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April 18-24, 2007

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First Bite


By Michael Shapiro

"Wow, you think this is so good because we're so hungry?" my friend asked. Four of us had just spent a sunny Sunday afternoon hiking from Green Gulch to the beach. We were ready for some hearty grub and suds in a place that had a warm atmosphere but wasn't too elegant for grubby hikers.

We settled on Rafters Grille and Brewery in downtown San Rafael, an airy, woody brewpub with a relaxed vibe. Rafters is refined and quiet enough to have a conversation without raising your voice, but not stuffy. A jazz quintet, fronted by a woman who sounded a bit like Norah Jones, played in the corner (on other nights the pub features rock, soul or Latin music). On warm days, most of the front wall slides open, giving the dining area the feel of a streetside cafe.

Our server, who was friendly and didn't make us feel out of place in our sweatshirts and shorts, quickly brought the first round. We quaffed a well-balanced and quenching amber ale that had traces of caramel. The beer was just right: rich with malt flavors but not heavy or overly carbonated. The first one went down so easily, I had to order a second to accompany my chicken pesto pizza ($11.95 for a 10-inch pie).

The pizza was generously layered with slices of chicken, sun-dried tomatoes, spinach and mozzarella. The pesto stood out, its bright basil flavor enhancing the other toppings. The crust was nicely toasted, not brittle, just chewy enough to sink my teeth into. As hungry as I was, it was too much to finish.

My friend had a guacamole burger ($12.95 with avocado, bacon and pepperjack cheese), which she described as "very juicy." I had a few of her fries, which for me are a litmus test; they were served scaldingly hot (as they should be), nicely browned on the outside and fluffy on the inside.

As the evening wound down and we became sated, we returned to the question: Is Rafters' food as good as it seemed, or were we just famished from hiking? The clear consensus is that Rafters is the full package with great beer and satisfying food. And here's the rare part: it's a Marin restaurant where you can have a big plate and a pint in a comfortable room for under $20. I'll be back.

Rafters, 812 Fourth St., San Rafael. Open daily from 11am for lunch and dinner. 415.453.4200.

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Quick-and-dirty dashes through North Bay restaurants. These aren't your standard "bring five friends and order everything on the menu" dining reviews.