Neighborhood Gems: Zarzuela

This Russian Hill spot proves tapas are timeless

In October, Tasting Table asked readers for their favorite neighborhood gems. Now we're introducing the winning picks.

Zarzuela has always occupied a romantic corner of Russian Hill–the hum and clack of the cable car line entering the door with each customer, its large domed window looking onto a tree-lined stretch of Hyde.

Andy Debbane and chef Lucas Gasco, who hails from Madrid, opened the restaurant almost 20 years ago. They've settled into that kind of smooth, low-key groove that too few restaurants earn.

You can find upscale California-styled Spanish food elsewhere. Zarzuela is where you go for an unfussy meal of traditional tapas and glasses of Verdejo or Rueda.

Unfussy means almond-stuffed dates ($8) wrapped in pancetta and grilled, the salty crackle of the cured pork containing the dried fruits' sugars, or a fluffy tortilla española ($6) that tastes more like a savory cake than a potato-onion omelet.

Gasco's strength is in preparing humble dishes properly, like a salad of romaine lettuce ($8), good-quality canned tuna and roasted red peppers drizzled with a discreet splash of sherry vinegar, and lamb chops ($13/23) cut thin so they cook quickly on the plancha without charring or drying out.

It's simple food that never gets dull, no matter how often you eat it.

Other Russian Hill Neighborhood Gems: Leopold's, Gioia Pizzeria, Frascati, Helmand Palace