When a new restaurant opens, it's hard to know ahead of time how things will turn out. Some places get a lot of buzz but never live up to it, others turn out fabulous food but can't make ends meet. Some places are packed night after night, even if the food isn't anything to scream and shout about. Unless you have a trusted crystal ball in front of you, sorting out a restaurant's fate is usually the job of Father Time.

But with Laiola, even before I stepped inside I knew that the place was going to take off. Mostly, because a mere four days after opening -- without a liquor license, no less -- it already had.

I rolled up to the old Pizza My Heart location on Chestnut Street near 8 pm on a weekday night. The narrow storefront is all windows, and it was packed full of P.Y.T.s, with more hanging around outside, madly texting friends to meet them there. A faint pinkish glow emanated from within thanks to the stunning pressed copper ceiling; it's a very flattering light for all the pretties (and the not-so-pretties, too).

When I walked in, I was smacked in the face by the cold, hard truth: Laiola couldn't serve any wine yet. I looked behind the bar at all the shiny wine bottles and sighed. The good news? They were waiving corkage, and Nectar Wine Lounge down the street was kindly selling their retail wines at 10% off. I turned to my friend Karen to discuss who would go fetch a bottle, when I got even better news: My friend Brett was just finishing his meal at the bar, and he had more than half a bottle of albarino left. Would Karen and I like it?

Let's see. Is Thomas Keller a perfectionist?


We plopped down next to Brett and, from our perch at the bar, watched one of the cooks drape thick slabs of succulent-looking slow-roasted piglet over a pile of gigante beans ($19). Plate after plate, the aroma was enough to reverse my unfavorable impression of roast suckling pig formed years ago in a heavy wooden-beamed restaurant outside Madrid. I vowed to try it again one day.

Laiola bills itself as a "California restaurant inspired by Spain" -- and it's heavy on the Spain. A glance at the wine list showed it's all Spanish-grown or Spanish varietals, with most offerings by the individual miniature carafe or the bottle. A clever touch, those carafinas, which hold one-third of a bottle of wine. They look to be a great value, too, hovering near $10 apiece. Rumor has it that cocktails created by Camber Lay (Range, Frisson) will rock the house soon.

Chef Mark Denham (42 Degrees, Hawthorne Lane, Manresa, Postrio) has created a flexible menu, with a small selection of house-cured charcuterie, a dozen appetizers, a handful of entrees, and a few quick desserts. We opted to share a series of tapas, and loved the spicy salchicon ($6), five fire-engine red coins of pork sausage served on a slab of wood. Laiola's website says it's made from "a mix of coarsely ground Niman Ranch pork shoulder and back fat seasoned with plenty of Pimenton garlic, chile powder and cayenne pepper." Mmm.

We also oohed and aahed over the marinated local sardines, garden vegetables in escabeche ($11), crisp local sardines roasted and served atop baby vegetables like carrots, shallots, and cauliflower, each pickled in their own brine. I'm calling this the dish of the summer. Like the equally good version at Nua, it alternates between salty and sweet, cool and hot, crisp and soft.

The deep fryer was down so we didn't get to sample the patatas bravas ($6), a classic Spanish dish comprised of thick wedges of potatoes dressed with spicy aioli. But the bacon-wrapped Medjool dates stuffed with chorizo, grilled, and drizzled with aged Balsamic vinegar more than made up for their absence. They looked like small brown lumps when they arrived, but they were so smoky-sweet and good that I didn't mind burning my fingers or my tongue to finish them off.

Service was adept, and our knowledageable waitress was full of passionate recommendations. Not all of them paid off -- the side dish of rapini, for example, was undercooked and fibrous -- but given that Laiola was only four days old and besieged by malfunctioning kitchen equipment, delinquent paperwork, and masses of hungry diners, I forgave them their trespasses.

We didn't have dessert, but I was sorely tempted, especially after watching Brett slather toast with thick chocolate ganache drizzled with fruity Arbequina olive oil and a dash of Maldon sea salt ($7). It's a dish I've had before, even made before, and I speak from experience when I say it is the epitome of divine simplicity.

When we left Laiola, it was still buzzing (still!) even though no wine could be sold on premises in this notoriously "thirsty" neighborhood. It is already a place to see and be seen, but it is also a place to eat -- and eat well -- and, like the patina on the copper bar, I expect it will only improve with age.

2031 Chestnut Street
(415) 346-5641
San Francisco
*No reservations*
Open 7 days a week, 5:30 - 10:30 pm (bar open till 11 pm)