In a ridiculously rich year of new restaurant openings, the most prolific I’ve seen yet, it is harder than ever to name the top ones. There are many noteworthy places, from the “Mad Men”-esque vibe of Thermidor, to the stratospheric prices and fabulous snapping turtle veloute at Benu. Some of our best cafes (Ma’velous) and cocktail bars (Burritt Room) were added to the SF scene. Gourmet comfort food is a worn-out trend but places like Citizens Band and Grub infused it with new life.
As ever, my goal is to include cheaper and upscale openings, making it trickier to list every worthy candidate within the limits of 2010. The good news is, our already incredible dining scene only continues to explode, despite trying economic times. We have some of the most affordable, high-caliber food in the world, as Michelin Guide’s director noted. Here’s to more creativity, diversity and fine meals with good friends in 2011.
**The first 10 restaurants are in San Francisco proper — a part two highlighting the Bay Area can be found here. Restaurants are in alphabetical order.**
COMMONWEALTH. Photo by Virginia Miller
>>BAKER AND BANKER Baker and Banker technically is a 2009 opening (11/09), but I include it as an exemplary destination neighborhood restaurant. With dark brown walls and booths, the space exudes a modern, warm elegance. Husband-and-wife team, Jeff Banker and Lori Baker, get it right from start to finish with his dishes, like vadouvan curry cauliflower soup or brioche-stuffed quail in a bourbon-maple glaze, and her memorable desserts, like famed XXX triple dark chocolate layer cake (awarded a 2010 Guardian Best of the Bay) or warm pumpkin cobbler with candied pumpkin seed ice cream. Since the debut of their bakery next door, you can get Baker’s goods all day long.
>>BARBACCO Yes, Barbacco is usually obnoxiously noisy and crowded. But it improves upon its parent restaurant, Perbacco, with gourmet quality at a great value ($3-14 per dish). Reminiscent of enotecas I’ve dined in throughout Italy, heartwarming food and a thoughtful wine list make it an ideal urban trattoria. Order a glass of Lambrusco, fried brussels sprouts, and raisin/pine nut-accented pork meatballs in a tomato sugo, then marvel at the minimal bill.
>>COMMONWEALTH Anthony Myint and chef Jason Fox are re-inventing fine dining, along with a few key players in San Francisco (see Sons and Daughters below). Myint was one of the masterminds behind Mission St. Food and Mission Chinese Food, but at Commonwealth delves into molecular gastronomy. Taste your way through deliciously experimental creations for a fraction of the price at comparable restaurants – no dish is over $15. Dine on goat cooked in hay while sipping a liquid nitrogen aperitif, finish with porcini thyme churros with huckleberry jam. You may be packed in tight in the spare, modern space, but you’ll leave glowing from stimulating flavors and presentation.
COMSTOCK. Photo by Virginia Miller
>>COMSTOCK SALOON The Barbary Coast comes alive in this bar/restaurant gem that feels like a timeless classic. From Victorian wallpaper and wood-burning stove, to restored dark woods, the spirit and history of the space charm immediately. Filling up on rich beef shank/bone marrow pot pie or bites like whiskey-cured gravlax on rye toasts with dill sour cream is happy respite on chilly nights. Pair with a perfect Martinez cocktail or a barkeep’s whimsy (bartender’s creation based on your preferences). Comstock exemplifies the best of what a modern-day saloon (with old world sensibilities) can be.
>>CURRY VILLAGE When husband-and-wife owners Kamal Barbhuyan and Nimmi Bano left the Tenderloin’s Little Delhi, I mourned the loss of their divine butter chicken and made-from-scratch eats. Thankfully, this year brought them to the Inner Sunset with Curry Village. With the highest concentration of great Indian food in the ‘Loin, it feels right to spread the love across the city. Whether it’s daal (lentils) enriched with spiced beef, or the ultimate eggplant curry, baingan bharta, this couple prepares what could otherwise be standard Indian fare with love and lush flavor.
>>HEIRLOOM CAFE The menu (less than ten starters and entrees) is so simple I’m almost bored reading it. But upon first visit to the Victorian, country kitchen dining room (circa the Mission 2010), each dish was so well-executed as to diminish scepticism. Reminding me more than a little of Chez Panisse in ethos, ultra-fresh, pristine ingredients make a basic dish a revelation. Take a mountain of Heirloom tomatoes piled over toasted bread with pickled fennel, cucumbers and feta, or a flaky bacon onion tart loaded with caramelized onions. Heirloom’s added strength is owner Matt Straus’ thoughtfully chosen wine lists covering wines from Lebanon to Spain.
SONS & DAUGHTERS. Photo by Virginia Miller
>>PROSPECT Though I’m not won over by the semi-corporate look of Prospect’s large space, this hot newcomer shines in everything that passes through your lips: wine, cocktails and food. Chef Ravi Kapur’s exploratory dishes reveal impeccable technique with funky attitude. Garlic-roasted quail with roasted almonds, preserved lemon and Black Mission figs is exemplary, while Summer beets meld with vadouvan yogurt, candied pistachios and onion rings. Pair with a glass of wine recommended by wine director Amy Currens or bar manager Brooke Arthur’s elegantly layered cocktails and you have a meal that is the whole culinary package.
I feel like a kid again eating The Sycamore’s “famous” roast beef sandwich. A glorified Arby’s roast beef on grocery store-reminiscent sesame buns with BBQ sauce and mayo, the sandwich tributes the native Bostonian owners’ roots. But this humble Mission eatery, which doubles as a cozy beer and wine bar, doesn’t only shine there. Pork belly-stuffed donut holes in Maker’s Mark bourbon glaze are pretty near orgasmic. A slab of pan-fried Provolone cheese is enlivened by chimichurri sauce and roasted garlic bulb. I applaud all-day hours and $9 being the most expensive menu item.
>>SONS & DAUGHTERS
Like Commonwealth (above), Sons and Daughters is another opening where young, visionary chefs create molecular, fine dining-worthy fare at reasonable prices ($48 for four course prix fixe, a la carte from $9-24). Though service can be unfortunately erratic, the intimate black and white space evokes a romantic European bistro with youthful edge. Dishes are inventive and ambitious, like an acclaimed eucalyptus herb salad of delicate curds and whey over quinoa, or seared foie gras accompanied by a glass of tart yogurt and Concord grape granite.
>>UNA PIZZA NAPOLETANA Pre-opening hype could easily have made the debut of Una Pizza a letdown. Pizzaiolo Anthony Mangieri closed his beloved New York institution, moving cross-country to a mellow SoMa street. As in NY, Una Pizza is a one-man show with Mangieri solely crafting each pie, explaining the no take-out policy and long waits. Though this may make it hard to frequent Una Pizza, when you go, you are rewarded with doughy heaven. With only five vegetarian pies available, I dream of the Filetti: cherry tomatoes soaking in buffalo mozzarella, accented by garlic, extra-virgin olive oil, basil, sea salt. New York’s loss is certainly our gain.
–Subscribe to Virgina’s twice monthly newsletter, The Perfect Spot.