bush St., 956-0396), a diminutive loft-style restaurant, boasts a pint-sized raw bar where people jam in to sample the varieties: from the sweet, plump New England Wellfleet to the creamy Japanese Kumomoto and, of course, San Francisco's own lip-smackingly fresh Hog Island. You'll definitely be brushing elbows with other habitués, but given the muted colors, soft music, and delicious food, you'll be locking eyes with your beloved the whole time. Hell, after a few rounds of their superb Belgian beer and the combo plate (overflowing with oysters, clams, shrimp, and crab), you may want to dispense with a main course and get right to business.

Farallon Oyster Bar (450 Post St., 956-6969) is another great place to slurp some oysters and play footsies before sauntering over to dinner. It's serious about its seafood ambience, too: jellyfish-shaped chandeliers, columns that look like they've been sprayed with kelp, and caviar-ish bumps on the staircases add some under-the-sea chic. The offerings on a half-shell will make you feel like a kid in a candy store. Chesapeake Bay Yorks, New Brunswick St. Simones, and Virginia Stingrays can be cracked open right before you. Seeing them stewing in their own elixirs will make your mouth water and your libido hit the roof.

Love Bites. The main course can be a trying exercise in both patience and manners. It's where you get to show your date you know your salad fork from your entree fork, and where you have to stomach the sometimes tedious conversation that accompanies any fancy table d'hote. But if you choose the place not just for the good eats but also the wine list, the view, and the company, supping in style can be a feast for all the senses.

Cityscape Restaurant & Bar (333 O'Farrell St., 202-7008). It's the view, stupid. Sure, the food is top-notch, but considering that Cityscape, sitting pretty on the Hilton Hotel's top floor, is 460 feet above the ground, it's the vertiginous, anything-can-happen-tonight feeling that you're actually paying for. Incomparable panoramic views of the bridges and skyline (and the stars if you beat the fog) and 20-foot-tall windows all add to the lace-curtain treatment, with service both courteous and casual. The menu is filled with organic local produce and simple yet ambrosial favorites like lobster bisque with cognac and a juicy halibut with potato purée and sautéed pea shoots. Late-night dance music and a respectably sized bar that serves up delectable libations round out the classy feel. Here's a bit of trivia to get the juices flowing: Despite its demure veneer, Cityscape has a bad-girl side — back in the day it was Henri's at the Top, which enticed visitors with its go-go girls in giant birdcages.

Firefly (4288 24th St., 821-7652). We've all had our share of meals in unnerving fancy-pants restaurants, where it's déclassé to talk above a whisper. At Firefly, you can say buh-bye to the pretensions and feel free to draw your honey in a little closer. This Noe Valley mainstay is all about elegant hominess and hard-to-mess-up fusion cuisine that's earthy, soulful, and damn fine. The rotating menu is peppered with treats: minty chilled cucumber soup with Dungeness crab, grilled New York steak with brandy mustard sauce, and the “Fried Chicken of Your Dreams,” which isn't mere hyperbole. The signature shrimp and scallop potstickers add some flavor-popping yumminess to all your entrees. Given the homespun sensuality, Firefly draws first dates and anniversary celebrants alike, but the romance isn't icky or forced. It's the perfect place to tell her there's a piece of spinach stuck in her teeth — then fall in love when she actually laughs.

Climaxes. It's debatable which is the greater cardinal sin — chocolate or lust — but we believe they're best taken together. Whether you find your perfect combination of sweet and tart at a charming patisserie or a place that specializes in more exotic confections, a love affair is best conducted to the accompaniment of a sumptuous dessert (and maybe some Puccini in the background). And there's always room for sweet indulgences, particularly if you decide to skip the buildup and get straight to the good part.

Kokkari Estiatorio (200 Jackson St., 981-0983). Greek food is naturally savory and sensuous — subtle reductions and luscious hunks of meat are enough to give rise to one's more primitive instincts. Kokkari, a stylish Jackson Square restaurant with a knack for palatable Hellenic dishes, sets the heat at a containable simmer. The restaurant's exposed beams and airy interiors, which include two dining rooms and a special chef's table, is nicely subdued by the goatskin-and-firelight coziness of the place, which will make you feel like you're trysting on the Aegean. The desserts are especially seductive, with names that sound like sexy come-ons: Rizogalo is a rice pudding drizzled with vanilla and honey-roasted pears, while the Tarta me Fruta is a baked apple tart smothered in fig ice cream. The Galaktoboureko, a natural two-spooner, is a feathery light swoosh of semolina custard in filo dough, with Meyer lemon and crème fraiche ice cream. The range of tastes in a single bite will make you want to feed dessert to your date blindfolded for a fittingly intense experience. Oenophiles can feed their sweet tooth with one of many varieties of Greek wine; other drinks to sugar your palate include a spumy, strong Greek coffee or ouzo, an anise-flavored liqueur.

Tartine Bakery (600 Guerrero St., 487-2600). Step into this rustic, much-loved Dolores Park bakery and it very well may be love at first sight. Despite the lines, which snake out the door from noon till night, you'll be smooshing your face against the glass pastry cases and getting heart palpitations while you wait. Resident favorites include an exemplary banana-cream tart with chocolate shavings, a passionfruit-lime Bavarian genoise cake topped with cream and coconut, and a delicately piquant lemon-cream tart showered with rose petals. You might manage to land a table, but even if you have to stand, sipping Tartine's silky Scharffenberger cocoa and getting your fingers messy with banana cream is the perfect way to rendezvous. And yeah, you'll want to spend the night.

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