I didn't get to Chicago or San Francisco during the last few months, but I did the next best thing: connecting friends who love great food with some of my favorite restaurants, then hearing about their experiences after they returned.

My friends Brad and Rose never had been to the Bay Area, and there are so many great options there that it's hard to distill them (also the case with Chicago). There's wonderful Vietnamese (Slanted Door), stupendously fresh and inexpensive seafood (Swan's Oyster Depot), countless Chinese treasures and some of the nation's best Italian eateries (A16, Quince).

I mentioned those but strongly touted three places: the dim sum mecca Ton Kiang, the classy brasserie Boulevard and our personal favorite, Zuni Cafe (which merely boasts ridiculous oysters, about the best burger around, definitely the best roast chicken I've ever had and myriad fancier options).

With late notice, Brad and Rose had to scramble to get into Boulevard and Zuni, and weren't able to make it to Ton Kiang. But they positively gushed about their experiences, and my mouth was watering during their soliloquies. (In fact, it would be hard to even write this if I were not headed to Zuni myself on Saturday .)

Earlier this fall, my longtime buddy Kyle emailed me for Chicago tips. Knowing his palate, and how similar it is to mine, I suggested three places: perhaps America's best Mexican restaurant, Frontera Grill, and the neighbor/partners Avec and Blackbird.

Kyle and his lady friend were wowed and dazzled by Rick Bayless' fantabulous cooking at Frontera, but they spent much of their trip basically parked at the other two places, especially the more informal Avec. Kyle's one of the most articulate people I know, and hearing hiom recount his experiences at all three places was almost as much fun as actually being there.