Typically, I think ordering chicken at a nice restaurant is for fools. It's the equivalent of joining a fancy gym just so you can shower there. You can shower at home just the same and not pay the premium. Not that I don't ever order chicken at taquerias, Chinese restaurants and similar other low-cost establishments. It's just that I'm typically not going to sit down to a nice meal, look at an attractive menu selection, and then blow $20 on chicken. It's just not an option.
That said, there are a couple notable exceptions in San Francisco - restaurants that truly make Destination Chicken. Here's my very short list:
1. The whiskey and brown sugar glazed roasted chicken at Range
Those who know me are aware that I'm a Range junkie and try hard not to show my bias in this space by writing about Range too much. But this chicken needs to be discussed. It's absolutely the best chicken in San Francisco and probably the best chicken I've ever had. I'm not alone in this bold claim.
The preparation changes reguarly, even as much as weekly. The "whiskey brown sugar" move is new for summer, and almost doubles as barbeque chicken. Typically it's just roasted in sherry jus. Right now the side with it is spoonbread and arugula. In the past sides have included fiddleheads and bread salads. All have always been good.
I asked chef Phil West how he does it, and there doesn't seem to be any great secret other than execution. The chicken is brined for a day (all great chicken is, of course) in a standard brine with salt, sugar and peppers. The chicken is roasted at extremely high heat (550 degrees) and treated before and after with the glaze. The result is tasty, moist chicken with crispy skin that you can't put down.
2. The Sunday-night-only buttermilk fried chicken at Street
A writer I read regularly said once that fried chicken is the ultimate envy order. It's the item that people either pass up due to health reasons or simply because it's chicken. But if you're with a group of four people and you're the guy who orders the fried chicken, everyone else eventually regrets not following suit.
A few places make good fried chicken (Firefly and Jack Falstaff to name two), but my vote for best fried chicken in San Francisco goes to Street on Polk Street. Similar to Range, I have a heavy bias here, but with plenty good reason.
Available only on Sundays, chef John brines the bird for three (3!) days. The buttermilk batter is not too heavy and the chicken remains light and fluffy. Don't forget to ask for the cornbread, and the slaw it comes with is also excellent. Overall a great performance. They often run out before the end of the night (which I don't totally understand) so get there early.
3. The roast chicken at Zuni Cafe
Yes, this chicken is famous and I'm not exactly breaking new ground here. In fact, I think Zuni isn't quite what it once was - perhaps they're spending too much time writing cookbooks these days. But this roast chicken is still excellent.
Again brined (are you sensing a theme yet?), this chicken is prepared for two people and is some of the more flavorful chicken you'll have. Upon ordering, you should be warned by your server that it takes 45 minutes. If you know that you're going to have it, consider ordering it right as you sit down so as not to starve out your dining cohorts. It's worth the wait, however.
Making honorable mention in the roast chicken category is the brick chicken at Sociale.
But again, just like a shower, you can also do the Zuni chicken at home.