With an array of Spanish-inspired small plates countered by a healthy dose of larger selections, Laiola (2031 Chestnut at Fillmore) lovingly bucks the current tapas trend. Led assuredly by chef Mark Denham, the Marina restaurant delivers a balanced menu of small plates and big flavors, described by SF Weekly’s Meredith Brody as “a parade of perfection.” The tastiest floats (as it were) in this culinary parade include the roasted wild mushrooms topped with breadcrumbs and an egg, and the roasted baby beet salad served with a wedge of Cabrales cheese. The crowning jewel comes in the form of the slow-roasted piglet, a daily-changing dish and no doubt a welcome surprise for the more adventurous pork connoisseur. For more info, call 346-5641 or visit www.laiola.com.
Test your inner wino this week at the 17th Annual Zinfandel Festival, which kicks off Wednesday, January 23, at the Fort Mason Center and drinks its merry way through to Saturday, January 26. Four events pack in an estimated 300 wineries and 10,000 attendees for an extravaganza touted as the world’s premier single-varietal tasting. Thursday’s Good Eats & Zinfandel Pairing at the Herbst Pavilion teams up local eateries and wineries for an evening of tastings. Even with the $125 price tag, the sky’s the limit, with some 50 sumptuous pairings on deck. Here’s a fun game: See how many you can taste before the Zinfandel finally gets the best of you. For more info, call 530-274-4900 or visit www.zinfandel.org/festival.
Great first impressions are important when dating, but having enough cash left after dinner for drinks and an eventual cab ride home is essential. That’s why the three-course prix-fixe dinner at Scott Howard (500 Jackson at Montgomery) in North Beach is the bees’ knees for foodies who want to save a Gary Danko or Michael Minna visit for the second or third date. At $32 per diner, the deal is a steal, with generous, wonderfully composed tasting portions that won’t leave you yearning for a slab of pizza an hour later. Mix and match any three dishes from the California- and French-inspired tasting menu, which is full of richly adorned works, including the not-to-be-missed signature carrot soup with chervil sabayon and truffle oil; and the Colorado lamb loin with eggplant caponata, currants, and capers. Seating is required by 6:15 p.m. For more info, call 956-7040 or visit www.scotthowardsf.com.
If you can still walk after dinner, head up the street to historic North Beach saloon Vesuvio (255 Columbus at Jack Kerouac) and soak up the Beat-era ambience — and the booze — until it’s time to catch that cab. For more info, call 362-3370 or visit www.vesuvio.com.
Prowl the late-night Trendyloin scene with a swanky ’50s backdrop at The Ambassador (673 Geary at Leavenworth). Complete with decadent crystal chandeliers, button-tufted black-leather booths, and famously stiff cocktails, this is the perfect spot to get sloppy until the wee hours. Perhaps best of all, there’s no need to waste valuable mingling time waving down the bartender: Simply order from one of the vintage phones in your booth. For more info, call 563-8192 or visit www.ambassador415.com.
It’s time again to make the rounds of new joints sprouting up across San Francisco, starting in the Inner Richmond at Burmese and Californian fusion spot B*Star Bar (127 Clement at Second Ave.). Just down the street from the always-packed local favorite Burma Superstar, this casual incarnation features some Superstar staples and enough variety to please even the most finicky diner. For more info, call 933-9900. Sticking with the Burmese theme, Pagan Restaurant (3199 Clement at 33rd Ave.) in the Outer Richmond is catching diners by surprise with its spicy dishes and dual menus — one Thai, one Burmese. For more info, call 751-2598.