Another year in SF means another couple dozen new places to eat. It's pretty astounding, actually, how the economy, combined with our voracious appetite for new food, has supported a dining boom in San Francisco and Oakland that's now heading into its fifth year and shows no signs of slowing down. And at least half of these new dinner options now exist in spaces that were not even restaurants before, proving how the population boom is giving us even greater dining density. We rounded up our favorite new bars last week, and now, as 2014 draws to a close, we bring you the best of the new crop of dining spots, representing the most original, delicious, and/or polished of the pack places that, right out of the gate, are proving to be immediate hits.
4505 Burgers & BBQ
Yes, it's easy to pick apart barbecue, and everyone remembers the best they've ever had, which usually wasn't in California. But I'll argue that 4505's contribution to SF's previously lackluster scene was a barbecue godsend. Of course it was a no-brainer for Ryan Farr to start smoking top-quality meats from his existing 4505 butchery operation. And the former Da' Pitt/Brothers space is more of a picnic spot than a restaurant, with tables in the parking lot outside the counter-service interior. But I say all the better for it. Working in a variety of styles, 4505 Burgers & BBQ is, as you guessed, really about the BBQ (although the burger's pretty awesome too). In particular, the pulled pork is perfection, and ribs slide off the bone with charred ends providing all the smoky, straight from the pit flavor you could ask for. Sides are excellent too, from the fully doused spicy fries to the buttery Parker House rolls to the tangy beans and, yes, the fried wunderkind of the menu, the "frankaroni." For the uninitiated, that's a a crispy mac and cheese rectangle with bits of 4505 hot dog. Though Magnolia's Smokestack opened at about the same time in the Dogpatch, another force for barbecue good, I'm won over by the no-frills approach at 4505. An impressive selection of beers on tap and a better price point also help. - Caleb Pershan
705 Divisadero Street between Grove and Fulton Streets
Brenda’s Meat & Three
Chef Brenda Buenviaje has been luring the brunching set to Polk Street for years for shrimp and grits, gumbo, and crawfish beignets at her restaurant Brenda’s French Soul Food. Now, as of this fall, she’s expanded with the charming, casual, diner-like Southern food Brenda’s Meat & Three on Divisadero, in the former Blue Jay Cafe space. The menu is based on the Southern diner tradition of ordering your meat dish with three sides, and the busy dining room is dominated by a big horseshoe counter that you can expect will be regularly filled with NoPa hip kids. A rotating selection of dishes includes her famed fried chicken (formerly available only at dinner at the original Brenda’s), some killer baby back ribs, and country ham steak. The starters and sides, though, could be a meal of their own, with Brenda’s low country gumbo, fried oyster salad, and her biscuits all being highlights. For those in the mood for big lunches, take note that she’s doing her seafood po’boys at lunchtime (and brunch time), and there’s a fried bologna sandwich with pimento cheese. All told, a great addition to the neighborhood’s new restaurant row, and one that’ll satisfy cravings for rib-sticking food all winter long. Jay Barmann
919 Divisadero Street at McAllister
A spring version of the roast chicken dish. Photo: Facebook
Traveling to the Presidio, even though it’s like right there next to the Marina, makes you feel like you’re heading both outside the city and back in time. But there’s nothing old-fashioned about the food at Traci Des Jardins’ stylish new Spanish restaurant The Commissary, which is easily one of the most exciting “destination” spots to debut this past year. Des Jardins’ won the contract to cover all of the Presidio Trust’s food needs, which means that The Commissary becomes more of a takeout lunch spot for Presidio employees during the day, and she’s opened the nearby Arguello, a more casual but still upscale Mexican spot in the renovated Officer’s Club. The front dining room and bar feel like a spacious lodge from another era, while in back you can sit around the modern exhibition kitchen and watch the chefs at work. Menu highlights include some calabaza squash croquettes with burnt orange aioli; delectably tender, traditional braised octopus with potatoes, olives, and lemon; jamon- (ham-)wrapped trout with trumpet mushrooms, sherry, and tarragon; and one of the best roast chickens in town, served with chicken liver toasts and a vinegar-y onion gastrique. All the food bears Des Jardins’ expert balance of richness, seasoning, and acid, as well as the talents of executive chef (and longtime Jardiniere lineman) Reylon Augustin. And while prices are pretty reasonable, and the cocktails, sherries, and wines approachable, The Commissary feels like a great celebration place for those nights when you want to leave the city without actually leaving the city. Jay Barmann
101 Montgomery Street in the Presidio
A casual group dinner at Dirty Habit. Photo: Facebook
After years of working as a fine-dining chef, David Bazirgan took it as a welcome opportunity for reinvention when the Hotel Palomar decided to shutter Fifth Floor late last year and reopen it as the suggestively named Dirty Habit. Drug jokes aside, the place is now a handsome indoor-outdoor lounge that's especially perfect for birthdays, after-work cocktails and dinner, or as an easy refuge from the chaos of Union Square. A terrific, lengthy cocktail list from bar manager Brian Means (including punch bowls for groups), is complemented by Bazirgan's ultra-classy bar bites, like the smoked fondue, the grilled octopus with grapes and almonds, and the top-notch burger with Swiss cheese and whiskey onions. It's Bazirgan's food, actually, with help from sous chef and pastry chef Francis Ang, that raises this place above the level of "bar with food" to a restaurant I'd be proud to take a first date to. Or a third date. Jay Barmann
12 Fourth Street, on the fifth floor of the Hotel Palomar
Miso Market Ramen. Photo: Caleb Pershan/SFist
Though a common superlative category it is not, pictured above is the best vegetarian ramen I've ever tasted. That's miso and butternut squash broth, rich and satisfying with noodles that chew just right. Of course, at Hapa Ramen you'll also encounter a classic, thick pork ramen with the genius addition of buttermilk fried chicken. And currently rounding out the menu is Wing Wing ramen, a bowl with spicy noodles and succulent chicken in schmaltzy broth named for its former pop ups at the Haight Street wing joint of the same name. Hapa Ramen was already on the tip of many a tongue with such pop ups, most notably at the Ferry Building where its stand was a staple. But chef Richie Nakano, who is only fresher on Twitter than he is in his cooking, has found his brick and mortar and, already, a bit of his stride at the very new Mission outpost. He's in a former 99 Cents store that's been outfitted with a full bar (try the Hilo Gimlet, with gin, lime, Hawaiian Punch syrup, and Hi Chew tincture), communal and individual tables, plus booths for a total of about 60 seats. Of course, those lovely latticed booths are the best bet to enjoy your ramen or the restaurant's "hapa" dishes, most notably the fried chicken steam bun. - Caleb Pershan
2293 Mission Street between 19th and 20th Streets
Photo courtesy of Gaspar Brasserie
A welcome addition to the downtown scene is this posh new brasserie in the former Perry's/Midi/Hecho space at the Galleria Park Hotel. Now with a stylish, cozy mezzanine level and bars both upstairs and down, it's both a place to find a good cocktail and a few oysters, or a place to sit down for a good French dinner of flounder grenobloise or magret de canard duck breast with carrot mousseline, turnips, and ancient grain risotto. And do not miss pastry chef Chuck Dugo's faithful takes on classic Parisian desserts like the a Paris-Brest a cream-filled, wheel shaped dessert created to commemorate a Paris-to-Brest bicycle race in 1910.Jay Barmann
185 Sutter Street at Kearny
Photo courtesy of Huxley
Everyone wants a neighborhood restaurant like this in their 'hood, and now the Tenderloin has theirs. Huxley, a charming, 25-seat bistro where chef Sara Hauman (with consulting help from former Outerlands guy Brett Cooper) serves a tight menu of rustic, seasonal, comforting dishes like charred squid with avocado and fennel; pork schnitzel with apple kraut and small potatoes; and a ridiculously good beef short rib pot pie as well as some good vegetarian options. The wine selection, like the menu, is short but respectable, and reasonably priced. And while dishes may not have the polish of a place like Frances, the flavors, execution, and warm neighborhood vibe are all there. It certainly should rise to the top of the list of date spots in and around the 'Loin. Jay Barmann
846 Geary Street between Larkin and Hyde
Pad kee mao 'drunken noodles' at Kin Khao. Photo: Facebook
At Kin Khao, the new Thai spot and critical darling from Pim Techamuanvivit and chef Michael Gaines, Techamuanvivit "wanted to make a menu of dishes I loved in Thailand that I don't see anywhere else here." Succeeding there, the well-deserved adoration has been pouring in at Kin Khao. It's no bother that the restaurant is a bit awkwardly situated inside the Parc 55 Hotel when you've got curries as good as these, and you really can't go wrong with their seasonally shifting menu. That said, the green curry rabbit has the food world in a tizzy, and I'm partial to the pad kee mao pictured above. I do have one serious gripe: Kin Khao has axed its late night hours... but they're open for lunch, and are forgiven.- Caleb Pershan
55 Cyril Magnin Street, at the corner of Ellis and Mason, in the Parc 55 Hotel
The short rib and carrot dish. Photo: Jay Barmann
Chef David Barzelay had five years of success under his belt with his popular underground dining club Lazy Bear (an anagram of his last name, no relation to this) when he decided to jump into the brick-and-mortar fray and take over the 19th Street space occupied by the short-lived Hi-Lo BBQ. What's resulted in his first few months is an impressive fine dining debut built around the convivial, unconventional energy of pop-ups, along with some highly ambitious food. A large staff caters to two seatings per night, with both arriving for cocktails and several snack courses in the mezzanine "living room." Once everyone gets to know each other, things move downstairs to the main dining room, which now holds two long communal tables, and the more elaborate courses begin. As it stands, dinner here is a virtual steal at $120 per person for 11 to 12 courses (more for pairings and cocktails), with sophisticated, carefully conceived dishes like Dungeness crab in crab consommé with persimmon and purslane; and a rich, perfect baby abalone chowder. Unlike the pop-up, the restaurant now features high-end wine service and well-matched pairings, as well some excellent seasonal cocktails. While diners at this price point may not always be in the mood for the communal thing, there's no doubt that Barzelay has landed on a concept with plenty of potential after all, Saison basically started as a pop-up too. Jay Barmann
3416 19th Street at Mission
Though not technically a "spinoff" of Saison, Les Clos is the culmination of a number of years of plans and false starts by Saison partner and Burgundy-lover Mark Bright, who at one point opened a small wine bar concept in the front of Stable Cafe, back in Saison's Mission days. The place is more than a wine bar, though, with a full all-day menu by chef Shawn Gawle including things like eggs en meurette, with short rib, bordelais, and mushrooms; a classic salt cod brandade; some killer charcuterie and cheese; and a Basque-inspired roast chicken with padron peppers and cous cous. You can, of course, expect one of the best French wine lists in town, as well as one of the most generous selections of wines by the glass: 40 in all, pretty reasonably priced, which can also be ordered as 3-oz. tastes or in half-carafes. Finally SoMa has a place for wine lovers that isn't District, and isn't douchey, and where you can also eat a great dinner.
234 Townsend Street near 3rd
The steak tartare at Monsieur Benjamin, where the name is meant to evoke both the French and American influence. Photo: Marianne Masculino
Along with Gaspar Brasserie and the recently open Urchin (which gets an honorable mention on this list), Monsieur Benjamin is helping usher in a new era for the French-California brasserie/bistro. Chef-owner Corey Lee and executive chef Jason Berthold (formerly of RN74) have put together a crave-worthy menu of revised and brand new bistro classics at their bustling Hayes Valley outpost. There's steak tartare served with a "pissaladière" lavash; frog legs in aigre doux; and shrimp spaghetti with bacon ragout. There is, of course, steak frites, and a burger, and a Flintstones-esque pork rib. And this all comes with the added bonus of a full bar and a kitchen that stays open every night until 1 a.m. something Lee says SF doesn't have enough of, and of course he's right. The only downside is that, like the neighborhood, things can get pretty expensive. But you'll be hard-pressed to find French food elsewhere that's gotten this thoughtful of an update for the 21st century. Jay Barmann
451 Gough Street near Grove
The mackerel course on the tasting menu. Photo: Jay Barmann/SFist
I didn't know what to expect with Pabu, knowing what Michael Mina's food was like but not knowing what Rohnert Park sushi master and executive chef Ken Tominaga brought to the table, or how the two chefs would bring together sushi, izakaya fare, cocktails, and shabu shabu under one roof. But the place is pretty incredible, as it turns out, with a sushi-focused tasting menu to rival what you might find in Japan for example, there's a course of four different species of mackerel, and delicate preparations for each piece of fish like salts, soy marinades, and citrus. There's also a great, almost delicate take on the pancake called okonomiyaki, and sake service that is easily the most thorough and sophisticated in the city. Anyway, it's way more high end that you might think looking at the menu, and maybe that goes with the territory of the Financial District. In any event, it makes for a great celebration spot for lovers of the raw fish. Jay Barmann
101 California Street at Davis
Chef Alexander Alioto's heritage shows through in his cooking at Plin, but so does his modernism, and the package is refreshingly rid of the stuffiness you might have found during his previous stint at Seven Hills. That heritage, of course, goes back to the family's 1925 Fisherman's Wharf restaurant and politicians like mayor Joseph Alioto. You'll find implicit and explicit references to that family history all over the menu at the new restaurant, whose name refers to the Italian slang for "pinch." Here, that's a nod to hand pinched Italian pastas, which are indeed something special and include highly creative takes like a seafood lasagna with sole, rock shrimp, lime caviar, and lemon butter sauce. Of course, there's the much-lauded raviolo al uovo, a lovely piece of culinary sleight of hand that bursts open with a full egg and plenty of truffle and brown butter. Seafood is the restaurant's specialty, and the fried Chilean sea bass starter will set you on course. The space leaves room for the food to shine, and behind the bar are excellent cocktails from Daniel Federico of LA's Harvard & Stone team, not to mention wine picks from Alioto's father, Nunzio Alioto III, a certified Master Sommelier. Caleb Pershan
280 Valencia Street between 14th and Duboce Streets
The guinea hen with chicory lettuce wraps at The Progress. Photo: Jay Barmann/SFist
The much anticipated, much larger spinoff of State Bird Provisions opened right next door just this week. All hype aside, this is a big, splashy, well conceived restaurant into which a lot of imagination and care has been put, and it's brought to you by the team of talented chefs headed by Stuart Brioza that delighted everyone with the international flavors and dim-sum fun of State Bird. You won't find any rolling carts here, but you will find a grand, vaulted-ceiling space and some fantastic, complex, shareable food that will all come to the table family style in a flurry of multi-dish courses, similar to the State Bird experience. And you will also find Brioza's penchant for melding the flavors and ingredients of Italy, Latin America, Spain, and much of Asia into an always surprising cross-cultural feast. And with the high-acid moments of dishes like seared beef with oyster sauce, or shaved cauliflower salad with fried pig ears and pork belly "fries" you'll get to choose from a well curated list of food-friendly wines from wine director Jason Alexander, as well as a full cocktail bar. It's going to be a tough ticket to get for the foreseeable future reservations are only coming available seven days in advance for the time being, and demand is likely to reach State Bird levels in the new year but even once everyone makes it in this place is likely to stay in the news well into 2015. Jay Barmann
1525 Fillmore at O'Farrell
The squid bomba at Shakewell. Photo courtesy of the restaurant
Onto Oakland's Lakeshore Avenue this summer came Shakewell, a labor of love for former hotel-restaurant chefs Jen Biesty and Tim Nugent both of whom made appearances on the Top Chef franchise and worked side by side in the busy kitchen of Union Square's Scala's Bistro for many years. The menu focuses on the flavors of Spain, the Mediterranean, and North Africa, and features some perfect bacalao croquettes, delicious lamb kefta, and a quartet of paella-like rice dishes called "bombas," the best of which features local squid, squid-ink rice, piquillo peppers, and preserved lemon. It is clear that Biesty's heart is in this food, and the experience is bolstered by well made cocktails and a highly competent bar program. All told it's an impressive, easy-to-like addition to an already a lively eating 'hood, and one that will definitey stay awhile. Jay Barmann
3407 Lakeshore Avenue, Oakland
- Hecho, for some solid tacos, salads, and excellent cocktails, in the Castro.
- The quaint and cozy Red Hill Station in Bernal Heights, with solid seafood from an Anchor Oyster Bar alum.
- Urchin Bistrot, for some very good, and comforting, bistro fare in an oddly configured space.
- Cockscomb, for some fun twists on classic SF dishes, including a great Celery Victor, and some unpretentious meaty goodness.
- Game, for some very delicious riffs on Indian flavors, despite needing some time to grow into itself.
- And the newly relocated Marlowe, which is as good if not better than the original Marlowe, only there's more of it.
For budgetary reasons, SFist editors and contributors occasionally accept complimentary meals from restaurants and their publicists. More often, we pay out of pocket for our meals. While we refrain from writing formal reviews, we make every effort when giving opinions about restaurants to be objective, and to focus more on food and ambiance than service in order to make up for any possible bias.Photo: Facebook