Because the pandemic didn't dissipate as many experts told us it would, the last two years have felt like pretty much the same long, repetitive year. Sure, San Francisco felt more open and alive in 2022 — most of the year anyway — than it did in 2021. Life went back to near-normal and new restaurants started opening again. But it's still been like a bizarre sort of Groundhog Day with new variants changing the picture and resetting the clock every few months, especially for those who remain cautious.
And, because there wasn't the usual, annual round of year-end best-of lists last December, with the world still barely emerging from a pandemic — and with Omicron rearing its ugly head — it feels appropriate now to just do a list rounding up both 2021 and 2022, as far the local food scene goes.
So, below are SFist's favorite restaurant openings of the last two years, because last year barely counted.
Former Lazy Bear chef Matthew Kirk's neighborhood spot in NoPa — which isn't too similar to an old-timey automat except that it's open all day and serves crave-able treats — was perhaps the best publicized opening of the pandemic era. First word about the project appeared on January 2, 2020 in Vogue, of all places, but then people just kept trying to get updates right through the November 2021 soft opening — which was so mobbed they had to close again for a week to regroup. The now established restaurant is great for breakfast — the breakfast sandwich alone, gah! — an indulgent lunch, or a casual dinner with Michelin-level touches. Pro tip: the crispy beef taco on the kid's menu can be ordered sans kid.
1801 McAllister Street at Baker
One of the most fun and delightful restaurants to debut the last two years, Ernest is as great as it is because it feels personal, and specific to San Francisco. Conceived by former Rich Table chef de cuisine Brandon Rice, Ernest has featured dishes at times that have a touch of Rich Table DNA — an early dish of lo mein "carbonara" with smoky sea urchin was one such standout. But Rice has put his stamp on this seafood-heavy, eclectic menu in many ways, with every dish feeling like a favorite indulgence from a chef's day off. Go for the caviar served with tater tots; stay for rotating delights like BBQ oysters and pork neck char siu.
1890 Bryant Street, enter at Florida and Mariposa
Take the elegance and inventiveness of the omakase experience at Ju-Ni, and simplify it into quick and easy handrolls that you pick up and eat in two bites. That is the concept behind Handroll Project, which debuted in May 2022 to immediate waitlists. Ju-Ni chef Geoffrey Lee has brought some of the products and combinations you'd find at Ju-Ni — like heavenly, melt-in-your mouth nori, and frozen shaved monkfish liver served over salmon roe — and they're available here in a quick and casual setting. And while not cheap — the full 10-roll menu can be enjoyed for $95, or you can snack on few rolls a la carte — it's a cheaper date that many omakase experiences, and still tastes and feels like high-end sushi.
598 Guerrero Street at 18th
Chefs David Fisher and Serena Chow Fisher deserve kudos not just for opening in the middle of a pandemic and making it work, but also for doing so at such a level that they got a Michelin star right out of the gate. Training at New York City's Pearl & Ash (David) and Eleven Madison Park (Serena) readied them for success, but its the originality and delicacy of the cooking — from sublime crudos and heavenly pastas to intricately plated meats and fish — that makes this place special. Also, it's a low-key splurge opportunity every time, with add-ons like truffles ad A5 Wagyu on offer.
300 Precita Avenue
While the city is awash in luxe omakase experiences these days, Chef David Yoshimura decided for his first solo effort to highlight the soulful, warming, traditional cuisine of Japanese known as washoku. And the bet paid off with a Michelin star this year. The tasting menu at Nisei is a journey through rustic flavors, focused through a high-end lens — akin to the way that Californios, where Yoshimura last worked, distills and tweaks Mexican flavors. Standouts on a recent menu included a deeply satisfying terrapin (turtle) stew, and a twist on Japanese curry with squab. And don't miss out on the divine cocktails being made in their next-door bar, Bar Iris.
2316 Polk Street
Chef Seth Stowaway's whimsical and soulful menus, cooked entirely with live fire in the center of the restaurant, feel as personal as they come — even the restaurant bears his nickname, which means "little bear." Since opening, Stowaway has highlighted the Pacific coast, and his own childhood with his seasonal menus, with nods to the Texas barbecue of his youth — but he elevated braised brisket with mussel BBQ sauce. And at Liliana, his team is putting out delicious food to go with cocktails as well, including sausages and charcuterie made with meats Osito doesn't use. The two restaurants, side-by-side in an ever-upscaling section of Mission/Potrero, feel oddly like they've been there forever, which is to say they are a great and welcome fit on the scene.
2875 18th Street
For a city with such a wealth of Mexican cuisines, opportunities for sit-down, non-burrito meals with excellent, carefully made food are few and far between. The Lower Haight's Otra, which debuted in early vaccine days of April 2021, brings just that, and it's a welcome addition to the neighborhood. Chef Nick Cobarruvias serves up house-made blue corn tortillas, delicious pork meatballs in hoja santa-mole verde, charred cabbage dressed with smoked bone marrow, several terrific vegetarian tostadas and tacos, and some of the best al pastor pork in the city. Also, the cocktail game here is strong, and the brunch is bomb.
682 Haight Street
Outta Sight Pizza
Born out of a pandemic pop-up at Hayes Valley wine bar Fig & Thistle, Chef Eric Ehler's love letter to pizza is now a brick-and-mortar business — in addition to still being an evening pop-up. Ehler's Outta Sight Slice Shop opened on a slightly dicey stretch of Larkin Street over the summer, and it's operating under limited lunch and dinner hours (11 to 2 and 4 to 6, weekdays only), but it affords you the opportunity to try things like his #50 — with aged mozzarella, Hobb's ham, pineapple, and oregano — and the Lunch Lady square pie, with vodka sauce and both fresh and dry mozzarella. You still need to go to Fig & Thistle if you want his excellent ode to Olive Garden breadsticks and scampi, the Orchard — which is one of the best mushroom pies you're likely to taste.
Slice Shop at 422 Larkin Street; Fig & Thistle pop-up, Tues-Sat, at 429 Gough Street
Chef John Paul Carmona, who cut his teeth in the kitchen at Manresa alongside co-owner and pastry goddess Belinda Leong, turns out delicious, deeply flavorful French bistro fare at this homage to French roadside restaurants — known as routiers. At $60, the nightly three-course formule, or prix fixe, is an excellent deal. And it's a neighborhood restaurant at the edge of Pacific Heights that you'll want to come back to again and again for seasonal specials like the lobster grand aioli, and Dungeness crab pavé.
2801 California Street at Divisadero
San Ho Won
No one likely doubted that chef-owner Corey Lee (Benu) and chef Jeong-In Hwang would hit it out of the park with their take on Korean BBQ. And while you can't do the grilling yourself here, San Ho Won offers a stunner of a meat extravaganza along with unique dishes like a Mission District-inspired mashup of pozole and kimchi jjigae with pork belly. Also, the banchan are on point, and you can't go wrong with the House Menu ($98 per person), highlighting some of the best items in the restaurant.
2170 Bryant Street
For weeknight cocktails and snacks, or an indulgent pasta feast, Sorella is a most welcome addition to Upper Polk. As SFist noted earlier this year, this sister restaurant to Acquerello, led by chef de cuisine Denise St. Onge, plates of Michelin-level pasta in a casual setting, in addition to Venetian style cocktail food on a separate cicchetti menu, like cacio e pepe potato chips and top-notch anchovy toast. The Negroni variations are all worth a try, and do not miss out on the intensely good dry-aged beef timballo — a sort-of lasagna that is anything but grandma-style.
1760 Polk Street
Chef Dennis Lee's pandemic project became sourdough pizza — which he first began delivering under the name Sunset Squares, via an Instagram account, without letting anyone know he was behind it. And oh, what a pizza it is. With topping combos like the Bulldog — an ode to an okonomiyaki pancake, with grass-fed bulgogi beef, kimchee, Kewpie mayo, Bull-dog tonkatsu sauce, scallions, and bonito flakes — this place is both stoner heaven and SF's best new Detroit-style pizza shop, even if it's not straight-up Detroit-style.
59 9th Street; slice shop at 553 Divisadero