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Where To Eat Now: 2013

Josh Sens | July 25, 2013 | Story Restaurants

It's been a year of border-bending on the culinary front, and by that I don’t mean a return to fusion. I’m talking about the blurry between highbrow and lowbrow cooking, a porous divide that local chefs have long been crossing, though never more so than of late. I could point to art-house pizzas and gourmet burgers, to name two Cinderellas whose evening at the ball shows little sign of ending. But that’s only the start. I’m also talking refined ramen, and curry made without the slightest hurry, and sandwiches that shatter your assumptions of how good a quickie lunch can be.

The past 12 months have erased the line between haute and humble. Our best new culinary outposts are bars that act like bistros (and the other way around). They are destination restaurants in stripped-down settings. They are neighborhood hangouts with menus that blow your worldly traveler’s mind. “No one does the middle better than us,” a veteran of the restaurant industry informed me when I asked him what sets our dining scene apart. But calling it the middle makes it sound so middling. Instead, consider it the sweet spot in between.

Here now, my 39 favorite new arrivals of the past 12 months.

Sandwiches Get Soulful
In the roughly 250 years since the Earl of you-know-where ordered his valet to bring him meat between two slabs of bread, the sandwich has been fine-tuned to near perfection. It’s hard, anyway, to see how it could be improved at this year’s top lunch spots. I’m thinking, in particular, of the French dip at Belcampo Meat Co. (2405 Larkspur Landing Cir., at Lincoln Village Cir., Larkspur, 415-448-5810), the butcher shop and restaurant in Larkspur from Anya Fernald, a former Slow Foodnik who gets her beautiful beef from Belcampo’s own farm and slaughterhouse in Shasta. And the mountainous Reuben at Marrow (325 19th St., near Harrison St., Oakland, 510-251-1111) in Oakland, where onetime food-trucker Jon Kosorek makes the best of his snug space and the most of his ingredients with his whole animal approach.

But when I ponder the sandwich as Platonic ideal, what I picture, above all, is pretty much anything at Bar Tartine Sandwich Shop (561 Valencia St., near 16th St., 415-487-1600). The daytime operation, in a freshly annexed space beside the Valencia Street bistro, elevates casual lunch beyond all expectations. A smoked–goat cheese melt with chard, onion, mushrooms, and a cooling drizzle of tahini; a lamb meatball sub with gruyère, pepper relish, and paprika—you can’t miss. The food is comforting but convention-breaking, and the care involved—everything house-baked, house-smoked, house-brined—reminds you that great cooking is talent plus time. There may have been better inventions than what you get here, but none that I can think of between sliced bread.

Burgers Keep on Flipping
Is a burger a sandwich? It fits Webster’s definition, but read between the lines—it stands for something more. Smartly packaged (Smashburger in the North Bay, 7320 Redwood Blvd., Ste. B, near Grant Ave., Novato , 415-408-6560) or served with a supposedly exotic char (Umami Burger in Cow Hollow, 2184 Union St., at Fillmore St., 415-440-8626), it’s a measure of your openness to clever marketing. Grass-fed, it signifies your good taste and everyman ethics, as at Victory Burger (1099 Alcatraz Ave., at San Pablo Ave., Oakland, 510-653-8322) in Oakland, where the Five Dot Ranch beef is for the eco-minded and the hooks on the wall are for their fixed-gear bikes. Around these parts, the burger has become like a tattooed hostess: something a restaurant just has to have. It’s definitely a worthy draw at the Corner Store (5 Masonic Ave., at Geary Blvd., 415-359-1800), the spiffed-up soda fountain in NoPa, where Salt House vet Nick Adams crowns his with aged cheddar, aioli, and bacon jam. And it’s the best reason to scrabble for parking around Rickybobby (400 Haight St., at Webster St.) in the Lower Haight, where the burger is a hefty blend of beef and bacon ground together.

Forced to choose my favorites, I’d point to the burger at Oakland’s Hopscotch (1915 San Pablo Ave., at 19th St., Oakland, 510-788-6217), where former Yoshi’s sous chef Kyle Itani sets it apart by topping it with beef tongue and sesame aioli, or to Chris Kronner’s version, the Kronnerburger—which first came to my attention when the chef was at Bar Tartine. His burger gained a cult following there and is now the centerpiece of a shabby but chic restaurant called, yes, KronnerBurger (2379 Mission St., near 20th St., 415-656-9871), in a side room at Bruno’s, the iconic Mission district bar. Nicely charred on the outside (dare I suggest that it out-umamis Umami?) but blood-red in the middle and perched on Acme pain de mie, it’s served with grilled onions, pickles, and cheddar mayo. A side of roasted marrow is listed as optional, but don’t take that literally. For the city’s finest burger at its best, the marrow is pretty much required.

Page two: Tapas take off (again), pizza gets deep, and dining defies definition.

Tapas Take Off (Again)
Like the Gipsy Kings, they were big in the ’80s. Now tapas are back for a reunion tour. This time around, though, they are more attuned to their surroundings (drawing directly on the Bay Area’s bounty), and they take the stage as part of elaborate productions that feature not just small plates but also larger raciones. One of their splashier stops is on the Embarcadero, where celeb chef Michael Chiarello runs Coqueta (Pier 5, at the Embarcadero, 415-704-8866) in the space vacated by Lafitte. Its name speaks of flirtation, but in lieu of sly seduction, the restaurant goes to exhaustive lengths to please. Cured meats, quesos, gazpachos, fideuàs: Chiarello has the canon covered. Clam-and-mussel escabeche is canned fresh every day. You admire the swagger and the scope of the ambition, to say nothing of the setting, the dramatic ocher curtains drawing back on sweet bay views. But many of the dishes—rubbery grilled octopus, shyly seasoned pork-and-duck albóndigas—leave you feeling that the kitchen has bitten off more than it can chew.

Duende (468 19th St., near Telegraph Ave., Oakland, 510-893-0174) in Oakland’s Uptown district, makes better use of its big budget. A café– cum–restaurant–cum–music venue with Oliveto veteran Paul Canales at the helm, it’s an eclectic place, and its wide-ranging menu shares a kinship with Coqueta’s in its pintxos-to-platos reach. But here, the flavors pop, from the sea bass crudo with espelette pepper to a must-order clam-and-rabbit paella, a lively rendition of the classic that’s often served to the strains of live jazz.

Renewed interest in patatas bravas has also given rise to, appropriately enough, Bravas (420 Center St., near North St., Healdsburg, 707-433-7700) a downtown Healdsburg restaurant from Mark and Terri Stark of Willi’s Seafood & Raw Bar. Those traditional potatoes share space with other safe bets—tortilla española, grilled calamari with salsa verde—and more exotic winners such as fried pig ears, crisp and curled like Tiparillos and licked with anchovy vinaigrette. The place is Spanish, sure, but the atmosphere is easy-money Sonoma County, the bar scene so relaxed and sociable that you kick yourself for not buying here decades ago, the last time that tapas had their moment in the sun.

Pizza Gets Deep
Seems like every month, some new place emerges that's out to grab a slice of the growing pizza market. Who can possibly keep up with all the pies? At Campo 185 (185 University Ave., at Emerson St., Palo Alto , 650-614-1177), Pizza Moda (1401 University Ave., at Acton St., Berkeley , 510-841-5200) Vesta (2022 Broadway St., at Main St., Redwood City, 650-362-5052) Ciccio (6770 Washington St., near Madison St., Yountville , 707-945-1000), and Pizzando (301 Healdsburg Ave., at Matheson St., Healdsburg, 707-922-5233)—in Palo Alto, Berkeley, Redwood City, Yountville, and Healdsburg, respectively—they’ve rounded up the usual thin-crust suspects, and if you can tell them apart in a blind tasting, you have a far keener palate than I do. At Forge (66 Franklin St., near Embarcadero West, Oakland, 510-268-3200), on the waterfront in Oakland's Jack London Square, friends informed me that the crust stood out for its perfect salt-and-sourdough balance. I’m not going to argue. But what I remember most is that the festive bar scene and the large, lively space, furnished with big televisions, seemed perfectly designed for the happy hour unwind.

As one pie after another melts together in my memory, my leanings tend toward places that dare to be a little different. Capo’s (641 Vallejo St., near Columbus Ave., 415-986-8998) in North Beach fits that bill. Yes, it’s from Tony Gemignani of Tony’s Pizza Napoletana—an award-winning pizzaiolo who needs press about as badly as Brangelina. And no, you normally can’t get pizza topped with nettles or ramps. But Capo’s failure to follow the predominant wood-fired fashion amounts to a sweet aesthetic of its own. The restaurant’s inspiration, as its name suggests, is Al Capone’s Chicago, a time and place evoked by shiny red, tufted high-back booths, a cash only policy (OK, maybe that’s for tax purposes), Prohibition memorabilia, and the array of stuffed and deep-dish pies, as well as classics such as spaghetti and meatballs and clams Casino. The quattro forni, a sparsely topped (you can add prosciutto and arugula, which I recommend) favorite, only 20 of which are made each day, is baked four times in three ovens and deep-fried to create what I was told were four different textures. Um, OK. Like the restaurant itself, it’s something of a gimmick, but a good one. And in this age of serious pizza overload, it stands out for being a lot of fun.

Dining Defies Definition
Our love of lumping food into simple categories—Cal-Med, Spanish-inspired, Cuban-Viking fusion—is perhaps equaled only by our fondness for restaurants that we can’t quite define. How, for instance, to classify Christopher Kostow’s craftsmanship at the Restaurant at Meadowood? What language to describe State Bird Provisions, the idiosyncratic, dim sum cart–wielding darling from Stuart Brioza and Nicole Krasinski, other than to say that it deserves all the acclaim?

As of this summer, there’s also the question raised by Sir and Star (10000 Sir Francis Drake Blvd., at Hwy. 1, Olema, 415-663-1034), the superb Olema offering from Manka’s Margaret Gradé and Daniel DeLong. Is it a destination restaurant? The pastoral romance of the out-of-the-way setting, not to mention the splendor of the hyper-local cooking—such as kale-stuffed, apricot-scented roast quail from just down the road, or sparkling fresh wild salmon— suggests yes. But the casual farmhouse vibe makes it feel like a place you just drop by.

All that said, this year’s great taxonomic challenge is none of the above. It goes, instead, by the name Rich Table (199 Gough St., at Oak St., 415-355-9085) the chef-driven but ingredient-focused, rustic but refined standout from husband-and-wife team Evan and Sarah Rich. Just when you think that you can pigeonhole the cooking—spaghetti with goat cheese and mint sounds farmers’ markety enough—out from the kitchen pops a duck lasagna layered with Santa Rosa plums. The straightforward menu descriptions rarely prepare you for the dishes themselves. The prosaically named sardine chips, for example, are crisp potato wafers with a sardine embroidered through them like a hat pin, set over a puddle of horseradish cream. Try any label to pin down Rich Table, and someone will quibble. What no one will dispute is that the crowds keep coming, and with good reason. Maybe this is what we should call Rich Table: the place where you can’t get a seat.

Page three: Cocktails are for dinner, Ramen keeps rising, and wine bars step up their game.

Cocktails Are for Dinner
A few weeks back, I dropped by Hard Water (Pier 3, at the Embarcadero, 415-392-3021), Charles Phan’s Southern-inflected outpost on Pier 3, for a bowl of gumbo and a bourbon cocktail. Or was it the other way around? Judging from the menu, which ranges ambitiously from baked oysters to braised rabbit with buttermilk dumplings, you expect the place to function as a restaurant. But based on the operation—no table seating, bartenders serving food (that gumbo took a long, long time to arrive)—Hard Water has other ideas. I understand. Androgyny is in. Is it a restaurant with a bar, or a bar with a serious food program?

You see the same hybrid trend in boozy restaurants like Steins Beer Garden (895 Villa St., at Bryant St., Mountain View, 650-963-9568) in Mountain View and the Tribune Tavern (401 13th St., at Franklin St., Oakland, 510-452-8742) in downtown Oakland, which match Cal-Med pub menus with encyclopedic drink lists. But its clearest expression is probably Trick Dog (3010 20th St., near Florida St., 415-471-2999), that cocktail-happy outpost in the Mission, whose most obvious trick seems to be hiding the fact that it serves food at all. Stepping through the unmarked entrance, you’re hit by a pounding eclectic soundtrack. There are white cloth–covered tables on the mezzanine level, but no one is around to seat you, while the ground-level bar—the main attraction—is stacked two-deep. With some struggle, you snag a superb cocktail—the Alligator Alley, built around green Chartreuse and olive oil–infused gin. You wouldn’t mind a burger (on a hot dog bun) or a piled-high kale salad, but where would you put it? How would you eat it? Is Trick Dog in the midst of an identity crisis? It feels more like youthful rebellion—as if sitting down for dinner were no longer cool.

Ramen Keeps Rising
Philosophical question: If a dish comes into fashion, and a Chez Panisse veteran isn’t around to make it, is it still a trend? Posed another way: Had Sobo (988 Franklin St., No. 186, near 9th St., Oakland, 510-832-7626) been the only ramen spot to launch in the past year (it’s in Oakland’s Chinatown, and its take on tonkotsu ramen, with a deep-fried pork cutlet on the side, is an upgrade on the ramen that this neighborhood has known), would anyone be saying that noodles are in? What made the fad official and the stuff of national headlines was the Ramen Shop (5812 College Ave., at Oak Grove Ave., Oakland, 510-788-6370) in Oakland, which was saluted by the New York Times’ T Magazine (and made the cover of this one) the instant that it opened. A new project from ex-Panissers Jerry Jaksich, Rayneil de Guzman, and Sam White, the Shop is a reminder that a link to Alice Waters still ensures a crowd on opening night—and also guarantees the intense scrutiny of skeptics.

I’ve heard some people diss the place as precious and pricey, but the Rockridge nook, which blends fetishistic sourcing with a Tampopo-esque pursuit of noodle-house perfection, produces an array of complexly flavored ramen (my first choice: the shoyu Meyer lemon ramen with spit-roasted pork) that’s worth the few extra bucks you pay. The intimate space, a crush of reclaimed wood and close-set bar seating, is suggestive of a thousand Tokyo ramen shops, and the noodle-making machine on display in back is like a loom at Ardenwood: a museum piece that still plays a practical role. Not that all you get is ramen. Sparkling starters, from wok-smoked black cod salad with shaved radishes and oranges to kampachi tartare with Little Gem lettuce and beets, are great, gourmet ghetto–ized additions, rounding out a restaurant that is more than simply soup by way of Chez Panisse.

If the Ramen Shop is Japan through a California lens, Roku (1819 Market St., at Pearl St., 415-861-6500)—my favorite new Japanese spot in San Francisco—feels like Tokyo through and through. Ramen can be had here, but this is an izakaya, a classic late-night outpost for eating and drinking, not necessarily in that order. In keeping with the genre, the offerings are eclectic, the printed menu bolstered by dozens of paper listings on the walls. From the salted mackerel to the skewered chicken hearts to an udon carbonara that may be the city’s finest hangover cure, the food is all booze-friendly and served by an appropriately rainbow-haired staff. At the Ramen Shop, you’re riding the culinary currents. At Roku, you feel as if you’ve arrived by Tokyo subway on your way home from a karaoke bar.

Wine Bars Step Up Their Game
Wine bars used to be such a bummer—like bistros without food or bars without the fun. They promised marked-up pours, pedantic tastings, and, if you were hungry, a forlorn ring of grapes around a yellowed wedge of brie. Time for a rebranding, anyone? This year, fortunately, brought a number of fresh takes on the form. Bartavelle (1603 San Pablo Ave., near Cedar St., Berkeley, 510-524-2473) in Berkeley, in the old Café Fanny space, offers sweetly prepared crostini and rillettes, paired with sharp selections from Kermit Lynch Wine Merchant that add to the sense of European charm.

Wine Kitchen (507 Divisadero St., near Fell St., 415-525-3485) is another wine bar that won me over. Its owners, Greg Faucette and Jason Limburg, came to wine through cooking (at Commonwealth, Bar Tartine, and Per Se, among others), and the balance of their pairings (a coastal Oregon pinot to complement fried gnocchi with wild mushroom ragout) reflects their belief that the two belong on equal footing. They’ve done their work so well that I’d rank Wine Kitchen a close second to my top choice of the year, 20 Spot (3565 20th St., at Lexington St., 415-624-3140) in the Mission, from Bacchus owner Bodhi Freedom. See a name like his, and you worry about Deadhead posters and patchouli. But with help from Wylie Price (who designed Trick Dog and the Presidio Social Club), Freedom has refashioned the former record store into Don Draper–like digs, with Eames rocking chairs in a lounge out front and orange globe lights glowing above the bar. From a small, stoveless work space, chef Anthony Paone (formerly of Sea Salt) turns out elevated bar-appropriate fare (the bottarga-dusted, flower-garnished deviled duck eggs deserve special mention) its own in many of the city’s finer kitchens. You can call the place a wine bar, but it’s more like a very good restaurant that has some very nice things to drink.

Rockridge is Waking Up
Sure, Healdsburg has some new flavor (Pizzando, Bravas), and even Marin is experiencing an uptick in good food: Farmshop (2233 Larkspur Landing Cir., at Lincoln Village Cir., Larkspur, 415-755-6700), Belcampo Meat Co., the ever expanding Sol Food (401 Miller Ave., near La Goma St., Mill Valley, 415-380-1986). But Oakland is really seeing a surge. And no, I’m not talking about the Temescal district. Funny thing is, as Temescal took off—recently acquiring Juhu Beach Club, (5179 Telegraph Ave., near 51st., Oakland, 510-652-7350), from Preeti Mistry, whose vindaloo chicken wings with blue cheese and raita reflect her feisty treatment of Indian street food — Rockridge became known for upscale somnolence—a neighborhood that goes to bed at 9 p.m.

But Rockridge has finally started revving up. In addition to the Ramen Shop, College Avenue has welcomed cocktail-centric Toast (5900 College Ave., at Chabot Rd., Oakland, 510-658-5900)—a tequila cocktail with that salumi plate?—and the Trappist Provisions (6309 College Ave., near 63rd St., Oakland, 510-594-2339), a spin-off of the popular downtown Oakland beer hall, where the craft beer and ale flow freely well after dark. There’s also the latest offshoot of A16 (5356 College Ave., near Manila Ave., Oakland, 510-768-8003), the Southern Italian–inspired hit that began in the Marina, spread to Tokyo, and now qualifies as Oakland’s toughest seat. The menu centers on pizza and pasta, but there are also salt cod fritters, roasted asparagus dusted with bottarga, and a good-size list of seasonal, Cal-Med entrées (king salmon with radish agrodolce) to match with a nifty selection of old-world wines. And now there's word of more stirrings to come. For starters: Box and Bells (5912 College Ave., near Chabot Rd., Oakland), from Commis’ James Syhabout, is set for summer, its menu stocked with pork terrine, côte de boeuf with a fricassee of snails, and other staff meals Commis kitchen. If things keep up on the culinary front, Rockridge may soon acquire its own new label: Temescal du Nord.

Originally published in the August issue of San Francisco

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