Ain't a town with a passel of lined-up eateries and gin joints in these parts that doesn't claim proud ownership of a "restaurant row." But no town in the whole of the Bay Area indulges the appetite at anywhere near the number and fascinating variety of the almost 70 restaurants, pubs, pizzerias, coffee houses, cafes, crêperies, taquerias, boites, bistros, burger joints, diners, delis, doughnut, bagel and sandwich shops, steak houses (Philly to filet), juiceries, falafel huts, prepared food departments, ice cream and sushi parlors, burger joints, trattorias and pasta emporia lining the belly-boggling mile-and-a-half stretch of San Rafael known simply as Fourth Street.
And those 70 don't include the dozen eateries in the Montecito Shopping Center a block from the row's eastern end, nor the half-dozen on Fourth beyond the row's western end, nor the many others on and just off neighboring Third Street, nor the tantalizing booths that line Fourth Street during every Thursday evening's farmers market. (That's about two dozen nors.) In all, there are close to a hundred places on and just off the strip to indulge the craving for any known taste. If you can't select something to satisfy your innards from the cornucopia that is San Rafael's restaurant row, you just don't give a damn about dining out.
OK, in a barrel the size of this restaurant row there are bound to be a few bad apples, so it's best to see the row as a barrel half-full or, better yet, as a tiara with many semiprecious gems and several bright diamonds.
Mexican food doesn't get more authentic than "that place under the bridge," Taqueria San Jose (615 Fourth St.; 415.455.0999), nestled directly under the Highway 101 overpass. At the (not very) upscale end of Mexican is the excellent Las Camelias (912 Lincoln Ave.; 415.453.5850). Two other Spanish-influenced places are superb: Sabor of Spain (1301 Fourth St.; 415.457.4088), with its tantalizing tapas, and the tiny, quaint Puerto Rican palace known as Sol Food (732 Fourth St.; 415.451.4765), featuring prawns, beef and a Cuban sandwich so good the restaurant had to open a garishly bigger place just a block south (901 Lincoln Ave.; 415.451.4765).
Three Italian eateries stand out: the veterans Il Davide (901 A St.; 415.454.8080) and Cafe Arrivederci (11 G St.; 415.453.6427), and the relative newcomer Vin Antico trattoria (881 Fourth St.; 415.454.4492).
Bacon and eggs and hash browns rise to the dignity of culinary art at Bobby's Cafe (1617 Fourth St.; 415.454.4444). For delis, there are such standards as the prepared fare of Whole Foods (340 Third St.; 415.451.6333), the long-time pleasures of Marin institution Perry's Deli (909 Lincoln Ave.; 415.456.4886), the reliable Moonlight Yogurt & Deli (1815 Fourth St.; 415.459.2835) and—how explicit can a name get?— Fresh Coffee and Sandwiches (969 Grand Ave.; 415.258.1688). And then there is the deli that sets the standard, the West End Cafe (1131 Fourth St.; 415.454.1424).
Bagels don't get better that those thumped out at Marin Bagel Company (1560 Fourth St.; 415.457.8127), where you can watch 'em being made. (This may be more than you need to know, but I down about 350 of Marin Bagel Co.'s sesames a year, one a day with my morning coffee, each ritually toasted, buttered and topped with a smidgen of raspberry jam. This is what an authentic New York&–style water bagel is supposed to be. Too bad there's no rye bread in the Bay Area to match it.)
The three Indian restaurants downtown are all good, but I especially like the newest, Om South Indian Cuisine (1518 Fourth St.; 415.458.1779), which specializes in mouthwatering curries and a remarkable rolled Dosa bread served in sizes ranging up to four feet long. Impressive.
Burgers? There's the small California chain of Barney's Gourmet Hamburgers (1020 Court St.; 415.454.4594), which are almost as good at the nonpareil Phyllis' Giant Burgers (2202 Fourth St.; 415.456.0866) just beyond the row's western end. And for steaks—and a mean cheeseburger—there's San Rafael Joe's (931 Fourth St.; 415.456.2425), in biz since 1947.
Asian food is represented by four Chinese, three Japanese, four Thai and one off-row Vietnamese. My favorite dish is the rarely found pressed almond duck at Yet Wah (1236 Fourth St.; 415.460.9833).
A real sleeper is the Lighthouse Diner (1016 Court St.; 415.721.7700), sister to the Lighthouse Cafe in Sausalito. Its unexpectedly eclectic menu includes several authentic Scandinavian dishes because the owners are Danish. Among the best are its traditional herrings, gravlax (marinated salmon), Danish meatballs and pitti panna, which is a hash. (In Sweden, they call it leftovers. I call it great.)
Dessert? For ice cream, let's call it a draw between Double Rainbow (860 Fourth St.; 415.457.0803) and Cold Stone Creamery (1010 Court St.; 415.258.0105).
At the risk of—OK, in the hopes of—starting an argument, there are still some absolutes, even if they don't reside in San Rafael. The best sushi in Marin is at Sushi Ran (107 Caledonia St., Sausalito; 415332.3620). My favorite steak house is good ol' Izzy's Steaks and Chops (55 Tamal Vista Blvd., Corte Madera; 415.924.3366), and there's always perennial fave Marin Joe's (1585 Casa Buena Drive, Corte Madera; 415.924.2081). Arguably the best Italian is Frantoio Ristorante (152 Shoreline Hwy.; 415.289.5777) in Mill Valley. I personally adore Chopsticks Chinese Cuisine (508 Third St.; 415.456.4942), just south of the row. I could go on naming fancier and better restaurants throughout Marin.
So what, then, is the essence of San Rafael's restaurant row that makes it so special, so unique in all the Bay? The answer is easy: diversity, the unexpectedly high quality of its offerings and the simple fact that, if you haven't called ahead but just park on Fourth Street and want a perfect place to eat, a different place to eat, just keep walking; you will find it. It'll be a few doors down, a block down, across the street and still near where you parked. You can't say that about any place in the Bay Area other than the biggest restaurant row of them all, San Francisco.
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