The last couple of years have been heady ones for San Francisco's dining scene, with 2010 kicking off a wave of new ingenuity, talent, and luxury that had yet to crash through the end of 2015, with last year boasting seven brand new restaurants earning Michelin stars fresh out of the gate. The close of this year, though, has had many industry watchers in agreement that things have downshifted, and a peak has likely been hit in terms of how many mid- to high-end restaurants the city can realistically maintain at one time. We saw some quick and high-profile closures led by very talented chefs and management teams, as well as the surprise closing announcements by well-loved spots like Bar Tartine and Range in which chef-owners expressed some unease with the state of the local industry as a whole, and their place in it. And the most common refrains had to do with the cost of doing business in San Francisco coupled with a high cost of living that has driven many talented cooks and service people out of the city.
Nonetheless, 2016 will go down as the year that San Francisco finally tied New York for an equal number of Michelin three-star spots (an incredible feat given the comparative sizes and dining populations of the two cities), and four brand new restaurants in the city gained their first stars right out of the gate, joining the seven from last year. We saw a spate of terrific openings including a couple joining the trend of high-end Japanese several of which did not even make our list despite landing on best-of lists elsewhere, meaning we had difficult choices to make. As always we tried to recognize achievements both at the low and the high end of our dining culture, because San Francisco has never been one to stand on ceremony when it comes to great food. Below, our picks from this year in food which in any other city would have been a truly banner year, had they not eaten through the last couple we've had. Jay Barmann
A native of Hawaii's Big Island, chef Jordan Keao started 'āina as a brunch pop-up, scored permanent Dogpatch digs for that brunch, and expanded to dinner this October, even scoring a Michelin Bib Gourmand spot that month, too. Still best known as a brunch destination for its Portuguese-style donuts and taro French toast, dinner at 'āina is also where it's at. Homemade Spam bao, served and eaten like a mini hot dog with smoked trout roe, is an adorable dish, a highly modern arctic char with fried sunchoke presentation absolutely slays, and BBQ char siu glazed pork ribs (smoked with kiawe wood, a sweet Hawaiian mesquite) are extremely bomb. Add to that a list of fun cocktails — a papaya reduction punch bowl for four will likely take care of your table — a relaxed, hip vibe, and precise, attentive service. —Caleb Pershan
900 22nd Street between Indiana Street and Minnesota Street
Spanish cuisine made a big comeback here over the last couple of years with the openings of Coqueta, Aatxe, and Beso, recalling the tapas craze of the 1990s but doing that era one better in terms of variety and authenticity to say nothing of the elevation of the Spanish-style gintonic. But one-upping all those openings was the arrival of Bellota this year, a grand temple of tapas and much more from the Absinthe Group, with former Coqueta chef de cuisine Ryan McIlwraith manning the paella ovens, here as executive chef. The pintxos roll around the dining room on a cart, the jamon Iberico de bellota hangs in abundance from hooks behind glass beside the bar, the paellas are properly crisped on the bottom, and the seafood and stews flow freely out of a bustling, central display kitchen. Also, McIlwraith isn't afraid to have some fun with tradition, like with his off-menu patatas bravas, "animal style." Sagan Piechota Architecture took the raw industrial space in the ground floor of the Gift Center (now home to Airbnb upstairs) and created an inviting, warmly lit environment where the bar, kitchen, and main dining room flow into one another, punctuated by thick concrete columns that have been hand-carved and painted in the style of a Moorish mosque. Cocktails by Absinthe and Comstock Saloon vet Johnny Raglin are inventive without pretension, and the food, most importantly, is generous and delicious in true Spanish style. Go for a quick bite of Spanish tortilla and the creamy croqueta stuffed with clam and sea urchin, or stay longer for things like the rich Asturian white bean and chorizo stew known as fabada, with morcilla (blood sausage), pork belly, grilled octopus, and fermented cabbage. Jay Barmann
888 Brannan Street at 8th Street
Photo: Jay Barmann/SFist
There are always concerns — sadly, often borne out — when a "cool" restaurant opens in a non-destination San Francisco neighborhood. Sometimes these places ignore the longtime locals, other times they're downright hostile towards them (I'll bet you can think of some of those places right now, can't you? I know I have one in mind!). When I first caught wind of Fiorella, with its hipster wallpaper and subway tile and artisanal pizza oven, I wondered if it would be one of those places, nestled as it is on an Outer Richmond block better known for its proximity to the 4-Star Theater than for places lit by Edison bulbs. Having gone there many times since its January opening, I'm pleased to say that my worries were unfounded: On any night, couples from other parts of the city dine shoulder-to-shoulder with neighborhood families, laborers still clad in their work clothes, and local teens trying on adulthood by "going out to eat." With a menu that is regularly revised (due in part, I suspect, to chef Dante Cecchini, who came aboard in August), every visit provides an opportunity to try something new, even as comforting standbys like their meatballs, cacio e pepe pasta, and clam pie remain. They're still working things out with their weekend brunch service, which continues to find its footing following an April launch (the egg sandwich is a star, but the polenta with poached egg is Cronenberg-esque and they should have kept that Michelada on the drinks menu), but unlike the evenings, the reservation-less are never confronted with a wait. I am rarely comfortable when people say "the neighborhood needed this" about a restaurant, as Clement has chugged along just fine for years without Fiorella. But the neighborhood is greatly enhanced by the addition of this warm, welcoming, and yummy restaurant, a place that demonstrates a singular commitment to showing everyone — not just the "new folks" — an enjoyable and delicious time. —Eve Batey
2339 Clement Street between 24th and 25th Avenues
Chef Sean Brock's brown oyster stew (2009), as recreated by Corey Lee and company at In Situ. Photo courtesy of In Situ.
The most acclaimed SF restaurant of the year is surely Corey Lee's venture inside the new SFMOMA, a highlight of that renovation in its own right with a spare and modern vibe and top-notch service, and food more befitting of an art museum, maybe, than any museum restaurant's ever has been. As the New York Times critic Pete Wells put it grandly, "By avoiding originality, In Situ is the most original new restaurant in the country." The recipes aren't from Lee's playbook at his other restaurants Benu or Monsieur Benjamin. Instead, they're a canon of contemporary cuisine from the world's most acclaimed chefs, Sean Brock to Andoni Luiz Aduriz to Wylie Dufresne to Thomas Keller. Nonetheless, Lee is there, and the skills of him and his team are evident in rendering, or "performing," the dishes faithfully, like as he's compared it a choreographer interpreting the work of someone who came before them. For another layer of fascinating complication: The dishes span not only the globe, but the years. Like artworks in the galleries upstairs, they're dated for when they were created. For instance, take Chef David Thompson's guinea hen Chiang Mai Larp. Thompson, an Australian chef, made that dish at his Bangkok restaurant, Nahm, in 1999. Now, here you are, eating it in San Francisco, as recreated by Lee, in 2016, in a museum. When has that ever happened, except for now? — Caleb Pershan
151 Third Street at Howard, inside SFMOMA
A kaseiki course of fluke sashimi with watermelon radish and other vegetables. Photo: Jay Barmann/SFist
I debated a bit about the inclusion of Hashiri on this list, solely because of the price. With a starting cost of $250 per person, or $300 at the sushi bar, without gratuity or beverages, I was expecting a Saison- or Benu-level experience in terms of ingredients, service, and presentation and indeed it does live up to that expectation, if not with the same sense of wonder and originality of those restaurants. The word "hashiri" refers to the beginning of the peak of a season in Japan, and the focus throughout the restaurant's combination kaiseki and omakase menu a mix of cold and warm and intricately plated dishes followed by a chef's selection of nigiri sushi is on items, both from the vegetable and undersea worlds, specific to this moment in the season. I tried shirako (or milt, the tender pods of cod semen) for the first time here, and was told this delicacy was something one only gets during a certain window of autumn in Japan. Another dish of black cod and tender scallops was presented atop scarlet hued autumn leaves. Michael Bauer chose to dismiss the restaurant from his usual review rounds this year because of what he called "the audacity of the pricing out of the gate," but Hashiri is hardly a first-time venture it's the first American location from a seasoned Japanese team, some of whom barely speak English, coming from a Hashiri location in Daikanyama, which has been called "the Brooklyn of central Tokyo." While the restaurant may have been wiser to introduce themselves to local diners at a lower price point, it is an establishment that arrives fully formed (the Michelin inspectors obviously thought so), with impeccable Japanese service, ultra-rare sakes and Japanese whiskeys about which the beverage team will humble-brag, and an omakase experience with a chef cutting fish and hand forming each piece of nigiri for you, if you're seated at the counter the likes of which the Bay Area barely knew before last year with the openings of places like Omakase and Pabu. While your dollar may go a bit farther at Saison with its 20+ courses, carefully sourced ingredients and high San Francisco style, you'll be hard pressed to be as transported to Japan, with all its quiet formality, or as spoiled with more perfect fish, as you will be here. Jay Barmann
4 Mint Plaza, at Fifth Street
Tori Paitan with Chashu Liz J. via Yelp
Owner Tomoharu Shono's acclaimed Tokyo ramen bar's first US expansion bid has drawn lines nightly since its February opening, and as much as they're well deserved, everyone should know that they move swiftly, as does service inside the bright, clean and clutter-free restaurant. The signature ramen here is a tori paitan, a chicken broth thick and creamy enough to be a gravy, but vegans can take solace in a rich tantanmen option. All the noodles are toothsome and springy — enough so to stand alone, as with the broth-less aburasoba option. For all this, we have not just Shono to thank, but also Abram Plaut, a Bay Area native turned Japan-based ramen critic who convinced the chef to make the Bay Area his first US destination. —Caleb Pershan
672 Geary Street between Jones and Leavenworth Streets
The salt-baked whole trout at Mister Jiu's. Photo: Instagram
It was a fairly typical scenario for a San Francisco restaurant project if unfortunate for those involved after the dining public first learned of chef Brandon Jew's plans to open a Chinese restaurant in his hometown, after a buzzworthy stint at Bar Agricole. Three long years passed with occasional press mentions, a notable Chinatown location secured, several pop-up test dinners, increasingly drooling press coverage about Jew ushering a renaissance of Chinatown cuisine, further construction delays, and finally, the grand opening in April, promising a modern take on the family-style Chinese banquet tradition. By all accounts, including my own, Jew did not disappoint, with a gorgeous second-story dining room with bespoke furnishings off Waverly Place, overlooking the neighborhood and the Transamerica building, a generous and celebratory air about the menu and bar program, and contemporary spins on traditional dishes like hot and sour soup and steak fried rice that are truly worthy of "ohhhs" and "yummmms." Jew also has fun with tradition and shows off his talents in other dishes like dry aged beef tartare; roasted quail with Chinese sausage, sticky rice, chestnuts, and grapes; and the salt-baked McFarland Springs trout picture above, wrapped in lotus leaves, served with trout roe and a condiment of charred scallions tossed with mortared ginger and soy. In addition to offering prix fixe options, the restaurant recently transitioned to an a la carte format, allowing for more casual weeknight dining experiences as well as big celebrations. (The wine list, also, with a nice selection of large format bottles, is nothing to sniff at.) Jay Barmann
28 Waverly Place
The lemongrass and Dungeness crab porridge, at bottom, with tempura crab and greens on the side. At top, blistered pole beans with crab. Photo: Jay Barmann/SFist
Sommelier Paul Einbund's first solo restaurant project, in the former Slow Club space in Potrero Flats, had some deservedly loud pre-opening buzz following Einbund's work at Coi, Frances, and Octavia, and the addition of former Coi chef Gavin Schmidt, who joins Einbund here. And thankfully it's a warm and convivial sort of space, much like the Slow Club was, but here with the added draw of Einbund's impressive and unusually varied wine collection, a well crafted cocktail list, and a collection of vintage Chartreuse that will have booze aficionados nerding out over for months or years to come. Schmidt comes through with a number of crave-worthy, Asian-influenced dishes, like some chicken and foie gras dumplings, and a showstopping smoked and roasted duck that is destined to be famous, and a signature item, even if the restaurant is too much in its infancy to declare such things. Jay Barmann
2501 Mariposa Street at Hampshire
Roasted sesame tofu, filled with uni, served in dashi with apple, and topped with caviar. Photo: Jenny M./Yelp
Chef Sung Ahn showed some genuine hubris in opening this ambitious, 10+-course tasting menu restaurant across the street from State Bird Provisions earlier this year. Ahn's taste, talent, and ambition paid off with a Michelin star in his first year, and many ardent fans in the Bay Area who are willing to pay for the kind of originality and fine-dining prowess that comes from stints at The French Laundry, Benu, and LA's most expensive, Michelin-starred sushi temple, Urasawa. You'll find delicate creations like the tofu-based uni dumpling pictured above, a shrimp "chiffon cake" with onion cream and lemon balm, and a piece of ankimo (monkfish liver) wrapped in a thin slice of toro (tuna belly), garnished with yuzu and pickles. It feels as though Ahn is inventing his own kaiseki/omakase style, and it's a fun thing to watch such a thing happen at this level. And the airy, high design of the space only enhances the experience. Jay Barmann
1552 Fillmore Street at Geary
The opening course of small bites including trout roe with chips of crispy trout skin, trout narezushi, matsutake miso soup, and crispy trout belly with burnt sorrel dip. Photo: Jay Barmann/SFist
The talented co-chef duo of Nick Balla and Cortney Burns accomplished a heady feat in the humble environment of Bar Tartine, attracting attention and adulation from the national press and international chef community in just a few short years (as recently noted by Jonathan Kauffman in the Chronicle). They excel at exploring flavors and pushing the envelope of contemporary taste in a style that's rustic and without pretense, simultaneously celebrating the hard-won wisdom of long-ago chefs and the modern freedom to mix and match ideas from many food cultures. With their latest project, billed as an 18-month pop-up that will sunset in early 2018, they're delving further into Balla's love of Japanese cuisine which he previously showed off at Nombe and O Izakaya, incorporating the deep larder of dried and preserved ingredients from Bar Tartine and the techniques he and Burns have honed over the last several years of experimentation there. The results are as delicious, complex, and comforting as the best of what they made there, incorporating snacks, dips, cured fish, pickles, and rich broths in a concise, three-course, family-style experience. The environment (in the barely remodeled former Herbivore space) may be the most rustic part, but if this is any indication of what they have planned for their new, permanent project in an as-yet unannounced location, called Crescent, we're all in for a new banquet of treats from these talented chefs. Jay Barmann
983 Valencia Street near 21st
A Nightbird dish of matsutake mushrooms glazed in smoked egg, with smoked and pickled shiitakes, turnips, and salsa verde. Photo: Cynthia C./Yelp
Easily the restaurant I was most looking forward to see open this year, chef Kim Alter's first solo outing at the helm of a kitchen in San Francisco, Nightbird, is a major dining addition to Hayes Valley that seems destined for a long life. The place, elegantly decorated with wall murals evocative of a hazy horizon line, Nightbird splits its cozy Gough Street gigs with a tiny companion bar, The Linden Room (which also landed on our Best New Bars list). Each night the five-course prix fixe menu changes slightly, with certain dishes that seem likely to recur seasonally like a summery exploration of corn in multiple forms (baby, popped, pureed), and a dish of smoked fettuccine with egg yolk that first made an appearance on Alter's opening menu at Haven in Oakland, here flecked with optional truffles. She is a master of bold flavors and layering textures, both of which lend themselves as well to vegetable dishes as to seafood and meat, and each night's menu is a curated look into the mind of this chef at this moment of the year. Also, given the priciness of a couple of other traditional pre-opera/pre-symphony spots in the 'hood like Jardiniere and Absinthe, the place should fit well as a new destination for that crowd, as well as for the younger foodie set who will fill their seats when they dash out at 7:45. Jay Barmann
330 Gough Street at Linden
Downstairs at The Saratoga. Photo: Instagram
One of the late-to-open surprises of the year is this new spot from the Spruce folks, which debuted at the edge of the Tenderloin at Larkin and Post just last month. It's a two-level bar and restaurant, with an emphasis on the bar and yet a full dinner menu that gets high marks for execution, including on the dry-aged New York steak. The most impressive aspect of the place that's sure to excite lovers of brown booze is the whiskey selection, which goes on for pages in the drink menu, spanning America (rye, bourbon, and other American whiskeys are all over-represented), Scotland, Ireland, and Japan, and covering the underlit back shelves of the bars both upstairs and down, lending an amber glow to both rooms. With its art-covered walls and old-timey steakhouse vibe, the downstairs feels like a great birthday or date spot, and the food is focused on fun, with some decidedly indulgent, chorizo-garnished tater tots, and some five-spiced chicken sliders just one way to start, and soak up the excellent cocktails. And not to be missed, in addition to a crave-worthy burger, is an adult take on a Ho-Ho, filled with ice cream. Also, like at The Morris, the bar features an impressive collection of vintage pours, including 40- and 50-year-old bottles of Pimm's and Chartreuse, rounding out one of the year's notable trends. Jay Barmann
1000 Larkin Street at Post
Photo: Jay Barmann/SFist
Though we're saying goodbye shortly to their offshoot Bar Tartine, the impeccably great taste of Chad Robertson and Elisabeth Prueitt not to mention their great bread and pastry has a grand new home at the edge of the Mission that's already become a bustling daytime destination for breakfast and lunch. At dinner, though, as of a few weeks ago, the place transforms into a calm and clean, high-ceilinged and wood-lined California restaurant with the simple yet elegantly curated Cal-Med food you would expect to come from the Tartine brand. The chef at dinner is Sam Goinsalvos, previously of New York's Il Buco, and the food from excellent crab toasts on Tartine bread, to boldly garnished roasted carrots with Castelvetrano olives, to a beautifully thick ribeye steak that easily serves three people, topped with a pungent black garlic-green walnut steak sauce that is everything A1 should be but never was does double duty as weeknight treat and special occasion splurge. Add to that a carefully curated wine list and some deadly good desserts from Prueitt (the star, by far: a Rocky Road ice cream pie with homemade marshmallows, the whole thing dipped in chocolate, and topped with warm caramel and whipped cream. Jay Barmann
595 Alabama Street at 18th
Photo: Smeeta Mahanti
A Mediterranean restaurant that eschews the standard hummus and falafel while nonetheless emphasizing traditional dishes and cooking, Tawla, which draws its name from the Arabic name for Backgammon, occupies a small new space in the northernmost end of the Valencia corridor. It's quickly drawn the fine dining crowd there, and although the space and service have their flaws, the food is quite special. Eggplant maqluba is a must-order, as is kibbeh niyyeh, raw lamb with pine nuts and mint, and doughy za’atar-dusted bread brings everything together. Tawla is owned by Azhar Hashem, raised in Jordan, previously a Google employee whose career change to restaurateur brought Tawla some early buzz it quickly outgrew when people tried the food. Chef Joseph Magidow, formerly of Delfina, is admittedly a newcomer to the recipes, but Hashem has schooled him well, and he's clearly a quick study with a clear, and fresh, appreciation for the dishes. —Caleb Pershan
206 Valencia Street between Duboce Ave and 14th Street
Photo via Yelp.
WesBurger ‘N’ More
WesBurger ‘N’ More owner Wes Rowe had already built a following through regular pop-ups before he opened his restaurant earlier this year, and his permanent location on Mission Street will not disappoint the long-time faithful or the first-time burger fiend. The interior has a mid-century Palm Springs vibe, with tables in the center complimented by both counter and booth seating. With a focus on four burgers, any of which can be made vegetarian by substituting a house-made veggie patty, Rowe aims to do a few things exceptionally well. His fried chicken burrito and Nashville-style hot chicken are also big hits, as are the various tater-tot sides. The beer on tap (and inexpensive cans) means you can wash everything down with your favorite brew. While the $11.00 price tag on the burgers may have seemed a bit pricey five or six years ago, these days it is positively reasonable for a Mission burger joint. The counter-service staff is incredibly friendly, and the fare is miles beyond late-night drunk food. Once you've tried it, this is one of those places that will become your new go-to. — Jack Morse
2240 Mission Street, Between 18th and 19th
The Corridor, for setting a fine example of "fancy fast casual" or whatever you want to call it, with counter service combined with well-trained servers, and high-quality weeknight delights.
Flores, for bringing some top-notch, homestyle, sit-down Mexican to this stretch of Union Street (in the former Betelnut), with some must-try carnitas.
Finn Town, for giving the Castro a lively and inviting new dining option, complete with some great fried chicken and a solid spin on cioppino.
Ju Ni, which by all accounts and all the great reviews we probably would have liked, if it weren't so difficult to get in.
Little Gem, for offering high-quality, healthy food that's sensitive to a number of dietary restrictions without compromising on flavor or variety.
Nomica, for broadening our local concept of Japanese influenced cuisine, and for that stunning brioche wrapped roasted chicken.
The Perennial, for its ambitious attempt to bring sustainability to a restaurant, and for some delicately designed dishes and top-notch cocktails.
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.