This was the year that Bon Appetit magazine named Al’s Place the Best New Restaurant in America, and Deputy Editor Andrew Knowlton called San Francisco the best dining city in the country.
The national media is catching up to what we’ve known for some time. While this was an exceptional year, our dining scene has been on fire since 2010. Even back in 2008 when other cities were crippled by the recession, the chefs of San Francisco combated hard times with creativity, a more casual vibe and heart-felt cuisine.
I would never argue that Al’s Place isn’t deserving, with the way chef Aaron London has created a vegetable-centric menu where meat is a side. London employs inventive techniques and combinations — using fava pods to flavor aioli and first fermenting potatoes to concentrate the flavor for his french fries.
But as innovative as Al’s Place is, my restaurant of the year is Hayes Valley’s Cala. It wasn’t an easy decision. Many places I reviewed this year had national impact and are worthy contenders. These include Liholiho Yacht Club, where Ravi Kapur has given a voice to Hawaiian food; the Progress, which is the more sophisticated follow-up to State Bird Provisions; Mourad, where Aziza’s Mourad Lahlou has built one of the most impressive restaurants in the city serving his interpretation of Moroccan food; and Petit Crenn, where a nightly changing fixed-price French menu captures the soul of owner Dominique Crenn — and the hearts of diners.
However, Cala strikes a special chord because it takes Mexican food to a new level.
Gabriela Cámara, who owns the respected Contramar in Mexico City, actually moved here to open this seafood restaurant, and she has an Alice Waters-like focus on ingredients. But it’s not just the food that sets this restaurant apart, it’s the service—the majority of the staff come from the Delancey Street Foundation or other social service programs—and a handsome decor that evokes the feel of an urban patio. Camara installed a Meyer Sound system to modulate the noise level and built a taco stand open during the day in the Hickory Street alley behind the restaurant.
Among the top new restaurants, fixed price menus seem to be the next major trend for several reasons. Diners have become more adventurous and trust the chef to produce a great meal, and a shorter menu is more economical for restaurants because they don’t need to buy and prep food that might not be served.
One of the best examples of this is Trestle, where for $35 the folks from Stones Throw present a beautifully prepared three-course dinner in equally impressive surroundings. It’s a phenomenal deal.
With all that has been written about the escalating costs of opening and running a business in San Francisco, it’s significant that all but one of the Top 10 restaurants, Ninebark in Napa, opened in the city.
The Japanese influence continues to blossom in the Bay Area, and many established Western chefs such as Michael Tusk of Quince have traveled to Japan and begun to incorporate elements of that cuisine in their creations. Indeed, more chefs are following their passions and producing food that can’t be pigeonholed.
To grasp the depth of our dining scene you need only to look at the restaurants I had to leave off the list — including Californios, another great new Mexican restaurant where Val M. Cantu uses French techniques to give an upscale twist to his fixed price menu; Old Bus Tavern, where the food is perfectly matched to beer; Oso in Sonoma, which does the same with wine; Belga, which celebrates Belgian food; and Rintaro, a Japanese restaurant that also made Bon Appetit’s 10 best new restaurants list. In any other year, Village Sake in Fairfax, a Japanese pub opened by Scott Whitman who was the chef at Sushi Ran for 15 years, would have been a shoe-in for the top 10.
At Lord Stanley, Carrie and Rupert Blease also feature a fixed price menu, weaving together all the training they’ve had in the United States and abroad. The restaurant incorporates another trend: talented chefs from elsewhere relocating to the Bay Area.
Huxley, the small restaurant on Geary, took a chance on a new area near the Tenderloin; Chris Kronner, a former Chronicle Rising Star turned his fine dining chops to make his Kronnerburger pop-up permanent in Oakland; and Chris Cosentino, a pioneer in offal-themed cookery at Incanto, went full bore (or is it boar?) with his meat-centric menu at Cockscomb, where diners can order a pig’s head with the snout gilded in gold leaf.
And the hits just keep coming. Opened earlier this month, Volta is a new Scandinavian entrant from Staffan Terje and Umberto Gibin, who earned raves at Perbacco and Barbacco.
In the coming weeks, Cadence will open in a hidden space at Market and Fell; it is owned by the Maven folks who have been leaders in matching food to cocktails. We can also look forward to the opening of Perennial, which will take the farm-to-table philosophy to a new level by championing progressive farming techniques to combat climate change.
In 2016, it’s a safe bet that the Bay Area will continue to nurture trends that will spread to the rest of the country.
When main courses in the Bay Area are now regularly in the $30 range, it’s virtually unheard of to find a stylish restaurant where a three-course dinner is $35. I’m not sure how the owners of Stones Throw do it, but the food created by Jason Halverson and his crew is as good as you’ll find anywhere. You’d see me there once a week if I had the chance.
The nightly changing menu offers two options in each of three categories. It could be a brightly flavored Caesar salad or cauliflower soup, followed by pan-roasted salmon or pork schnitzel, and concluding with chocolate pot de creme or pumpkin cheesecake. The 49-seat interior with blackened brick walls, dark wide-plank wood floor and two towering flower arrangements belies the price of dinner.