NoPa the district is a term invented by Realtors to refer to the area north of the Panhandle in San Francisco. Before the Realtors renamed it, NoPa was simply known as the Western Addition, an area associated with a bit of a crime problem for the past few decades.
But NoPa really didn’t become a destination until 560 Divisadero (near Hayes), previously the site of a 1920s-era bank, was transformed in April 2006 into a fine dining restaurant. Named after the neighborhood, Nopa restaurant features imaginative, delicious, sustainable comfort food meticulously sourced from local providers. Instead of hordes of cash, the former bank vault now holds Nopa restaurant’s well-chosen wines. Nopa really has become “a San Francisco gathering place.”
The restaurant was a success as soon as it opened. “It's barely 3 months old, but is catching on quickly,” Chronicle food critic Michael Bauer wrote in June 2006. “Like Zuni, it's a place that not only defines the neighborhood, but also becomes a salon for its customers.”
Happily the qualities that made Nopa so popular nearly four years ago remain undiminished. The food is simple, earthy and thoroughly satisfying; the emphasis is on fresh ingredients. Chef and co-owner Laurence Jossel, formerly of Chow, describes his food as “urban rustic.” Nopa’s small, seasonal menu veers toward the Mediterranean, with a local Northern California twist.
The beverages emphasis is clearly on signature cocktails, like Death at Dusk or a Manhattan with a choice of artisinal bitters, and wine, with several nice sherries and European and California wines available by the glass. There were only a couple of beers on tap, but they’re local and well-chosen: Moonlight Brewing’s Lunatic Lager from Santa Rosa, and from just down the street, Magnolia Brewing’s Dark Star Mild. The 10 bottles include Pliny the Elder from Russian River Brewing, Dupont Saison and St. Peter’s Sorgham Ale.
Moonlight’s Web site describes Lunatic Lager as “a crisp, European-style lager,” but any similarity between this beer and American lagers is in name only. It pours golden and clear, with a foamy white head and endless tiny bubbles and it looks almost as good as it tastes. “The Lunatic (which was then called Moonlight Pale Lager) was the first lager I made,” said Moonlight Brewing owner Brian Hunt. “I describe it (ignorantly but creatively) as something like was brewed here 100 years ago. I wanted enough snap to match the malt richness, and enough malt richness to hold your attention during the sip, and keep your interest piqued...repeatedly.” Lunatic Lager was delicious paired with Nopa’s Monterey sardines appetizer with grilled bread, hummus and an olive tapenade.
As much as I love beer, there are some foods that just match better with wine, like Nopa’s baked pasta with braised goat, lamb, pinquito beans and escarole. The rich flavors of the tomato-based sauce mingled perfectly with the slow cooked meat, penne pasta and hearty beans. The glass of Dolcetto “Dei Grassi” Alba that our server suggested accented the subtle sweetness of the sauce. Be sure to ask for some of the delicious Acme bread to soak it up.
Nopa’s grass fed hamburger with pickled onions and French fries has become legendary among Bay Area diners, and for good reason. It’s perfectly seasoned, and delicious topped with Gruyere cheese. It seemed as if just about every other order was a burger. The balsamic braised lamb shank with polenta and mustard greens was another hit: perfect comfort food for a winter night.
Although we generally avoid dessert, we couldn’t resist sharing the orange custard ice cream parfait with candied kumquats, a perfect conclusion to a wonderful dinner.
Considering the quality of the food and the unobtrusive attentiveness of the staff, prices are remarkably reasonable at Nopa. About the only downside is that the two-story, high-ceilinged restaurant can get pretty noisy at peak dining times. But that’s just a testimony to Nopa’s continuing popularity and a minor quibble in an overall excellent restaurant.
560 Divisadero Street
San Francisco, CA 94117-2213
6 p.m.-1 a.m.
(bar opens at 5 p.m.)