If you’re like me, even the biggest existential questions—Is there a God? What is my purpose? Should Snooki have my blessing to become a mom?—pale in importance before the true whopper: Where should I have my next meal?
Around here, the culinary scene evolves so swiftly that the pleasures of an evening at the new “it” restaurant are tempered by the knowledge that six more hotspots are bound to have opened by the time you get to dessert. Painful, really. But fear not, dear food geek. I’m no sage or swami. I can’t predict the future or shine a guiding light into the dark pit of your soul. But I do spend my days and nights dining around the Bay Area and digesting my experiences into opinion. I can point you to what’s trendy (is it chicken hearts or kimchee that you’re craving?) and offer firm direction in your hour of need (you’re headed to the wine country, say, or hungry and up late—well, late for here).
Following are my picks from the staggering number of restaurants that have opened or been reconcepted or remodeled within the past year or so. I presume that you’ve heard of Gary Danko and Chez Panisse; when it comes to the new stuff, though, odds are you’ve got questions. And I’ve got answers. But only when it comes to what you should be having for dinner. The rest is up to you.
American Pies: Can we just get a slice?
As with the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, the concentration of thin-crusted, wood-fired Neopolitan-style pizza around these parts may not be sustainable—yet the buildup continues. Two of the newest leading candidates are Redd Wood in Yountville—Redd chef Richard Reddington’s January debut—and Del Popolo, which rolled out its San Francisco operation late this spring. The latter is a food truck, but not just any truck. It’s massive and tricked out with broad windows on one side, a wood-fired oven in back, and a line of people waiting, so that when its chef-owner, Flour + Water vet Jon Darsky, tweets an update on his location, he has been known to trail it with another tweet saying, “Sorry, we’re sold out.”
The truck is cool to look at, and Del Popolo’s pizza is superb—the crusts nicely charred and deftly topped, the flavors as fresh as they are restrained. As cult obsessions go, it reminds me of Una Pizza Napoletana, the two-year-old SoMa mecca where crowds flock to pizza chef Anthony Mangieri and his blue-tiled oven like pilgrims.
But I’m a pizza pragmatist, not a purist. My leanings tend toward gas-oven pizza, since the lower temperatures of those ovens allow the crust to turn crunchy in the middle without burning around the edges. (They also make it easier to heat up a slice.) Which is why my first choice for pizza in San Francisco is Gioia Pizzeria in Russian Hill, a stationary offshoot of the popular original in Berkeley, where you are presented, sans hassle, with a gas oven–baked pizza of the highest order. The mushroom is a sound choice, as is the acciughe, with Sicilian anchovies, chili flakes, and oregano. With the winning qualities of a lovable curmudgeon, this pizza has so much more depth than the crusty exterior that it shows the world. What’s more, it’s also sold by the slice.
Another top-notch newbie is Nick’s Pizza in Oakland, where Nick Yapor-Cox, the former pastry chef at Butter in New York, tosses sourdough crusts with just the right pliancy and crunch. Toppings change weekly or so (corn and bacon was a recent smash hit), but there’s always plain ol’ cheese and pepperoni. Bottom line: Go ahead and call yourself a pizzaiolo. Bonus points, though, if you also keep it real.
Midnight Munchies: Where to go when it’s past your bedtime.
San Francisco is the city that never sleeps—until 10 p.m., when the loudest sound is collective snoring. What’s a hungry night owl to do? While chefs, sommeliers, and servers have long been drawn to the likes of Nopa after their shifts, today there are more options to choose from. My first nod goes to Bouche, in Nob Hill, a cozy place whose old-world atmospherics remind me of my youthful journeys across Europe, when I wandered the continent with my Parisian lover, leaving behind trails of empty Sauternes bottles and memories of lavish latenight meals. Wait. That wasn’t me. What’s true is that I like French chef Nicolas Borzee’s duck confit, which, like the entire dinner menu, is available till 1 a.m.
Next on my checklist: the Boxing Room, which does justice to hush puppies and jambalaya and a range of Cajun-inspired dishes from a kitchen that keeps ragin’ until the wee-ish hours (the last seating on Fridays and Saturdays is 11:45 p.m.). Locanda gives you 15 minutes more, serving the full menu until midnight on Fridays and Saturdays, an hour that often calls for a comforting bowl of carbohydrates such as the delicious radiatore pecora e pecorino (or rather, lamb ragù with mint and pecorino over radiator-shaped pasta). If that’s not late enough, Pig & Pie, a brand-spanking newcomer to 24th Street in the Mission, is open until 1 a.m. on Friday and Saturdays. It serves housemade sausages, a nice selection of beer on tap, and, of course, pies—good ones at that.
Gourmet to Go: Not just sandwiches, chef’s sandwiches.
Today’s takeout isn’t congealed Cantonese in a leaky carton. Not in San Francisco, where casual is king and chefs with refined training have turned their hands to pragmatic, often sandwich-driven, menus. For this, I’ll go with Roostertail, the Sutter Street rotisserie where Postrio alums Gerard Darian and Tracy Green produce excellent chopped salads and finger-lickin’ pulled pork, brisket, and roast chicken, along with superb sides and the handy option of curbside pickup.
Then there’s Sweet Woodruff, near Jones and Sutter, where Teague Moriarty and Matt McNamara have loosened the aprons they wear at Sons & Daughters, their nifty art project, and gotten creative with low-maintenance, high-pedigree salads (I like the bulgur and farro with apricots and raisins in a lemon vinaigrette) and a handful of sandwiches (try the roast beef with cabbage slaw and onion jam).
Oakville Grocery is a Napa Valley landmark, a favorite of tourists seeking picnic provisions. But I’d come to think of it as a relic, what with its dated menu and its aisles as cramped as a Moroccan souk. Now, thanks to a renovation (more room to browse, better stuff to nibble) and the arrival of chef Jason Rose, formerly of Delfina, I’m warming back up to it. Good-bye, turkey and pesto sandwich. Hello, fried chicken with bacon rémoulade on an Acme roll.
Back in San Francisco, at Salumeria, the retail sidekick to Thomas McNaughton’s Central Kitchen (itself the high-end spawn of Flour + Water), the lonza and salametto, among other cured meats, pâtés, and terrines, are enough to fuel a carnivore’s cross-country road trip. Though the menu changes daily, you’ll find things like boudin blanc with piperade and sweet mustard on a pretzel bun, and I loved the porchetta sandwich with fennel and mustard greens on ciabatta. Consider sitting for a minute in the enclosed outdoor patio. It’s a lovely, soothing setting. And besides, the sandwich is almost too good to eat on the run.
Top Temps: Pop-ups that are here to stay.
Who can possibly keep tabs on all the local pop-ups, the restaurant world’s equivalent of beta launches, which come and go at the speed of broadband? I know I can’t. So instead of chasing them and my own tail, I wait for their trial phases to pass, hoping that the best will morph into something more enduring.
This year there are signs that my patience has paid off. For starters: Wise Sons Jewish Delicatessen, once a mobile food truck, is now a brick-and-mortar favorite in the Mission district. With its house-cured corned beef and its Californian mushroom Reuben, it’s an easy blend of East and West Coast, and the only deli in the city worth a detour across town. Also, there’s Ken Ken Ramen, which went from pop-up to permanent and now offers its slow-simmered red miso ramen—stocked with seaweed, soft-boiled eggs, and succulent braised pork—four nights a week (Wednesday through Saturday). I prefer that dish without the mound of pea shoots, which risk turning the contents of the bowl into a swamp.
If I hold out a bit longer, I’ll also have the pleasure of a trip to Preeti Mistry’s popular pop-up Juhu Beach Club, which is set to morph this summer into a lunch-and-dinner spot on Mission, between 17th and 18th streets. That’s a prime location for the Top Chef contestant’s take on Indian street food, ranging from cardamom-braised short ribs to a Scotch egg with ground lamb, brightly garnished with chili and mint.
Haute Tamales: Mexican steps up its game.
The taco, the torta, and the tamale are street food staples now enjoying the Cinderella treatment at a growing number of sit-down restaurants that feature menus filled with feel-good ingredients and bars stocked with fine tequila and mezcal. Such is the shifting face of Mexican cuisine in what has always been a taqueria town. I’m thinking, for instance, of the second location of Nopalito in the Sunset, which serves one of the city’s meanest micheladas; it pairs well with enchiladas with shrimp and cabbage.
At Copita in Sausalito, you can get the likes of a sprightly halibut ceviche with mango and a solid margarita—or, budget permitting, an $85 glass of Don Julio Real. As big-money build-outs go, few are done more beautifully than Comal in Berkeley, a ballyhooed newcomer with high-backed blond wood booths, an alfresco beer garden, and sophisticated flights of agave-derived spirits. But based on my early visits— a dry English pea tamale; an under-seasoned roasted chicken with a stingy side of beans—a number of the dishes could use some tweaking, too.
Cosecha, by contrast, a modest space in Swan’s Market in downtown Oakland, sings with pitch-perfect cooking from Chez Panisse alumna Dominica Rice, who pours her heart into the food. Her flan is as addictive as a telenovela, her mole is as complex as a Mayan citadel, and her fried fish tacos are the best I’ve had this year. The booze menu is limited to beer, and there’s no table service. You order at the counter and take a number. So, in other words, it’s closer to a taqueria than something like Comal or Copita—but in the best way possible.
The Izakaya Craze: Navigating the land of chicken parts.
What tapas bars were to diners in the ’80s, izakayas are to us today: We went to bed one evening having never heard of them, then woke to find them everywhere. The surge of interest in Japanese-style pub grub has triggered an avalanche of grilled skewers and sake and cleared a path for yakitori-happy kitchens that treat chickens the way that scrap yards deal with worn jalopies: breaking them down for their less heralded parts.
Take Nojo, for instance, whose name means “farm” but whose strength isn’t produce but unsung proteins, like a wooden skewer threaded with squares of grilled-to-a-crisp chicken skin. However, at the Mission district’s Izakaya Yuzuki—my top spot in the city in this genre—things get more refined. Housemade tofu is delicate enough for the finest dining, and made-to-order rice, baked in an earthenware pot and studded with clams and salmon roe, is worth the 30-minute wait. Yuzuki’s dining room is nondescript, but not so the interior at Ippuku in Berkeley, the most complete izakaya package of them all. Christian Geideman’s rustic cooking—chicken hearts and livers are just two of many musts—isn’t news to the Bay Area Japanophiles who flock here, but not everyone knows that in May Ippuku started serving lunch. You won’t find izakaya classics, only a menu of handmade soba preparations. Perfectly elastic, with a nutty buckwheat flavor, the noodles come two ways: hot and plunged in dashi, or cold and primed for dredging in a side of tsuyu, a soy-and-mirin dipping sauce. If this soba thing is about to be a trend, I’m all in favor of it.
Heart and Seoul: The kimchee has landed.
The current intrigue with hip Korean food could be viewed as the cutting edge of culinary fashion. But I see it as a perfect storm—a storm that was born with David Chang’s Momofuku in New York, picked up speed with Roy Choi’s Korean-inspired food trucks in L.A., then swept up to our town. Riding on its front is a small, winning collection of modern, Korean-inspired restaurants.
In West Oakland, there’s FuseBox, Sunhui Chang’s operation, which I think of as distant kin to David Chang’s Momofuku empire. For starters, there’s FuseBox’s bootstrapping origin story; it was founded on a shoestring in a scruffy warehouse district. Then there are the crossed currents in the cooking, befitting a chef who was born in Korea and raised in Guam and went on to run his own Bay Area catering business. But enough background. What should you eat? The chicken wings, for sure, which are glassy, not greasy, expertly fried, and brushed with housemade chili paste. And any of the skewers, which cost as little as a buck and range from rainbow trout to pickled pearl onions to tender pork toro (neck), with a dipping sauce of mustard and tiny, pickled shrimp. There’s also traditional galbi (grilled short ribs), which come with rice and ever-changing banchan, those feisty little Korean sides. The restaurant’s only weakness is that, for now at least, it does lunch only, and it does that just three days a week.
In San Francisco, there’s the Mission’s lovely madhouse Namu Gaji, where cabbage is treated as a handcraft and a stonepot with rice, beef, and a fried egg is a total comfort. At Eric Ehler’s pop-up, Seoul Patch, you’ll revel in the robust, complex ramen, stocked with pork and kimchee, and the fried brussels sprouts, which belt you with their soy-and-vinegar kick. Even at State Bird Provisions, the genre-bending restaurant on Fillmore Street, chef-owner Stuart Brioza turns out a stunning stew of pork belly, clams, and kimchee.
Vine Dining: When the wine country beckons.
In the Napa Valley, where the landscape stretches like a fancy lifestyle spread, restaurants have a way of looking pretty much the same: a farmhouse, often prefab, with exposed-beam ceilings; crowds that call to mind the cast of Desperate Housewives; menus of rustic-chic Cal-Med cuisine. It’s rarely my first choice as a dining destination, but I get the query often: What about the wine country’s latest and greatest? As it happens, I have found a fair amount to like this year.
I’m a big fan, for one, of Bar Terra, the laid-back corollary to beloved Terra, which has stripped the cloths from the wooden tables and added a bar and highbrow happy hour–style snacks, like pig trotter croquettes and salt cod fritters. Chef-owner Hiro Sone’s signature—sake-marinated cod with shrimp dumplings— remains a fixture on the menu in the old dining room, but if you ask politely, they’ll serve it to you at Bar Terra, too. Some dishes never die; they’re just set aside for special request.
I also like Goose & Gander in St. Helena, the new wine country pub grafted onto what was once the Pat Kuleto–designed Martini House. The space still has the vibe of a high-end hunting lodge (leather-backed seats; duck decoys hung above blood-red walls), but the cooking is just haute enough without being haughty. Pan-roasted chicken breast can be so boring, but not in the hands of former Martini House chef de cuisine Kelly McCown, who perks his up with corn succotash, piquillo peppers, and porcini mushrooms. In the dark-wood bar downstairs, celebrated bartender Scott Beattie’s cocktails are pretty much required: His Scarlett Gander (vodka, lemon, mint, shiso, ginger, galangal, and rhubarb) signifies his style. It brings the farm to the glass without becoming a frilly drink.
Just a few blocks away, French Blue has been earning local raves for its neighborhoody vibe and its all-day menu, which is rooted in the bounty of nearby Rudd Farms. (I haven’t been yet, but my spies recommend the lamb meatballs, with crumbled feta and puttanesca sauce.) At the mouth of the valley, downtown Napa has sprouted so many tacky buildings that I’ve come to think of it as Vegas in the Vineyards. Fittingly, it even sports a number of celeb-chef restaurants, like Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto’s namesake outpost and Bradley Ogden’s Fish Story. Tyler Florence’s Rotisserie & Wine has already come and gone. But all of that is dining without a sense of place. Better to venture a few blocks away to the
Oxbow Public Market, the once-forlorn clone of the Ferry Building that has finally begun to blossom as a locals’ hangout. A good deal of its vibrancy derives from Kitchen Door, an outpost that in May started doing table service, pollinated by the talents of Martini House vet Todd Humphries. His eclectic menu is a hodgepodge of things he likes to eat. I like them, too, particularly the roast duck banh mi sandwich, the grilled salmon with warm asparagus salad, and the candy cap mushroom bread pudding, an elevated spin on a down-home dessert.
Spendy and Trendy: Money and where to burn it.
There are some things money can’t buy. A seat at a chef’s table just isn’t one of them. Yes, you pay dearly for one of the four seats at the relatively new wooden counter in the kitchen of Saison: $498, to be precise. But you’re compensated sweetly with 20-plus courses, wine pairings included, and concierge-like service, plus the sublime cooking of Joshua Skenes, who alchemizes fetishistically sourced ingredients into such things as wood sorrel soda, with crystallized oxalis root, and seared albacore, awash in seaweed bouillon. Most dishes are better eaten than they are described.
In a freshly renovated space above Flour + Water, Thomas McNaughton has started tinkering with the Test Kitchen, a private dining room where the chef puts a refined spin on things, more in the vein of what he’s doing down the street at the new Central Kitchen. His eight-course menu covers elevated terrain, with such high-minded dishes as California sea urchin with mussels, potato, lardo, and crispy kale. For this experience, you’ll be expected to pony up $195 per person, not including wine (which adds on $80 to $120 each).
At the Restaurant at Meadowood, Christopher Kostow has a new kitchen, too (a gorgeous, gleaming space that looks part workplace, part Hollywood set), and a new chef’s counter option to go with it. Five hundred dollars here gets you 15 to
20 courses, wine excluded (the pairings start at $300), but that’s the price you pay for a three-Michelin-star chef at his most inspired. Kostow’s cuttlefish with mesquite-smoked avocado and Rancho Gordo beans in cumin-scented broth is just one in a royal procession of dishes that will drain your supply of superlatives. Indulgent? Sure. Excessive? Not exactly. Think of these restaurants as budget-busters. Or destinations for your bucket list.