Sunday, October 30, 2011

Best Restaurants in San Francisco - 2011/2012

The new Zagat San Francisco Bay Area Restaurants 2012 and The Michelin Guide San Francisco, Bay Area, and Wine Country Restaurants 2012 were recently released. So it's time for Blue Heron's annual summary of the critics' choices for the best restaurants in San Francisco and the Bay Area.

Zagat's list of the five most popular restaurants includes Gary Danko, Boulevard, Slanted Door, French Laundry (Yountville, Napa Valley), and Chez Panisse (Berkeley). The top rated overall are Gary Danko and French Laundry with 29 points. Cyrus, Manressa (Los Gatos), Aubergine (Carmel), The Restaurant at Meadowood (near St. Helena, Napa Valley), Acquerello, Sushi Ran (Sausalito), Kiss Seafood, Chez Panisse (Berkeley), La Folie, and Massa's received 28 points. (All restaurants are in San Francisco unless otherwise noted).

Once again, Michelin awarded three stars to the French Laundry (Yountville, Napa Valley) and The Restaurant at Meadowood (near St. Helena, Napa Valley).  As in 2011, two stars were awarded to Cyrus (Healdsburg, Sonoma County), Coi (San Francisco), and Manresa (Los Gatos). However, three new restaurants received two stars this year:  Benu, (San Francisco), Saison (San Francisco), and Baumé (Palo Alto). Thirty-nine restaurants in the Bay Area received one star.

The "San Francisco Chronicle" awards four stars to the top restaurants. Current recipients are Chez Panisse (Berkeley), Cyrus (Healdsburg, Sonoma County), Manresa (Los Gatos), French Laundry (Yountville, Napa Valley), The Restaurant at Meadowood (near St. Helena, Napa Valley), Coi (San Francisco) and La Folie (San Francisco).

Come to San Francisco and you'll have a chance to pick your favorite. Be sure to make your reservations well in advance as these top restaurants frequently fill up two months in advance. If you wait until the last minute, you may not be able to get a table or may have to dine at 5:30 or 10:00 p.m.

If you want to see last year's summary, click here

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Wildlife Viewing Near Monterey

When driving from San Francisco to Monterey and Carmel via the scenic coastal route, you pass by the Elkhorn Slough about 20 minutes before you get to the Monterey Peninsula.  I'd passed by this waterway for many years and saw the signs for wildlife viewing.  Recently, I ventured onto the slough with Elkhorn Slough Safari and was rewarded with views of a variety of marine life and waterfowl.

We took a two-hour pontoon boat ride that departed from Moss Landing. During our ride, we saw 35 varieties of waterfowl including these gray pelicans pictured above.

In addition, we saw over 40 sea otters, which represent nearly 2% of the entire sea otter population on the west coast.

Pictured above are some of the 100 plus harbor seals we saw laying on the banks of the slough.

The most plentiful of the marine mammals we saw were California Sea Lions.  Most of the over 400 animals were fighting for space on docks and along the banks of the slough.

As you can see from the photos, we had a bright, sunny day.  I highly recommend venturing out onto Elkhorn Slough the next time you are in the Monterey area.  This is a great activity for children, who are made most welcome by the Safari staff.  If you'd like to visit Elkhorn Slough and Monterey from San Francisco, contact Blue Heron Custom Tours and Travel at (866) 326) 4237 (toll free) or to arrange your tour.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Two View Restaurants in Big Sur

CA Route 1 through Big Sur is one of the world's most scenic drives.  From Carmel to San Simeon is 90 miles, but you will need at least 2.5 hours to do the drive.  You'll want to stop along the way to enjoy the ocean views, take a hike, browse in a gallery, or perhaps have lunch.

Two restaurants along the route have beautiful ocean views:  Nepenthe and Sierra Mar at the Post Ranch Inn.  Deciding where to stop depends on your priorities:  view, food, and/or price.

While both restaurants have drop-dead views of the Pacific, Nepenthe does have the better view.  Sierra Mar is situated so you can see endless ocean but not much coastline.  From the deck at Nepenthe, you can see the dramatic meeting of coast and ocean.

View from Nepenthe

Just remember that, if you want to enjoy the view while you are dining at either restaurant, you'll need to stick with lunch except from late spring through summer.  After the sun sets, the only sights might be a few lights from fishing boats.

For food, Sierra Mar is far better than Nepenthe.  Dining is more sophisticated at the smaller Sierra Mar.  The food is more creative and the restaurant can take more care into its preparation since it is serving fewer people.  On our recent trip to Sierra Mar, we had very good crab cakes, a fresh salad, and carpaccio.  When we were at Nepenthe, we stuck with the very good and very large burgers.  Nepenthe has sandwiches and salads at lunch while Sierra Mar also offers entrees.  Both restaurants have a good selection of wines to accompany your meal.

At both restaurants, you pay for the view.  The burger costs $14.50 at Nepenthe and $22.50 at Sierra Mar.  Sandwiches at Sierra Mar range between $16 and $22 and entrees cost around $25.  Nepenthe's sandwiches and salads range between $14.50 and $23.00.

During the height of tourist season, Nepenthe sees crowds of people.  The restaurant only takes reservations for groups of five or more.  Sierra Mar, being much smaller, encourages reservations. 

Which to go to?  That's your decision.  Can't decide?  Spend a night in Big Sur and eat at both restaurants.  Lodging at the Post Ranch Inn ranges between $595 and $2,285 per night.  Fortunately, there are more affordable options, but most don't have the views.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Point Sur Lighthouse

After driving by Point Sur Lighthouse for decades, I finally was in the area during one of the lighthouse's scheduled tours.  We arrived 30 minutes before the tour was set to begin to make sure we wouldn't be left off as space is limited and advance reservations are not available.

Point Sur Lighthouse from CA Route 1
Shortly before the appointed hour, we were met at the entry gate by our friendly docent, James, who told us to drive about one mile to the parking lot where we met his wife, Linda, another docent.  We then slowly climbed 300 feet to the top of the rock to the lightstation.  Along the way, we stopped to catch our breaths and for James and Linda to tell us about the history of the lighthouse.

When we arrived at the summit, we were rewarded with fantastic views of the Pacific coast and Santa Lucia Mountains.


James and Linda then led us through the lighthouse and support buildings, telling us about the continuing restoration efforts at the lighthouse.  We learned about the crash of an airship during WWII and the discovery of its remains in the ocean.  The tour concluded at the visitor center, which had a variety of historic displays and a video of the lightstation's history.

The three hours seemed to fly by.  If you like history, lighthouses, and/or great views, I recommend a visit to the Point Sur Lighthouse.  You may not get weather as perfect as we experienced, but you'll still enjoy the tour.  Hours are limited, so check out the lighthouse's website for the latest information.