It's seemingly been a struggle for the Chronicle food department and restaurant critic Soleil Ho in assuming the albatross of Michael Bauer's Top 100 list ever since Bauer retired and Ho took his place. And now, a decision has been made to scrap it in favor of a more dynamic, briefer list.
Bauer himself was fond of discussing the burdens of the Top 100, a popular and annually updated list covering the entire Bay Area that he first created in the early 1990s, and for which he spent a good part of his year doing research via revisits to old favorite restaurants and newly added ones of recent years alike. In addition to having to jettison classic Bay Area staples in favor of newcomers, Bauer ultimately complained of the arbitrariness of the 100-restaurant limit that was his own creation, especially as the Bay Area food scene truly came into its own in the early part of the 2010s.
Critics of Bauer's taste were quick to point out the lack of diversity in his list as well — the Top 100 tended to favor splashy, pricier restaurants, especially those in a Cal-Mediterranean vein, while family-run and smaller ethnic food spots were not generally in consideration. Bauer tried in his last years in the job to remedy this, but only by throwing La Taqueria on there, and a few other places. But dining out for him typically meant a nice sit-down dinner with cocktails or wine, and that's what the list reflected.
For the 2019 Top 100, which came quickly after Ho assumed critic's duties for the paper in January that year, Ho made some equivocations for the changes made saying things like "this list exists in dialogue with the ones that came before" and "I wanted to take a moment to really think about what 'top' means." The notably more diverse list was the work of at least seven critics and took pains to include nearly every type of cuisine available around the Bay. This was at the expense of former Top 100 mainstays like Frances, Boulevard, and others, but it was all in the name of shaking things up and creating a list that was "fresh, challenging and reflective of the way we eat now," Ho wrote.
2020 presented its own challenges, most obviously the fact that some restaurants closed permanently and no restaurants were operating as they normally would for much of the year. While some had pivoted to takeout or outdoor dining, with a limited window of indoor eating in the fall, others had simply gone dormant without actually closing.
The Chronicle responded with a Top 88, as a gesture to the 12 restaurants that might otherwise have been included.
But now, just a few months later, it's January. Outdoor dining remains prohibited in San Francisco as COVID-19 hospitalizations hit new highs. And the Chronicle has unveiled, sort of confusingly, a Top 25. It's like, they know that people like lists, but they don't want to be stuck with Bauer's 100-restaurant monster anymore, and they also want to reserve the right to change their minds.
So, this Top 25 is less of a "best of the Bay" list as it is a "here's what's trending" combined with "where we're eating now." It's meant to be updated quarterly, so there's a chance that half of the spots won't be on there in the next update, and it seems like it is less driven by one critic's opinion of excellence, and more of a broad brush for places worth traveling to or splurging at. Essentially, it's the Eater 38, less 13 restaurants, and that seems kind of lame and lazy given that the Bay Area has tens of thousands of restaurants and Eater's list only has to cover San Francisco.
Thus, on the Chronicle's Top 25, there are only 10 restaurants in San Francisco, and most with Michelin stars etc. have not earned mention.
Also, with the added burden of being very diverse in terms of cuisine, this is one of the oddest and most eclectic collections of restaurants you are likely to see, ranging from a Fruitvale District taqueria to the Michelin three-starred SingleThread in Healdsburg.
Is this list useful? You be the judge.
Here's what made the cut in this inaugural Chronicle Top 25 — and note that not all these places are even open right now...
Daeho Kalbijjim & Beef Soup
El Garage (Richmond)
El [email protected] (Oakland)
Ettan (Palo Alto)
Hết sẩy (San Jose)
Horn Barbecue (Oakland)
House of Prime Rib
Juanita & Maude (Albany)
Lion Dance Cafe (Oakland)
Los Carnalitos La Mejor Comida Chilanga (Hayward)
Pollara Pizzeria (Berkeley)
Red Chillies (Milpitas)
Swan Oyster Depot
Yubu by the Shota
Zareen's (Palo Alto)
P.S. - Soleil Ho has also released a Top Pizza list, but Little Star is nowhere to be found, so...
Photo courtesy of Horn Barbecue