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The Bay Area takes justifiable pride in its dining scene. With 50 Michelin starred restaurants and a legacy of luminaries, from Alice Waters to David Kinch, who changed the way we eat — how could we not?
But at its heart, dining out is a personal experience. Foodies traverse the region in search of the best sushi, seasonal fare or ultimate tasting menu, while others favor the trusted neighborhood trattoria, with its familiar faces and beloved dishes.
Happily, the East and South Bays offer innumerable wonderful dining options that represent the full gamut of experiences, from swanky to casual, Japanese izakayas, taquerias, chaat houses and more.
So how did we build this list of the 50 Best Restaurants? First, we took San Francisco out of the equation. That bastion of gastronomy gets enough ink, and our readers live here in the East and South Bays. We took out the starry Michelin holders, too, and gave them a list of their own. And then, we spent months visiting and revisiting restaurants – and eating kale in between – to produce this list, which offers something for everyone.
We’ve been rolling out the news this week in batches of 10. Today, we’re giving you the full 50 — all in one place. (Bookmark it!) Consider these sensational bistros, cafes, swanky fine-dining and tiny holes-in-the-wall not so much a ranking as a guide for all occasions and cravings.
$: A typical entree is $15 or less
$$$$: More than $100
Daytrip, Oakland: When you crave the brilliantly unexpected
Let’s be clear: Months ago, before Bon Appetit named Oakland’s Daytrip one of the best new restaurants in America, the trend-setting natural wine bar had already shot to the top of our list. Finn Stern and Stella Dennig’s Temescal neighborhood bistro is a revelation, a place where you will experience funky, palate-opening wines alongside dishes so lively and scrumptious, they make standard fine dining fare (we’re talking about you, roast chicken) an absolute bore.
The secret is executive chef Stern’s razor-focused pursuit of fermentation, which brightens everything from salad to pasta. Sonnets could be written about Daytrip’s now-famous celery salad, the way the feathery Sardinian sheep’s cheese balances perky habanero and lemon verbena chlorophyll. Or how it would be a crime to toss handmade sourdough basil pasta in marinara, when it clearly belongs with Sugar Kiss melon vinegar, goat’s milk brunet and Shared Cultures’ small-batch miso.
As if Daytrip could get any better, the atmosphere is fun and unpretentious, the service confident, and nothing on the menu, which changes often, is more than $28. One more gush: They list the names of every Daytrip employee on the menu in alphabetical order, with Dennig and Stern tucked in the middle, not at the top. Here’s to starting more trends like that.
Don’t miss: The ever-changing menu typically offers a dozen dishes, including desserts, but the pastas, mussels, hot focaccia and salads always shine.
Details: 4316 Telegraph Ave., Oakland; www.thisisdaytrip.com; $$
Ettan, Palo Alto: When you want Michelin-quality Indian in a fun, photo-worthy setting
The first indication you’re in for a special meal at Ettan is the space itself – a virtual palace of exquisite tilework and chandeliers that leads to a patio of lush greenery and upside-down umbrellas. Once you’re done gawking, you can sit and enjoy the Cal-Indian cooking of Srijith Gopinathan, who hails from Kerala and snagged two Michelin stars at San Francisco’s Taj Campton Place.
Gopinathan’s dishes are artful and bursting with texture and brightness, a prime example being the sesame leaves with “chaat flavors.” Crispy, fried leaves are piled with juicy mango, chickpea crumble, candied sesame and cilantro – like the most interesting loaded Pringle ever; you won’t be able to eat just one. Buttered monkey bread in hot cast iron makes a perfect vehicle for assertive kale and eggplant chutneys. The pea kulcha with ricotta sings of springtime (there’s an earthier version with a shower of black truffle), and chicken wings with fermented chiles are astonishingly juicy. Perhaps it’s the chef’s roots near the Malabar Coast, but anything seafood-related is a guaranteed hit, from the velvetiest scallops with tamarind to shallot-crusted black cod in a shrimp curry whose complex flavors unfold seemingly forever.
Don’t miss: Everything above, plus the wild mushroom “one pot” with potato korma and idiyappam, black cod in shallot crust with coconut rice and the Travancore shrimp curry.
Details: 518 Bryant St., Palo Alto; ettanrestaurant.com, $$$
Acopio, San Jose: When you want what the taqueria trailblazers are cooking
Taqueria Lorena held down an East San Jose corner for decades, until a fire shuttered the family business founded by Jose and Carmen Vidrios. That’s when daughter Lorena, the namesake, started putting a second-generation plan into motion with brother Carlos: They would open a modern, evolutionary Mexican restaurant, the sort of place that Lorena said San Jose hadn’t seen before. The plan by the siblings, both chefs, came to fruition earlier this year with Acopio — the name means a reunion or gathering — on the East Side.
With executive chef Marshall Reid, they’ve created a contemporary menu with Old World touches. The soft, supple tortillas, for example, are handmade from blue corn nixtamalized onsite. A Lebanese-spiced grilled pork taco pays homage to the Arabic influence that led to Mexico’s famous spit-roasted al pastor.
The Mole de Pato, a chile adobo confit duck leg served with pistachio mole and seared, spiced masa cake and sprinkled with pomegranate seeds, quickly became Acopio’s signature dish. It’s a stunner, beautifully cooked and composed, texturally interesting and Instagram-gorgeous. The preparation varies — this fall it’s Pipian Verde con Pato, with a green mole and lemon-thyme masa cake — but the pistachio version will return come pomegranate season this winter.
Don’t miss: Start with the Tortillas de Casa appetizer, served with frijoles puercos, queso fresco, chiltomate salsa and salsa verde cruda, or the spicy corn ribs, Costiillas de Elote, before tucking into the duck entree or the Carne de Res with grilled chayote.
Details: 399 S. 24th St., San Jose; www.acopiosj.com; $$
Belotti Ristorante, Oakland: When only the most delicate stuffed pastas will do
Take that first bite of Michele (mee-ke-le) Belotti’s food, and you can almost hear the dramatic symphonic music that opens Netflix’s “Chef’s Table,” where the Italian chef flicks flour on the cutting board. Belotti, who grew up near Milan, could join their ranks. His eponymous Rockridge restaurant, conceived and run with his wife, Joyce, strips gourmet Italian food to its essence: simple, minimal ingredients combined in ways that print memories on the palate. The handmade pastas are headline-worthy: casoncelli stuffed with beef and pork shoulder, bigoli tangled in duck sugo and orange zest, tagliatelle topped with grappa-marinated wild boar and Tuscan pecorino.
Belotti Ristorante is that rare neighborhood bistro that hits every mark. It offers a reasonable price point, exceptional wine list, long and convenient hours and confident servers who make spot-on recommendations, as they breeze by with samples of world-class Brunello. Even the simplest of desserts, a traditional panna cotta, is not the typical jiggly mold but a pot of silky, raspberry-topped cream custard that cues the music again.
Don’t miss: The Casoncelli Bergamaschi (Bergamo-style stuffed pasta with beef, pork shoulder, prosciutto, Grana Padano, sage, butter and smoked pancetta) is a crowd-pleaser. Also wonderful: the tortellini tradizionali in brodo (tiny tortellini in short rib-chicken-oxtail bone broth) and Agnolotti di Lidia (stuffed pasta with beef shank, flat iron, pork loin, sausage, escarole and spinach).
Details: 5403 College Ave., Oakland, with a take-out and pasta shop at 4001B Piedmont Ave., also in Oakland; https://belottirb.com; $$
Black Sheep Brasserie, San Jose: When you want to pretend you’re in Paris
If you think of Willow Glen’s see-and-be-seen street as Rue Lincoln, then Black Sheep is the chic brasserie everyone calls their favorite. For good reason.
This contemporary French-California kitchen, which has its roots in restaurateur Don Durante’s long-ago Le Mouton Noir, puts outstanding meal after outstanding meal on the table, and diners have come to expect that level of quality.
Many swear by the 38 North Duck Breast, with seasonal accompaniments. Others wouldn’t think of starting their meal without the Duck Liver Mousse appetizer. The “Burnt” French Onion Soup, crowned with Comté cheese, is the richest around. (You’ll also find Comté, France’s meltiest, atop the burger here.) Craving scallops? Black Sheep Brasserie brings in only the coveted sweet Hokkaido ones, and they’re cooked to perfection, with just the right amount of sear.
And don’t be surprised to hear a foodie at a nearby table rhapsodize about the evolving gnocchi preparation, which this season is a roasted – and smoked! – pumpkin version with sage cream and walnuts.
If you’ve left room for dessert, the promise of Maple-Calvados Caramel with the Buttermilk Beignets should make that decision easy.
Don’t miss: The Steamed Mussels, served with saffron cream, aioli and a pile of pommes frites.
Details: 1202 Lincoln Ave., San Jose; https://bsbwillowglen.com; $$
Orchard City Kitchen, Campbell: When your taste buds need a wake-up call
If you’ve been eating off too many predictable menus, re-energize your palate with a trip to Orchard City Kitchen. You’ll want to grab a few friends, because the appeal here is wildly inventive, hyper-seasonal small plates, and chef/owner Jeff Stout and his team come up with some outrageous combinations that work. (The overall-wearing chef with Michelin cred also owns and operates the upscale and creative Be.Steak.A, located nearby.)
To get the full OCK experience, you need to share plenty of dishes. A popular starter is the BBB (biscuits, bacon, honey butter). But earlier this fall, the kitchen was making a Hungarian fry bread called Langos and serving it with chimichurri-cultured butter and aged cheddar. That’s hard to pass up. Moving on, a Bitter Tropical Salad of radicchio, cabbage, coconut, peanut and nuoc cham makes for a refreshing palate cleanser, and then there’s a Tamarind Pork Belly served with Jimmy Nardello peppers, piloncillo and marcona almonds. (Even serious foodies spend a lot of time here googling ingredients.) The Bone Marrow Orecchiette is accompanied by water chestnuts, dates, crispy shallots and blue cheese. And Sauerkraut Fritters become German-Italian fusion when served with ricotta, basil aioli and red onions. Who dreams up this stuff?!
Just order and enjoy. Because on your next visit, there will be a whole new assortment of small plates.
Don’t miss: If you’d feel more comfortable with a couple of menu standbys, you can’t go wrong with the aforementioned BBB, the Korean Fried Chicken or the seasonal vegetable dishes.
Details: 1875 S. Bascom Ave., Campbell; www.orchardcitykitchen.com; $-$$
Lion Dance Cafe, Oakland: When you want a road trip-worthy sandwich and so much more
One of the most exciting restaurants in Oakland is vegan, doesn’t have indoor seating and is perhaps most famous for a sandwich that’s only served on Saturdays. Oh, but what a sandwich: The shaobing is a triumph of spice and funk, with a recent version featuring velvety slabs of Asian eggplant, potato and smoked-tofu fritter, pickled Thai chile mayo and fresh herbs and lime leaf. It’s squished between chewy bread baked with sesame oil in the dough and encrusted in sesame seeds – one could eat the bread alone and be happy, it’s that good.
Order from the quick-moving line, then have a seat at the festive parklet among youngsters much cooler than you to enjoy more Singapore-inspired cooking from C-Y Chia and Shane Stanbridge. A huge clump of maitake mushrooms, seemingly ripped whole from the forest floor, is perfectly battered and zippy with Fresno-chilei sambal. The sesame-peanut noodles are a textural feast with chewy strips of seared yuba and crunchy veggies, plus an encore of mala numbing spice. For dessert, don’t miss the A.S.S. Cookie (take your mind out of the gutter, it’s almonds, sesame and shallots). You’ll never be bored at Lion Dance, and you’ll never miss meat or dairy. In fact, the brined-tofu nuggets, which were recently on hiatus (but may come back!) due to their intensive week-long preparation, might actually make you swear off Mickey D’s.
Don’t miss: That shaobing sandwich #72, the mushroom goreng with sambal, sesame L.G.M. Noodles with stir-fried market veg and, if you can score them, those tofu nuggs with sambal mayo.
Details: 380 17th St., Oakland; liondancecafe.com, $-$$
Flea Street Cafe, Menlo Park: When you want a beautiful taste of the season
The two lists that book-end the Flea Street Cafe menu tell you all you need to know about pioneering chef Jesse Cool’s priorities.
One is an appreciation of the many purveyors — from Harley Farm to Dirty Girl Produce to Webb Ranch and 25 others — whose devotion to “sustainable, organic and pasture-raised products” fuels this iconic Peninsula restaurant. The other is a “Heart of the House” tribute naming the employees who share the passion of Cool and chef/GM Bryan Thuerk.
Service in these serene dining rooms is friendly and very attentive. As for the fare, the summer menu showcased Brentwood corn in a soup garnished with avocado, salsa verde and smoked chile dust and Central Valley stone fruit in a homey dessert called the Masumoto Family Farm Nectarine Galette. Making the transition to the winter menu will be the luxurious Slow Braised, Grass-Fed Short Ribs, a customer favorite with an evolving cast of supporting characters. On a recent evening, it was smoked shiitake mushrooms starring with horseradish spaetzle and blistered padron peppers to make a superlative entree. All meals come with a bread basket that includes the restaurant’s legendary little buttermilk biscuits.
Don’t miss: The clever “Which Came First?” entree is a variation on the theme. This summer, Thuerk reimagined the question as a Cobb salad with buttermilk fried chicken and pickled hen egg. Another time it was chicken topped with soft-poached egg raviolo.
Details: 3607 Alameda de las Pulgas, Menlo Park; www.cooleatz.com; $$$
Fish & Bird Sousaku Izakaya, Berkeley: When you want to try the evolution of Japanese bar food
“Sousaku” refers to creative reimagining, and sousaku is all over the old B-Dama crew’s Fish & Bird, from the stylish space with its soundtrack of The Pogues and Professor Longhair to izakaya plates executed with modern flair. From the bar, one might enjoy an Espadin mezcal with red yuzu kosho, then move on to something from the charcoal grill that elevates everything it touches: local cod marinated in Oakland sake lees, say, or marbled steak with bracing anchovy ponzu. One of the restaurant’s most sought-out meals is a platter-for-two of fresh seafood and A5 wagyu, which diners cook themselves over tabletop charcoal burners.
The negitoro minidon is a small but ridiculously sumptuous bowl of glistening fatty-tuna cubes, nestled on soft pads of dashi omelet. A corn and sea-bean fritter mixes fresh kernels and the asparaguslike plants grown in salt marshes, then tempura-fries them into a matcha-dusted bird’s nest for the perfect sweet-salty indulgence.
Don’t miss: All of the above, plus the A5 wagyu yakiniku and seafood for two. Finish with that Basque cheesecake.
Details: 2451 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley; fishbirdizakaya.com, $$-$$$
Dumpling Hours, Walnut Creek and Brentwood: When you want to one-up Din Tai Fung
In a town where the fine dining restaurants can sometimes blur, Walnut Creek’s Dumpling Hours provides an impeccably delicious, one-of-a-kind experience. Made-to-order dumplings — boiled, pan-fried or soup — are the stars at this in-the-know favorite, with dough so delicate and deftly pinched, you can see the spicy pork and black truffle through each elegant sachet.
Dumpling Hours doesn’t take reservations, but wait times are reasonable, because the staff runs a tight operation with a clipboard wait list that keeps things moving and service that is reliably swift. Salads, noodles and sides are executed with as much focus as the dim sum. In addition to altar-worthy xiao long bao, look for Mandarin dishes otherwise missing in downtown Walnut Creek, like crispy pig ears and cucumbers in a nose-clearing spicy sauce and snappy wood and silver ear mushrooms in house dressing.
Don’t miss: The hot and spicy pork xiao long bao, of course, but also the ginger and scallion noodles, shrimp and pork pot stickers, Brussels sprouts with truffle and the bright green vegetable dumplings decorated to look like fall leaves.
Details: 1389 N Main St. in Walnut Creek, and at 2505 Sand Creek Road, #112, in Brentwood; www.dumplinghours.com; $
Bombera, Oakland: When you want a Chez Panisse cafe in a Mexican home
Located inside an old firehouse in Oakland’s Dimond district, Dominica Rice’s Mexican restaurant is an epicenter for Chicana culture and thoughtful, gourmet Mexican food made by grandmas in an open kitchen. A hearth drives much of the stellar menu, from garlic-and-lime marinated roast chicken to grilled filet mignon with crispy Oaxacan cheese.
House-dried and ground masa is transformed into the corn tortillas for legendary pan-seared pork belly tacos, and house-smoked trout becomes the topper for the most precious little tostadas we can’t stop thinking about. Even corn on the cob is elevated without being fussy, its gleaming kernels glossy from lime, chile and whipped pumpkin and sesame seed butter.
Whether you’re attending a Chicanx art show, masa-centric pop-up or just sipping a watermelon margarita from your leather-backed perch at the bar, you can’t help but get swept away in the party vibes — think paper fan streamers — of this bright, light-filled warehouse and garden patio.
Don’t miss: Spicy carrots with toasted almond misantla are a must. Also wonderful: the smoked trout tostadas, pork belly tacos, duck carnitas mole verde, citrus flan crema Catalan and, of course, seasonal margaritas.
Details: 3459 Champion St., Oakland; www.bomberaoakland.com; $$
District 7 Kitchen, San Jose: When you’re craving Vietnamese fusion
Twenty years after introducing Bay Area palates to Vietnamese cuisine via his Three Seasons restaurants in San Francisco, Palo Alto and Walnut Creek, executive chef John Le is cooking in the heart of the Bay Area’s Vietnamese-American community.
The contemporary District 7 Kitchen he opened in San Jose’s Little Saigon showcases his style of fusion cooking and introduces new diners to his finely crafted sauces.
Start with the refreshing and well-composed Green Papaya & Grilled Shrimp Salad, the Soft-Shelled Crab Spring Rolls or perhaps the nori-wrapped Salmon Rolls. The Three Seasons Garlic Noodles, wildly popular through the decades at all of his restaurants, are a must. You can add crab, prawns, chicken, even duck confit or Korean beef. Le’s Shaken Beef is a refined version made with beef tenderloin.
The surprising fusion addition is Lomo Saltado, a signature dish in Peru. What’s that doing on the menu? Le fondly recalls that during his Saigon childhood, his mother would make French fries sauteed with beef, spring onion and fish sauce. He created a Viet-Peruvian version for his customers by adding a touch of aji amarillo, the Peruvian chile paste.
Don’t miss: If you consider yourself an adventurous eater but have never tried durian, Le makes a Durian Tiramisu that tempers the fruit’s assertive aroma. Eat, enjoy and proudly cross that off your bucket list!
Details: 979 Story Road, San Jose; www.d7kitchen.com; $$
Snail Bar, Oakland: When you’re feeling snackish and thirsty for natural wine
When this corner bistro opened last year, it got immediate buzz for its funky, natural wines and French-approved crudite and chilled seafood. Since then, it’s become apparent the eatery from chef Andres Giraldo Florez (a vet of Saison and Alinea) has much more to offer. It’s rare to find any missteps on the small, ever-evolving menu – and that includes the snails, as beautiful as biology illustrations and served bubbling in a miso-cashew sauce.
General manager Peter Larue, formerly of Chez Panisse, keeps the wines interesting with selections that might range from a natural malbec from Argentina to a grenache rosé from up the road in Richmond. Having a glass with a few snackable plates is a great way to prepare for a late dinner – and we have suggestions.
Charred bread with smoked tomatoes, aioli and a blanket of mangalitsa lardo takes pan con tomate into the porky heavens. A Venezuelan pancake called cachapa presents as an omelet but is made with sweet corn, gooey burrata and a scorching hot sauce (you can add optional black truffle). And ham and cheese is the Platonic ideal of this midnight sandwich, with mounds of tender, spiced meat between bread crisped into a buttery lacquer.
Don’t miss: The pan con tomate is non-negotiable, as are the cachapa, ham and cheese and snails.
Details: 4935 Shattuck Ave., Oakland; snailbaroakland.com, $$-$$$
The Bywater, Los Gatos: When you don’t have time for a trip to NOLA
Acclaimed chef David Kinch may be stepping back from his three-Michelin-starred Manresa at year’s end, but there’s good news for fans of The Bywater: He will remain involved in the evolution of the restaurant where he pays tribute to New Orleans, the city that inspired his love of cooking.
Impeccably fresh seafood stars in the Creole and Cajun dishes. The Gumbo Filé broth is rich, dusky and, depending on the day, studded with oysters, fish, crawfish or crab, and maybe some brisket from the smokehouse. Fresh oysters are available three ways: raw, with mignonette and cocktail sauce; broiled, with chile butter; or as Kinch’s cheekily named version of oh-so-rich bivalves, Oysters Rock a Fella. The Shrimp & Avocado Remoulade, which never leaves the menu, gets its zip from the horseradish-tinged sauce.
In a meaty mood? Unlike NOLA’s traditional red beans and rice, the Rich Man’s Red Beans and Rice here features a wealth of housemade andouille sausage, smoked pork shoulder and house-cured bacon.
The Bywater chefs also explore the cuisines that reflect the Crescent City’s other waves of immigration. On the special Monday menu, Banh Trang Nuong, a Vietnamese rice-paper “pizza” topped with egg, shrimp and chiles, makes for a lovely shareable starter. And the crispy glazed Tamarind Wings are irresistible.
Don’t miss: Any gumbo, jambalaya or fish special and soft-shell crab when that’s in season. At Sunday brunch, the Chicken and Waffles gets raves.
Details: 532 N. Santa Cruz Ave., Los Gatos; www.thebywaterca.com; $$
Donato Enoteca, Redwood City: When you feel like touring Italy
Marvelous, red-checkered-tablecloth meals abound in the Bay Area, which is home to scores of Italian-American restaurants. There are times, though, when a tour of Italy is in order. That’s where Donato Scotti comes in. The chef-restaurateur’s ethos and menus have been rooted in regional Italian cuisine since he opened his eponymous places in Redwood City and Berkeley, long before Eataly brought its regional emporium to Silicon Valley.
On the antipasti menu, burrata Pugliese from the south of Italy is the perfect foil for three types of peppers. A grilled salad of Calamari e Fagioli showcases both Monterey Bay calamari and imported Italian butter beans, Bianchi di Spagna. From Scotti’s home near Lake Como comes the recipe for the traditional Bergamo ravioli of wild greens and Taleggi o Vero, the pasta shaped like a scarpinocc (or shoe) and cooked to al dente perfection, then dressed lightly in a brown butter sauce and crowned with crispy shallots. And the wood-fired oven turns out pizzas with toppings such as housemade nduja sausage, a spicy specialty of Calabria; pesto, the pride of Genoa; and Mission figs grown here in California.
For dessert, how about a traditional tart from the heel of Italy’s boot? The Bocconotto Pugliese is filled with pastry cream and luscious imported amarena cherries.
Don’t miss: November brings the most prized of truffles, the white ones, from northern Italy to the menu. Look for large raviolo with egg yolk and white truffle, risotto with white truffle and other specials.
Details: 1041 Middlefield Road, Redwood City, with Scotti’s wine bar, bistro and shop, called Cru, located nearby; www.donatoenoteca.com; $$
Shepherd & Sims, Los Gatos: When you want seasonal cuisine seven days a week (lunchtime, too)
Don’t let the whimsical cat mural over the front entrance fool you. There is some serious cooking going on inside this restaurant that made its debut a year ago.
Billed as an American brasserie, Shepherd & Sims is everything that South Bay diners have come to expect from chef-owner Jim Stump (The Table, Forthright Oyster Bar & Kitchen, The Vesper, Lamella Tavern) and wife/co-owner Angelique Shepherd: creativity, seasonality, high-quality ingredients. At this large restaurant (indoor seating for 150, outdoor for 75), chef de cuisine Robert de la Mora, formerly at the helm at Forthright, delivered a summer menu packed with stone fruit, corn and tomatoes and has now pivoted to autumn and winter dishes. That means the refreshing and unusual Heirloom Tomato Salad, with compressed watermelon, a caramel-peanut crunch and Thai basil, won’t return until next summer. But the Creole Risotto, thick with smoked ham hocks, and Olive Oil-Poached Spanish Octopus, with a white soy miso emulsion and Japanese eggplant, may be sticking around.
Long hours are part of Shepherd & Sims’ appeal. While so many restaurants in this post-pandemic period have had to limit themselves to dinner service just four or five nights a week, this Stump restaurant has managed to offer lunch/brunch, happy hour and dinner seven days a week. You’ll want to be especially nice to this crew.
Don’t miss: The Roasted Cauliflower, bathed in a rich red curry sauce and topped with golden raisin relish, Thai basil, mint and fried shallots and garlic, has become a Shepherd & Sims signature. Yes, a cauliflower dish that good. Buy one for the table to share. Or selfishly make it your entree.
Details: 15970 Los Gatos Blvd., Los Gatos; www.sandslosgatos.com; $$
Delage, Oakland: When you want an intimate and gorgeous kaiseki dinner
There’s probably no more Instagrammable Japanese restaurant in Oakland than Delage, which serves set kaiseki menus of sushi and seasonal dishes. The meal might begin with “crystal bread,” a clear orb floating on river rocks that crunches like ice and is topped with smoked salmon and wasabi cream. Or a perfectly fried cube of Alaskan black cod in a white-miso sauce slashed with red-chile and green-shiso oils, like an Ab-Ex painter is working in the kitchen. Or a ceramic eggplant vessel that exhales a cloud of steam to reveal kombu “umami broth” dotted with arare pearls.
As dishes emerge from the back, diners can watch executive chef Mikiko Ando work her magic in the front. The Hokkaido native evinces the concentration of a brain surgeon as she places microgreens and flowers on fresh fish, the majority brought in from Japan. Bluefin tuna is sumptuous with a brushing of house-seasoned soy, and torched-skin butterfish lives up to its rich, melting name. A small but nicely curated list of wine and sake rounds out the experience. Enjoy a glass while uploading food porn to all your jealous followers.
Don’t miss: The menu is ever-changing, but you can look forward to at least two courses of excellent nigiri.
Details: 536 9th St., Oakland; delageoakland.com, $$$$
Mazra, San Bruno: When you want swooningly delicious Middle Eastern food
Habibi — the Arabic term of endearment — appears in every corner of this whimsically decorated all-halal Mediterranean restaurant in San Bruno. Do it for the habibis. Take it easy, habibi, good food takes time. Caution, wet floor, don’t slip, habibi. Each sign feels like someone’s grandma is pinching your cheeks. And the food — tender kabobs, six-hour lamb shank and fresh, addictive salads — has that same comforting sensibility, with some chef-driven touches. No wonder this converted Middle Eastern grocery store took the No. 2 spot on Yelp’s Top 100 national list in 2021.
The Jordanian owners, the Makableh family, have decorated the former Green Valley Market with bold Arab pop art and strands of artificial cherry blossoms, so there’s always something to look at as you tuck into specialties such as slow-roasted shawarma, street-style wraps and whole heirloom purple cauliflower tossed in tahini sauce. Everything is made from scratch, down to the seasonal strawberry lemonade and pineapple-cantaloupe juice. Even the self-serve black tea — hot, laced with cinnamon and complimentary — is next level.
Don’t miss: Double kabob plate, hummus, Arabic salad, oyster mushroom kabob, sambusa.
Details: 504 San Bruno Ave. W, San Bruno; www.eatmazra.com; $-$$.
Le Papillon, San Jose: When you’d like a top-tier dinner at a reasonable price
If you thought the circa 1977 Le Papillon had settled into some sort of musty existence on Saratoga Avenue, think again.
Executive chef Scott Cooper is bringing bright, contemporary flavors and surprising combinations to the prix fixe and tasting menus. A black garlic romesco adds umami to the Grilled Rack of Lamb. An Asparagus Salad is made new again with yuzu sabayon, crisp prosciutto and rye. Toasted Couscous “Risotto” features porcini mushrooms, leeks and tomato confit.
Of special note is the Roasted Chilean Sea Bass entree, a stunning filet so artfully cooked that we head-slapped ourselves for even thinking of ordering steak. The fish, sitting on a yuzu beurre blanc, was served with pickled shimeji mushrooms and a precious, labor-intensive potato mille-feuille (that’s French for 1,000 layers, and we counted nearly that many).
At many top-tier Bay Area restaurants, high-end entrees hover in the $50-$70 range, and Michelin menus cost hundreds. That makes the prix fixe here a veritable bargain at $100 for three courses, $120 for four courses.
Service at Le Papillon is impeccable, with the waitstaff anticipating the needs of diners, yet remaining unobtrusive. Would the party of six lingering over conversation and coffee like yet another cup? No? Then please keep enjoying each other’s company.
See, civilized dining and culinary creativity aren’t mutually exclusive.
Naturally, you’ll want to make reservations. Remember to dress appropriately and put the cellphone on mute when you arrive.
Don’t miss: DoorDash is never going to deliver souffles. So if you’ve never had the ethereal pleasure – or it’s been a long time — you owe it to yourself to order the Grand Marnier Souffle.
Details: 410 Saratoga Ave., San Jose; www.lepapillon.com; $$$$
Top Hatters, San Leandro: When you want a creative menu that’ll make your hat spin
The offerings at Top Hatters are as distinctive as its location in an old hat shop. Start with a cocktail named for a head-topper, a Trilby Thistle, perhaps, with bourbon and artichoke or a honey-tequila Bee’s Beret. From there, it’s a dive into DanVy Vu’s playful cuisine, which takes notes from Vietnam but is as hard to nail down as a fedora in a windstorm.
Fluffy doughnuts with scallions and bacon are dusted not with sugar but Parmesan; they’re like a savory version of Cafe Du Monde beignets and just as easy to gobble. Descriptions for the small plates might make one’s head spin – mushroom and hemp-seed pate with truffle oil and Big Sur goat cheese, anyone? – but the kitchen somehow makes the combos irresistible. Oxtail over creamy grits is pure comfort with zips of flavor from Chinese sausage, Asian pear and orange gremolata. And the charred Savoy cabbage with maitake and sous-vide egg is one of the best things on the menu. It’s smokey and buttery and will have you rethinking this most Eastern Bloc of vegetables.
Vu helped run a zeppole shop, so it makes sense to end with her lemon-ricotta version with three dipping sauces. And if you’re feeling adventurous, there’s Vietnamese egg-custard coffee, which you can amp up with Amaro Montenegro.
Don’t miss: We’re smitten with the Savoy cabbage with maitake, savory doughnuts, oxtail and grits and the tissue bread.
Details: 855 MacArthur Blvd., San Leandro; tophatterskitchen.com, $$
Luna Mexican Kitchen, Campbell and San Jose: When you can’t resist the captivating aromas
Ahhhhh, the aroma emanating from diners’ tables on The Alameda in San Jose and the Pruneyard in Campbell.
Walk right past the sizzling parrilladas, or grills, and head to the hostess stand, where you’ll probably need to put your name on the waiting list — because there is almost always a wait at Jo Lerma-Lopez and John Lopez’s Luna Mexican Kitchens. The entrepreneurial couple hit upon a winning concept when they first decided to turn a vintage spot into a restaurant with a healthful, organic approach. It’s the concept of no: “No additives, no preservatives, no cans, no microwaves, no exceptions,” their website declares.
Tortillas are pressed by hand daily from organic, non-GMO corn, and entrees are made with antibiotic-free meats, sustainable seafood, free-range chicken and local produce. The scratch kitchen makes all sauces and salsas fresh daily.
The over-the-top Mixed Grill, with Niman Ranch carnitas and St. Louis rib, Mary’s free-range chicken, all-natural hormone-free steak fajita, wild shrimp wrapped in bacon, jumbo wild shrimp in garlic butter and chicken jalapeño sausage, is wildly popular for good reason. Also fantastic is the Cochinita Pibil, the achiote/citrus-marinated pork.
Don’t miss: The expanded breakfast menu features choices like New York Steak or Housemade Chorizo Con Huevos; Horchata French Toast with piloncillo syrup and organic berries; and a Cucumber Nopal Smoothie.
Details: 1875 S. Bascom Ave., Campbell, and 1495 The Alameda, San Jose; www.lunamexicankitchen.com; $$
11th Tiger, Danville: When you’re craving authentic Thai with hometown tales
Everything about this five-year-old Thai street food eatery in Danville feels familial and homey, from the knickknack-filled interiors to the warm Thai staffers who guide you through the massive menu of noodles, rice dishes and curries. They’ll tell you which specials hail from their hometowns and even introduce you to a house-brewed Thai herbal liquor the color of cherries (it’s medicinal but very cool).
Grab a table on the charming covered patio — the dining room can get packed with the to-go crowd — and steer your attention to those regional specialties, like fermented pork sausage that gets its fiery red color from bird’s eye chiles and is served with fresh ginger, as they do in northeastern Thailand. Another northern dish, khao soi, is comfort in a bowl, with springy egg noodles swimming in a stand-out curry soup. 11th Tiger also offers clay pots — something you don’t typically see in Thai restaurants — and a host of salads beyond larb gai. If you like spicy food, look to battered and fried fire prawns, as well as a signature emerald rib-eye, which is stir fried with whole peppercorns, kaffir lime leaves and a heat-packed ginger sauce.
Don’t miss: Essan sausage, crispy chicken and basil, khao soi, curry puffs and drunken noodle are all musts.
Details: 171 Hartz Ave., Danville; http://11thtiger.com; $-$$
Lulu, Berkeley: When you can’t decide between mezze and brunch
An exceptional bread and pastry program anchors the menu at this all-female run, daytime corner café in West Berkeley, where the bold flavors of Palestinian-California cuisine shine for breakfast, lunch and one of the best weekend brunch experiences in the East Bay.
Chef-owner Mona Leena’s mezze brunch, presented on round wooden slabs, is a Middle Eastern technicolor dreamscape of next-level dips — think preserved lemon labneh with mint oil, serrano hummus with spiced lamb — alongside heartier bites, like fennel-scented falafel and an Arab-inspired elote.
Drinks are just as dreamy: Cold brew is swirled with caramel and tahini, and the lemon orange blossom spritz is spa water with soul. While rezzies fill up weeks in advance for Friday-Sunday brunch, you can walk into the fig wallpapered café for cardamom-scented scones, orange-sumac sugar cookies or a seasonal manousheh. Save your burger cravings for a lunch visit to Lulu. Their kefta-style sandwich is stuffed with sumac fries. Be sure to notice the cool Arab pop art, too.
Don’t miss: Vegan breads, knafeh pancake, fried halloumi and watermelon salad, rose brulee cappucino, kefta burger and corn and feta scone are irresistible.
Details: 1019 Camelia St., Berkeley; www.luluberkeley.com; $$
Jood, San Carlos: When you want Lebanese farm-to-table from a counter
This tiny counter-service restaurant is doing next-level Lebanese barbecue and street food, including epic sandwiches on locally baked pita and lavash. With his wife and co-owner, Rawan, chef Khaled Harbali also runs the Belmont vegetarian hot spot, Falafelle. But he knew char-grilled meat long before chickpea fritters. Harbali is descended from Lebanese shepherds and cattle ranchers and ran a successful restaurant and butcher shop in Beirut before moving to the Bay in 2013.
At Jood, cherished family recipes featuring tender rib-eye, juicy chicken and flavor-packed kafta take center stage on his grill. A sensational garlic-brined and butterflied chicken is made to order and served on lavash custom-baked for Jood by a South San Francisco bakery. Pro tip: We like to put in a to-go order while we’re eating lunch — a sweet potato or rib-eye “sandweesh” stuffed with house fries, pickles and housemade hummus — so our take-out dinner is ready just as we’re licking the last of the toom from our fingers.
Jood, which means comforting (ain’t that the truth), makes every sauce and side from scratch, including the sun-dried tomato “sun” sauce and a spicy pili pili made from Fresno chiles. It is touches like these and those beautiful fig-and-olive-decorated tile tables, custom made in Positano, Italy, that make us go out of our way to eat at Jood.
Don’t miss: The rib-eye bites sandweesh, of course, the fattoush salad with pomegranate molasses, char-grilled kefta and halloomi salata with imported Cypriot sheep’s milk cheese.
Details: 635 Laurel St., San Carlos; www.eatjood.com; $
Meyhouse, Sunnyvale: When you want a delicious education in Turkish food
You think you know Turkish cuisine – and then you visit Meyhouse, which serves çiroz (salt-cured wild mackerel) and şalgam (turnip juice that you can order spicy). Your eyes will get cartoonishly bigger as you make your way through the menu – that house yogurt, did you realize its mother culture came from a famous Turkish restaurant back in 2013?
Of course, you don’t really need to know anything to understand the food here is fantastic, thanks to a kitchen run by chef Omer Artun, who has a background in, of all things, physics. The mezze are a celebration of bold flavors, from tongue-tingling walnut and Aleppo pepper muhammara to a soft mound of Turkish Ezine cheese, an extremely rich and fragrant feta variant spiked with oregano and pistachios.
Piping-hot flat breads are great vehicles for house-cured meats like fermented sucuk sausage and pastirma, fenugreek-spiced striploin aged for months. The adana kebab of knife-cut lamb has the perfect grill kiss, but if you’re going for one entree, make it the yoğurtlu. This melange of meatballs and yogurt and beef tenderloin, so tender a falling leaf would cut it, is served with a tomato and brown-butter sauce that has to have the restaurant regretting its free-bread policy.
Don’t miss: Trust us, go with the girit (sheep’s milk cheese with pistachios), ahtapot (octopus with garlic-paprika sauce) or yoğurtlu (steak tenderloin with decade-old yogurt cultures and tomato and brown-butter sauce).
Details: 133 S. Murphy Ave., Sunnyvale, but moving soon to 640 Emerson St., Palo Alto; meyhousefood.com, $$-$$$
Camper, Menlo Park: When you’re curious what this ambitious chef is up to
If you haven’t dined with Greg Kuzia-Carmel lately, what are you waiting for? The chef-partner of creative, farm-to-table Camper is a veteran of San Francisco’s Quince and Cotogna who wants to put his stamp on the Peninsula dining scene.
Grab a table inside or outdoors on Menlo Park’s Santa Cruz Avenue and nibble on the Warm Cast-Iron Buttermilk Cornbread with its sweetly assertive green chile-honey butter and Blistered Shishitos with smoked Greek yogurt while you delve into the menu options here.
A Black Pepper Bucatini is tossed with guanciale, spicy pistachio “butter,” tomatoes, pickled ramps and stracciatella cheese. (The housemade pastas always impress with their creativity.) The chef’s signature Greg’s Steak is a marinated tri-tip with mole negro and onion chimichurri, accompanied by crispy sunchokes. There’s even an addictive Catalan-spiced ketchup for the Camper Cheeseburger and French fries.
Kuzia-Carmel is ramping up for a second concept nearby, by the way. Canteen will be an all-day wine bar featuring a seasonal menu of small plates plus takeout options.
Don’t miss: Saturday’s brunch menu is an intriguing, ever-changing one. You might find French toast with roasted apples and vanilla mascarpone. Or eggs baked Shakshuka style.
Details: 898 Santa Cruz Ave., Menlo Park; www.campermp.com; $$
Rêve Bistro, Lafayette: When it’s time to see Paris meet California
What does a French restaurant from a chef who worked with Alain Ducasse look like when transported to the ‘burbs? In the case of Rêve, it’s an unassuming strip-mall frontage that – voilà! – opens to a whimsical outdoor oasis of plush curtains, black and white-checkered tablecloths and ornate lights seemingly shipped in from a Paris Métro stop.
Paul Magu-Lecugy, who went from cooking at Michelin-starred restaurants in France to high-end hotels in San Francisco, opened the bistro with his wife Laura with an eye toward excellent service and reasonably priced fine dining. All the classics are here, albeit elevated by the chef’s technique and access to California’s bountiful farms – think duck with honey-sweet black figs, scallops with gnocchi and squash blossoms and boar pate studded with apricot and juniper berry and served with cornichons. Steak frites is a tender ribeye beautifully pan-seared in butter, with a newspaper cone of fries you’ll think are duck fat-fried but are not. The boudin blanc, meanwhile, cuts like an herb-and-wine-scented cloud with a rich shallot sauce and even richer mashed potatoes. The wine list spans at least four pages with good pulls from Napa to Bourgogne. And no meal would be complete without ordering the gougères, bite-sized poofs of cheesy goodness for the table – or frozen to enjoy later at home.
Don’t miss: Classics – gougères, steak frites with peppercorn sauce, boudin blanc, seared scallops – are classics for a reason.
Details: 960F Moraga Road, Lafayette; revebistro.com, $$$
Wildseed, Palo Alto: When you want cutting-edge vegan cuisine, plus drinks
Even with the advancement of vegan science, Wildseed might still have you scratching your head. How did the kitchen make a quality Andalusian salad with bacon and cheese without, well, the bacon and cheese? And for the excellent porcini-dusted mushroom fritters – how is the roasted-garlic aioli entirely plant-based, yet so rich and creamy?
Once you get over these quandaries, it’s simple to love Wildseed’s menu, designed by chef Alejandro Morgan of San Francisco’s El Techo (among other places). Everything is bright, fresh and popping with texture, such as a juicy watermelon salad with puffed rice, coconut feta and Jurassic-sized mint leaves. Ceviche presents meaty slabs of king mushroom dunked in a lime marinade almost indistinguishable from seafood leche de tigre. A masala with “neatballs” might have you dreading mushy, soy-glued meat spheres, but no – they’re delightfully nutty with a caramelized flavor like graham-cracker pie crust. The elevation of superfoods and phytochemicals extends to drinks so beautiful, it’s as if Pantone designed them. Beet soda is minerally and refreshing and tastes like a week’s worth of vitamins, in a good way, and the house G&T has a rave-party purple glow, thanks to its essence of butterfly-pea flowers.
Don’t miss: Who can resist wild mushroom zeppole? Also great: the ceviche of king trumpet mushrooms, green forest flatbread with smoked cashew mozzarella and any of the boozy or zero-ABV drinks
Details: 855 El Camino Real, Palo Alto; another location at 2000 Union St., San Francisco; wildseedsf.com, $$
Hero Ranch Kitchen, Saratoga: When you want to be part of the Big Basin Way buzz
Primetime reservations fill up well ahead of time. Diners crowd the sidewalk, hoping to snag an available table. There’s a pleasant buzz both indoors and out in the alfresco area, which winds toward the back of the building.
Four years after longtime restaurateur Angelo Heropoulos opened his Hero Ranch Kitchen, the place is as popular as ever. Repeat diners say the restaurant offers them an appealing combination: fine dining in an approachable atmosphere. Come casually dressed, meet your friends, order your favorites, hang out over a glass of wine or cocktail.
Many of the early standouts are still starring on the menu. Consider the Pan-Seared Halibut or Scallops. Also popular are the steaks — a Wagyu filet, a Braveheart Black Angus filet, a Bone-In Ribeye — which are topped with truffle butter and accompanied by Irish Cheddar Scalloped Potatoes. Or share a few appetizers, maybe the Crab Cakes sitting on Asian slaw or the Buttermilk-Fried Chicken with Poblano Cornbread.
Psssst, there’s something else that keeps diners coming back. Hero Ranch doesn’t charge a corkage fee. (You may have to read that twice for it to sink in. No corkage fee. In tony Saratoga.)
Don’t miss: The 14-ounce Bone-In Pork Chop, more than 2 inches thick, glistening with its signature apricot glaze and served with a rich potato mash and bacon-infused Brussels sprouts.
Details: 14583 Big Basin Way, Saratoga, sharing a kitchen with sister restaurant Flowers next door; www.theheroranchkitchen.com; $$
Chez Sovan, San Jose: When you want to boast about your new “find”
Call it an unassuming eatery. A no-frills place. A hole in the wall.
For 35 years, Chez Sovan has been serving exceptional Cambodian cuisine — marinated lemongrass chicken skewers (Sach Ang), paprika-tamarind noodles (Kew Tiew Cha) and especially the signature dish of Amok, an aromatic fish mousse steamed in banana leaf — out of a small corner restaurant near 13th and Hedding streets.
It was 1987 when Mercury News reporters desperate for lunch options in that industrial neighborhood met founder and cook Sovan Boun Thuy, tasted the cuisine of her homeland and shared the discovery with the newspaper-reading public. But with every wave of Silicon Valley newcomers, the hidden gem had to be shared again.
These days, son Brian Nong runs the establishment, and he’s emerged from the pandemic with a small yet impressive menu of customer favorites that also includes Chicken Curry with Cambodian spices and Cabbage Salad tossed with lemongrass sauce, lime dressing, ground peanuts, mint leaves and cilantro.
Nong opens the restaurant for weekday lunch only, just 2.5 hours from 11 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. The limited business hours add a delicious element of exclusivity. If you know, you know.
Don’t miss: Like the Amok, the Ginger Fish is a revelation: a basa filet fried to a light crunch, topped with ground chicken and a sauce redolent of fresh ginger and shallots, then sprinkled with cilantro.
Details: 923 Oakland Road, San Jose; 408-287-7619; $-$$
Slice House by Tony Gemignani, Walnut Creek: When you want pizza with world-class cachet
Walnut Creek’s worst-kept secret is a 900-square-foot, counter-service pizza place on the heaviest traffic corner of town. The magnificently hand-crafted pies — a library of styles, from New York and Sicilian to Detroit and Neapolitan — are the work of Fremont-raised Tony Gemignani, a 13-time World Pizza Champion who’s been spinning dough in the Bay Area since he was 17. Gemignani has received many accolades over the years, but 2022 is the pinnacle: He was named pizza maker of the year, and his San Francisco pizzeria, Tony’s Pizza Napoletana, No. 10 in the world by a panel of Naples-based experts. Stateside, Gemignani made the cover of Pizza Today magazine, an honor he calls bigger than a James Beard Award.
The tiny Walnut Creek pizzeria — the first to bring multiple pie styles to the East Bay when it opened in 2016 — is particularly important to Gemignani. Not only is it the busiest Slice House outside of San Francisco, but with the mini empire moving toward a franchise model, it is the only one Gemignani and his partners own.
“It’s in my backyard,” Gemignani says. “And the young staff reminds me of my first jobs.”
Those staff members, who whip up pizzas by the slice as well as whole pies, are champs in their own right. Pizzaiolos work practically back-to-back with cashiers in a cramped space, where the vibe is somehow always chill, even on weekends. In addition to two dozen pizzas available in multiple styles, Slice House offers an array of salads, subs, meatballs ($1 on Mondays) and pastas.
Don’t miss: There are no bad choices here, only delicious ones, especially if you order the Wise Guy, Purple Potato, Pigman, Tomato Pie or Gemignani’s gold-medal winning Cal Italia, made with gorgonzola, prosciutto and figs.
Details: 1500 Mt. Diablo Blvd., Walnut Creek. Also at 135 Parrott St. in San Leandro and 1000C El Camino Real in Belmont; https://slicehouse.com; $
Petiscos, San Jose: When you want to give Portuguese cuisine a whirl
Not sure if bacalhau should be your next culinary obsession?
Start with a small plate. Or two or three. That’s the specialty at downtown San Jose’s Petiscos.
Restaurateurs Carlos and Fernanda Carreira and their chefs, David Costa and Jessica Carreira, first elevated Portuguese cuisine to Michelin level, garnering a star for their Adega restaurant in the city’s Little Portugal neighborhood. Then they launched their affordable, approachable concept, Petiscos — the name means small plates, the Portuguese equivalent of Spanish tapas.
The choices here for shareable plates of traditional favorites are many. The delectable Shrimp in Garlic Sauce is a must, as are the showy and delicious Flaming Chourico and the addictive Tempura Green Beans. It’s tough to decide among the Duck Rice, Asparagus Rice or Mushroom Rice, but you need one of those for the table. Other Petiscos fans swear by the Chicken Gizzards or the tender cubes of Beef Tongue. And Bacalhau, Portugal’s popular codfish, is served in casserole and codfish cake versions.
Not into sharing? The Francesinha sandwich is an OMG creation loaded with steak, ham and chourico, covered with cheese and then topped with a fried egg and gravy.
Don’t miss: If you enjoyed dessert at Petiscos, head over to the family’s East Santa Clara Street bakery-cafe, Pastelaria Adega, for pastéis de nata custards and other sweets.
Details: 399 S. First St., San Jose; http://petiscosadega.com; $-$$
Horn BBQ, Oakland: When you want prize-winning ‘cue with plenty of soul
Oakland pitmaster Matt Horn needs no introduction. His West Coast-style barbecue, a blend of Cali and Central Texas brisket, pulled pork and more, has made national headlines for years. And Horn BBQ, his counter-service restaurant in West Oakland, is on the Michelin Bib Gourmand list and was a 2022 James Beard finalist for best new restaurant. (Like many restaurants, Horn BBQ has struggled during the pandemic; Horn has reportedly been dealing with several financial issues, including delayed wages.)
Inside, lines move fast, thanks to a streamlined and focused counter system. Arrive early if you want to snag a seat inside — the positive juju from the old Brown Sugar Kitchen is still here — where framed photos of Horn and his family, including his beloved smoker, Lucille, line the walls. You’ll find her out back, along with a parklet of dark-gray picnic tables with life affirming quotes (“Take the stones people throw at you and use them to build monuments”) scrawled on the fence.
You can get both the smoky-crusted brisket and juicy pulled pork by the pound or tucked in a sandwich, in addition to links, smoked chicken and a medley of sides, including mac and cheese, Horn’s personal favorite. And if Horn’s story of grit, determination and hard work doesn’t pluck at your heart strings, this will: The self-made chef is going to teach kids the history, craft and art of barbecue for free. The Academy of Smoke, geared toward budding pit masters ages 8 to 12, launches in the spring.
Don’t miss: Brisket, obviously, pulled pork, beef ribs, collard greens, pit beans and to finish, banana pudding.
Details: 2534 Mandela Parkway, Oakland; www.hornbarbecue.com; $-$$
Wojia Hunan Cuisine, Albany: When you crave hot-and-sour Chinese excellence
Some folks might balk at paying $18 for a basket of fried rice balls. But they’ve probably never tried Wojia’s, which are wildly addictive, glutinous rice orbs typically seen in Chinese dessert soup. Here, they’re turned savory with liquidy black-sesame filling and heaps of sliced jalapenos and red chiles. Just be sure to have a glass of water nearby for the ever-building heat.
Heat is what this popular Hunanese spot is about. It’s not so much a punch-you-in-the-mouth shock, but an exhilarating harmony of sour-hot spiciness typical to the cuisine and its use of fresh, dried, fermented and who-knows-what-else chiles. Diners will be rewarded by ordering any of the odder cuts of meat on the menu, from spicy ox aorta to glassy slices of beef tendon shining with chile oil. The soup of Laoshan sliced flounder (which can be upgraded with a live fish) offers silky meat and a broth fragrant from pickled vegetables and even more chiles. If you want to impress your table, look to the menu’s “Five Wows” section for the Chairman Mao Stew Pork Hock, a huge, tender hunk with a bone sticking straight up like a caveman’s club.
Don’t miss: Those fried glutinous rice balls are especially memorable, as are the sauteed eggplant with string beans and Laoshan boiled sliced flounder.
Details: 917 San Pablo Ave., Albany; hunancuisineonline.com; $$
Asa North, Los Altos, and Asa South, Los Gatos: When you’re curious about Wayback Wednesday
Andrew Welch’s two popular Asa restaurants, the original in Los Altos and the newer one in Los Gatos, are paying tribute to yet another restaurant and its signature cuisine.
That would be Casa de Cobre, the Mexican restaurant specializing in Michoacan fare that Welch operated in Saratoga for some years with executive chef Marcelino Hernandez. Customers were clamoring for a taste of Casa, so the pair brought back the recipes in 2020 for what they called Wayback Wednesday – and the tradition continues.
Treasured family recipes dominate. Hernandez’s abuela’s recipe for spiced, braised beef shoulder created a rich entree on Entomatado night. An old Casa favorite, Cochinita Pibil, slow-cooked pork shoulder, makes frequent appearances. The pork is slow-cooked in layers of banana leaves with ancho chile and white wine, then served with guajillo salsa and pickled local vegetables.
And then there are the traditional best bets on Asa’s pan-Mediterranean menu: the decadent Exotic Mushroom Pasta and the warming Bowl of Soul, a seafood standout. During the winter months, the fabulous Dungeness Crab Pasta, with tomato, cream, garlic, a touch of spice and an anisette flambe, is a must for crustacean lovers.
Don’t miss: The moist Carrot Cake, studded with golden raisins and walnuts, topped with a whiskey-cream cheese frosting and then gilded with a little caramel sauce, is the way to end the meal.
Details: 242 State St., Los Altos, and 57 Saratoga-Los Gatos Road, Los Gatos; www.asalosaltos.com; $$$
Star Chaat, Dublin: When only legit Punjabi and Gujarati vegetarian will do
Tucked at the back of Dublin’s Hacienda Crossings shopping center, Star Chaat is a sit-down, white-tablecloth Indian restaurant without the white tablecloth prices, that gives the beloved Chaat Bhavan some stiff competition. The restaurant, which has cheery orange walls, an attentive wait staff and paper liners covering those tablecloths, specializes in both vegetarian Punjabi and Gujarati cuisines. It’s a standout for so many reasons, from the mouthwatering appetizers and silky curries to the extensive bread program.
Monthly specials pay homage to the season or the occasional fusion dish, like masala pasta or paneer tikka tacos. But the best dishes, the ones you will crave and go back for, are traditional, made from scratch and brimming with complex flavors and textures. Bombay vada pav, spiced potatoes dipped in gram flour batter and fried, is served on a pillowy soft roll, with a top-and-bottom smear of flaming-red, peanut-laced chutney and a side of dry garlic chutney.
A crispy chaat basket offers a half dozen delicate, whole wheat cups filled with fresh vegetables, moong sprouts and potatoes, all topped with yogurt, chutneys, even pomegranate seeds. Vegetable biryani can be simple and greasy, but not here, where the basmati rice dish is assertively spiced, layered with vegetables and served alongside raita dotted with just-softened boondi. There is so much to discover at Star Chaat — housemade cottage cheese, tawa-fried parantha sprinkled with carom seeds. Just go.
Don’t miss: You’ll want that crispy chaat basket all to yourself. Also great: the bhel-sev thali, mix-veggie biryani, usal pav and ragada patties.
Details: 4930 Dublin Blvd., #800, Dublin; https://starchaatcuisine.com; $
Pomella, Oakland: When you want casual Mediterranean done with confidence
There’s something fun and whimsical about Pomella, the California-Israeli eatery from chef Mica Talmor. Perhaps it’s the patio with its Crayola-orange furniture and gabled sunroofs perfect for picnicking. Or maybe it’s the customization: Dozens of dishes can be mixed, matched, slipped into wraps or salads, and doused with a rainbow of sauces, from tzatziki to harissa to fermented mango. And the deli cases beg you to bring something home – grape leaves, fruit crisps, chocolate pots de crème.
Fans of Talmor’s previous restaurant, Ba-Bite, will recognize the concept of healthy, fresh mezze plates, a spread meant to be shared. Her hummus is as good as ever, tangy and silky-smooth from the chickpeas cooked in alkaline water. Pomegranate eggplant, served with yogurt and tahini, has lovely charred skin and a sweet, campfire aroma, while roasted beets delight with their topping of crunchy walnuts and ras el hanout. Larger plates include chicken tagine with couscous and preserved lemon, and springy lamb kefta with your choice of rice (go for the majadra jazzed up with lentils and a snowfall of caramelized onion).
Don’t miss: Just thinking about these – the hummus, the pomegranate eggplant, beet salad, mango amba and spicy-green schug sauces – is making us salivate. Don’t forget the rugelach.
Details: 3770 Piedmont Ave., Oakland; pomellaoakland.com, $
Mela Bistro, Oakland: When you want delicious Ethiopian without all the butter
Kitfo, that Ethiopian specialty of steak tartar mixed with clarified butter, is delicious, but its rich decadence can make a stomach go a bit wonky. Not so at Mela, a self-dubbed “modern Ethiopian” restaurant with food as bright and colorful as its artful interior. Here, the asa kitfo is made with sushi-grade tuna and blended with chile and pops of false cardamom; it’s totally irresistible, with a luxuriance that comes not from ghee but house-clarified olive oil.
Adiam Tsegaye prepares all her food with the same reverence toward health and deliciousness. The vegetable platter mimics a painter’s palette with crunchy purple cabbage spiked with ginger, potatoes blushing from beets and collard greens that retain a gardeny chew. It’s all vegan, as is a second version of kitfo made with chopped portobello mushrooms. Meanwhile, the tibs are made with grass-fed lamb and beef and lightly sauteed with spices that’ll have your belly feeling warm and happy.
A glass of Mela’s housemade, fizzy honey wine makes a fine accompaniment – as does the gimlet with roasted red pepper. Italy’s imprint on Ethiopia is evident in a fetching array of desserts from tiramisu to chocolate cake made with tejj, the same grain in the restaurant’s springy injera.
Don’t miss: Sample your way through the menu, but make sure you try the asa kitfo (raw ahi with herb-infused olive oil), vegetarian platter and shiro wot – and the tej (honey wine).
Details: 35 Grand Ave., Oakland; melabistro.com; $$
Sushi Sam’s Edomata, San Mateo: For top-notch omakase at a great price
Downtown San Mateo is a hotbed of Asian cuisine, and this longtime Japanese restaurant has one of the city’s most devoted followings. Don’t let the nondescript exterior fool you. Sushi Sam’s Edomata is the real deal and counts Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan among its regulars. At the bustling bar, where Japanese is the primary language spoken (far beyond the jovial “kanpai”), bandana-wearing itamaes bend over the freshest cuts straight from Tokyo, transforming them with modern techniques into nigiri, sashimi and hand-roll heaven.
The menu changes daily, so go for the omakase, a chef’s assortment of nigiri that comes with a seasonal housemade dessert — the pastry program has its own Instagram — and will run you around $60, depending on market price. A rub of puckery yuzu balances the sweetness of blue shrimp, while a shower of minced garlic and green onion elevates buttery bonito. And you may never have heard of mountain pepper, but once you taste its spicy, herbaceous notes on kanpachi, it will become your favorite pairing. The restaurant is small, and lines can get long, so make sure to call starting at 2:30 p.m. to make a reservation for that evening. Keep trying, if the line is busy. You’ll get through, and it’s totally worth it.
Don’t miss: Omakase, of course, and fig goat cheesecake, green tea tiramisu and toro. Can’t choose? Go with the daily specials.
Details: 218 E. Third Ave., San Mateo; www.sushisams.com; $$-$$$
Lita, Walnut Creek: When you want Miami glitz with that Caribbean escape
Combine Caribbean influences with the know-how of a veteran East Bay restaurant family, and you can understand why diners are drawn to Lita, a fine dining restaurant in downtown Walnut Creek. By channeling Miami, Ghaben Partners (Broderick Roadhouse, Batch & Brine) provides an escapist vibe we don’t see much in these parts, at a time when we all need it. And Lita, which is frequented as much for the stunning interiors and Latin jazz playlist, as it is for the food and cocktail programs, is definitely a vibe. The illuminated marble bar and custom infinity mirror are camera catnip, complemented by lush plants and just enough gold to be stylish, not gaudy.
Starters, shareables and entrees, like ancho chile coffee short ribs or a jerk maitake mushroom rice bowl, pay homage to Caribbean-Latino dishes but otherwise do their own thing. Lita won’t replace your favorite Cuban hole-in-the-wall. But it is an experience, nibbling salt cod fritters and sipping a clarified milk rum punch at the poshest bar east of the Caldecott, where globe-trotting bartenders will chat you up about their exploits in Miami, Mexico and beyond.
Don’t miss: The cocktails are stunners, and the slash and burn whole fish, double mojo verde skirt steak and those short ribs are extravagantly delicious. Finish with that chocolate passion cake.
Details: 1602 Bonanza St., Walnut Creek; www.litawalnutcreek.com; $$-$$$
El Garage, Richmond: One word – quesabirria
The Montano family of Richmond was among the first to bring drippy, delicious, slow-cooked birria to the Bay Area, and they are still among the best. What started as a small garage operation on Garvin Avenue turned into a cavernous Macdonald Avenue restaurant where people line up for their top seller: crispy, flavor-drenched quesabirria tacos.
For the uninitiated, slow-stewed beef is stuffed into corn tortillas with gooey mozzarella, dipped in the birria’s broth and then fried for next-level flavor. You absolutely must get a side of the brick-red consome, swimming with beef, cilantro and green onion, to sip on its own or use to dip your tacos.
While there are several good quesabirria spots in the East Bay, we appreciate that El Garage offers other dishes worthy of your attention, too, like a fierce chicken tinga and an avocado tostada for vegetarians. They also keep the lines moving, so you’re not waiting long, and offer so much seating that you’ll never have to dip or slurp on the curb. And even though it’s a counter-serve spot, they bring your food to you, which is always a plus.
Don’t miss: Quesabirria tacos, of course, consome, tostada de tinga, aguachile verde and that tamarind agua fresca.
Details: 1428 Macdonald Ave., Richmond; www.elgarage.online; $
Good to Eat Dumplings, Emeryville: When you want authentic Taiwanese flavors
Good to Eat started as a pop-up, slinging potstickers and dumplings to Oakland brewery patrons. This year, it graduated into a bustling sit-down space in Emeryville, and while it still prepares dumplings – springy-skinned wonders with fillings that range from shrimp-and-pork to cauliflower-and-shiitake – limiting oneself to only that would be a disservice to the kitchen’s talents.
Cofounders Tony Tung and Angie Lin create flavors from Taiwan that most Americans may have never experienced. Vegetables from local farms shine in small plates like opo-squash leaves with tahini and pickled white bittermelon with honey. (Yes, they somehow made a salad out of bittermelon.) The fried chicken with fermented-tofu sauce is funky and crunchy, and the Taiwanese minced-pork noodles are engineered for endless slurping. A substantial stew of pork belly with rice wine and ginger is an excellent rendition of traditional red-braised pork, with jiggling pieces of meat in a savory braise as dark as molasses.
And the restaurant stages occasional tasting menus and community events like a Moon Festival barbecue to recreate the Taiwanese experience of grilling outside with family and friends.
Don’t miss: Braised pork belly and scallion with rice is a must. Also delicious: the minced-pork noodles, vegetable sides and, of course, dumplings.
Details: 1298 65th St., Emeryville; goodtoeatdumplings.com, $-$$
Ghazni Afghan Kabobs, Hayward: When you’re all about mom-and-pop kabobs
When the craving hits for Afghan food — glistening basmati rice, juicy kabobs and succulent braised lamb shank — we hope you’re in Hayward or close enough to hit one of the Wahab brothers’ no-frills family restaurants. Named for the ancient city in Afghanistan, once a sister city to Hayward, Ghazni checks all the boxes of a traditional Afghan restaurant, with a few touches that caught our kabob expert’s attention. For starters, Ghanzni serves brown basmati rice, buttered just enough to give those long grains a glisten — but not enough to smell like movie popcorn. The qabuli pallaw is just about the tenderest slow-cooked lamb shank you’ll find, served hidden under a generous pile of raisin-and-candied-carrot basmati. Their mantu is so good, it could sustain its own take-out window: Delicate, two-bite dumplings are stuffed with seasoned ground beef and topped with bright lentils, yogurt and a flurry of fresh and dried herbs.
The Wahabs, Tawab and Fawad, have been in the restaurant business for 30 years. They started out in pizza, but a lifelong dream to bring their family’s recipes to Hayward was realized in 2014, when they opened the A Street location, followed in 2019 by the eatery on West Winton Avenue. They said, “We kept thinking, ‘Why are people always going to Dublin, Fremont or Santa Clara for Afghan food? We should do it in Hayward.’” We’re so glad they did.
Don’t miss: Mantu is a must, as are the qabuli pallaw, borani kadu, bolani, murgh kabob and grilled chicken salad.
Details: 217 W. Winton Ave. and 1235 A St., both in Hayward; www.ghazniafghankabobs.com; $-$$
Naschmarkt, Campbell and Palo Alto: When your schatzi is a schnitzel
Restaurateur Dino Tekdemir figured the Peninsula dining scene was missing something – something that a classic Wiener Schnitzel could fill.
So this summer, he opened a second location of downtown Campbell’s appealing Naschmarkt, a New Austrian cuisine specialist for the last decade. This one adds a new element to Palo Alto’s California Avenue dining scene.
Here you’ll find all the Austrian goodies, from pretzels to smoked pork bratwurst to our favorite, Wiener Schnitzel with lingonberry sauce. The rich, mushroom-sauced Jaeger Schnitzel is served with the kitchen’s housemade spaetzle. Beef goulash, the paprika-braised Hungarian specialty that’s so popular across the border in Austria, is another menu standout. Overall, it’s a pan-Euro model with some splashes of seasonal California cuisine – think Pan-Roasted Halibut, Bucatini Pasta with Asparagus, Watermelon Gazpacho.
For dessert? It may be hard to choose between the Apple Strudel with hazelnuts baked in-house and the fluffy Salzburg Nockerl souffle with blueberry compote.
Don’t miss: Break out of your wine rut and pair your meal with a gewurztraminer, gruner veltliner or zweigelt.
Details: 384 E. Campbell Ave., Campbell, and 2323 Birch St., Palo Alto; www.naschmarkt-restaurant.com; $$
Range Life, Livermore: Where wine country meets elevated farm fare
This rustic, yet modern fine-dining establishment nestled among Livermore’s rolling hills is the quintessential wine country restaurant, with seasonal, farm-driven dishes that come to life when paired with zippy wines, like pink zweigelt and skin-fermented Clarksburg cortese. Much like the wines on its list, Range Life boasts a real sense of place. The restaurant is housed in a stark-white brick building dating back to the 1800s. There’s a 100-year-old California pepper tree on the back patio, along with a colorful mural featuring the Lab and other nods to Livermore.
Chef and co-owner Bill Niles is from the Tartine family of restaurants, and he knows that magic is made by letting pristine ingredients from local farmers, ranchers and fishermen do their thing. The menu is focused, with a small selection of snacks, appetizers and entrees, including a stunning brined Klingeman Family Farms ham chop dressed with softened O’Henry peaches and crispy savoy cabbage. A summer chopped salad is far from typical, the cherry tomatoes, lemon cucumbers and basil bits transformed by crunchy sesame seeds, shishito peppers and creamy, aged cheddar. And Milk and Honey — malted milk ice cream covered in honeycomb with a drizzle of the greenest olive oil — reminds us how the simplest desserts really are the best.
Don’t miss: That Klingeman ham chop is a winner, as are the chopped salad and roasted chicken with a twist on panzanella that includes eggplant, Fan-Stil pear, Red Rock onion and fresh stracciatella.
Details: 2160 Railroad Ave., Livermore; www.rangelifelivermore.com; $$$.
Koi Palace, Daly City: When you want lobster and they want duck. And dim sum.
This Cantonese seafood specialist needs no introduction. Since opening its 400-seat Daly City flagship in 1996, Koi Palace has become the Cantonese dining and dim sum experience by which other Bay Area spots are judged. With arched Moon Gate entryways, attentive, buttoned-up servers and massive fish tanks brimming with crab and lobster, these large, banquet-style restaurants (there are now four in the East and South bays) offer tea service, dim sum and a wide selection of noodles, rice dishes, soups, barbecue, congee and, of course, whole seafood preparations.
Start with steamed dumplings, such as the savory pork, shrimp and mushroom shumai dotted with candylike orange roe, which arrive in yellow-rimmed bamboo steamer baskets. The Rainbow Sampler is like a Crayola box of Shanghai-style dumplings, with dough that gets its colors from paprika, turmeric, squid ink and spinach or kale. Treat yourself to whole crab or lobster (serves two) poached in ginger, soy sauce and scallions over crispy, stir-fried noodles. Barbecue pork buns and crispy-skinned Peking duck are also legendary here. Tea lovers: Go for the Tasters Select.
Don’t miss: Dumpling aficionados must try the Shanghai-style dumplings and pork, shrimp and mushroom shumai. And the whole crab or lobster is a must.
Details: 365 Gellert Blvd., Daly City; also in Milpitas, Redwood City and Dublin. https://koipalace.com; $$-$$$
Silla, Santa Clara: When you desire modern takes on Korean classics
You can find many yummy Korean dishes in Santa Clara’s K-town – spicy fried chicken, inky black-bean noodles, DIY barbecue – but what you might not expect is cioppino. Yet it makes sense: Korea has both a deep-rooted fishing culture and a passion for hearty soups that warm the soul. Here diners can enjoy chef Eric Shin’s tomatoless “Better Than Cioppino” (BTC for short, a nod to the local crypto-currency scene), which has the whole ocean plus beef tendon thrown into a creamy sauce ideal for dipping – not with sourdough, mind you, but rice.
Silla’s full of such twists on traditional fare. Bossam with honey-butter sauce, or bulgogi tacos with cheese-on-the-outside tortillas? Sure, why not? Sizzling rice arrives with soft batons of eel and tricolor fish roe that add saline pops to each bite. A seafood-scallion pancake is hubcap-sized and crispy on the edges, with a soft, tentacle-laden interior not unlike takoyaki. The galbitang is a long-simmered and clean-tasting bone broth with intensely beefy hunks of short rib. Throughout the menu are modern takes on dishes that will remind you that Koreans love cheese, from Fire Fire Chicken with spicy mayo and cheese to a Spam and American-cheese Army Stew, a preparation Anthony Bourdain once called (in a nice way) the “ultimate dorm food.”
Don’t miss: So many choices, but the seafood and scallion pancake, colorful fish roe and eel rice and galbitang are non-negotiable.
Details: 2910 El Camino Real, Santa Clara; sillasv.com, $$-$$$
One House Bakery, Benicia: When you want the best baked goods, plus the kitchen sink
Bread is a meal – or at least it can be in France, where a properly baked baguette needs little more than butter and cheese to make one content. That’s true of the ham-and-soft-cheese at One House, a deceptively simple but perfectly crisp-sweet torpedo that reminds you that a sandwich’s best ingredient is the baker’s chops.
Hannalee Pervan was schooled at Le Cordon Bleu in Ottawa and worked for the team that provided bread to Thomas Keller’s French Laundry. She helped start this ambitious bakery in 2018, using flour milled daily, organic dairy and her own meticulously developed recipes, then caught a bad patch during COVID, when she lost her senses of taste and smell. But the place is still firing on all cylinders, whether you want a country levain or a savory treat to enjoy in the stunningly gardened back patio.
A frisee salad with runny-yolk egg and dice-sized lardons opens the palate to heartier dishes, including a moist chicken pot pie enveloped in a perfectly flaky crust and an heirloom tomato and mozzarella sandwich with house chimichurri. Savory waffles are a specialty here, served with braised beef or “falafel-waffle” style with kefta and tzatziki. And it would be a crime to walk away without dessert, whether that be an intense chocolate-cream tart, seasonal-fruit crostata or lemon meringue with a porcupine’s back of torched peaks.
Don’t miss: Anything involving bread, that chicken soup and the couscous salad with squash and halloumi are terrific. Do not deny yourself dessert.
Details: 918 First Street, Benicia; onehousebakery.com; $
Momo & Kebab, Fremont: When you can’t scale the Himalayas for momos
You have to respect a place that’s so confident about what it does well, it’s in the business name. The kebabs at this unassuming spot are indeed good – marinated in lemon and garlic and properly charred in a clay oven; the sekuwa-style lamb is smoky and delicious with some butter-brushed naan. But you’d be sleeping, if you didn’t order the menu’s star, the momo, Himalayan dumplings of meat mixed with herbs and steamed until tender. Some places make momos that are dense and chewy. Not here – the delicate-skinned chicken momo bursts with flavor and gingery juices. It’s more Din Tai Fung soup dumpling than anything else, a feeling you can enhance (and most customers do) by getting it in a bowl of Sichuan pepper and roasted tomato broth.
The kitchen prepares a number of other Nepali/Tibetan specialties, including a warming thenthuk soup with hand-stretched noodles and Navaratna korma with sweet coconut milk and nine types of nuts and vegetables. But again, a plate of momos is all you really need – if you’re still peckish, try a dessert of baked yogurt with honey that’s like the meltingest cheesecake ever.
Don’t miss: Chicken momos with Sichuan pepper-spiced roasted tomato sauce are the ones to get. The free chai is a bonus.
Details: 37100K Fremont Blvd., Fremont; momoandkebab.com, $$
New England Lobster Market & Eatery, Burlingame: When you want it fresh off the boat, er, make that plane
Have the urge to get cracking? Drive to Burlingame and head toward the water.
No, lobsters haven’t decided to take up residence in San Francisco Bay. But they are flying in daily.
What started in 1986 as a wholesale operation and market, with shipments coming in from nearby SFO, expanded years ago into an enterprise that would do the cooking for crustacean lovers.
Lobster rolls are the big draw here, with meat fresher than your neighborhood market or restaurant is serving. Order yours “naked” (just the lobster meat, with melted butter on the side) or “dressed” (with light mayo, salt and pepper) or “seasonal” (with avocado and bacon). All come with housemade chips and coleslaw. Fresh lobster is also available in tacos, nachos, salads, with mac and cheese and in cups or bowls of the great Lobster Corn Chowder. Get your Dungeness crab fix with a crab melt, crab roll, crab slider, crab salad or crab nachos.
If you prefer to do the boiling and/or cracking at home, you can purchase from the market up front. They also sell lobster/crab roll kits, lobster boil buckets (with sausage and corn) and quarts of chowder.
Don’t miss: The daily deals. Check out Lobster Lover Monday, 1-Pound Lobster Plate Special, Twin Tail Wednesday and 3-Pound Thursday.
Details: 824 Cowan Road, Burlingame; https://newenglandlobster.net; $$