The Best Restaurants of 2016

Or, rather, the 14 best dining and drinking experiences I had in San Francisco this year.

The Mama Salad at Brasserie St. James (Fielding Cathcart)

Although I occasionally suffer from Catholic guilt over getting paid to eat and drink to excess, the holidays are a great time to eat and drink even more, thus smothering my conscience like melted cheese on an appe-teaser at an exurban mega-chain. I’m also afflicted with the specific type of anxiety that makes me want to append asterisks and qualifications to every list as a pre-buttal against criticism, but suffice it to say that this roster captures my (totally subjective) favorite overall experiences, as opposed to the best single dishes or meals.

So if “Best of 2016” isn’t a complete contradiction in terms, these are — in no particular order — the standouts in what was otherwise a ghastly year. Happy 2017, everyone!

Kalbi loco moco at 'Aina (Peter Lawrence Kane)
Kalbi loco moco at ‘Aina (Peter Lawrence Kane)

‘Aina
900 22nd St.

It was a pop-up, then it was open only for lunch, and now it’s a genuine It-restaurant in the Dogpatch, but ‘aina elevates Hawaiian food far beyond its scoop-of-rice-with-SPAM reputation. Be it the loco moco or the shoyu-cured beef pipikaula, Big Island native Jordan Keao labors to make every dish’s individual components — many sourced from the Aloha State — distinct. His guava-custard-filled malasadas (Portuguese doughnuts) are going to be very famous someday.

Brasserie St. James
742 Valencia St.

Although I’ve heard sharply different opinions on this place, I think this gastropub-microbrewery and Reno import is pitch-perfect. Valencia has become an increasingly challenging place for restaurants to open, but Brasserie St. James’ convivial atmosphere nails it — plus the meaty, offal-heavy dishes (like the Callos de Santiago and boudin noir) mesh perfectly with craft beer, such as the eminently drinkable farmhouse ale, Red-headed Stranger.

Leo’s Oyster Bar
568 Sacramento St.

Perpetually packed with people who earn a lot more than I, Leo’s is exactly the kind of stylish, adult post-speakeasy that I wish S.F. had more of. It’s highly art directed, the bar looks semi-precious, and the staff’s neckties match the plants — because, why not? Champagne and oysters are the way to go, but if you want to feel as glamorous as Blanche Devereaux on the lanai, get a Mr. Nicholas’ Liquid Lunch (a vodka martini laden with a side of vegetables).

Fiorella
2339 Clement St.

You’ve probably got to have a love of crust, but this Richmond newcomer’s mosaic-lined oven serves the best pizza in the western half of San Francisco. It’s got a solid menu that’s gradually expanded, a lovely patio, Bay Area-themed wallpaper, and it will probably always be more of a neighborhood restaurant than anything, but Fiorella does exactly what it sets out to achieve.

Saap Ver
88 Division St.

I’ve had some weak dishes, but the more I go here, the more I love Saap Ver’s over-the-top ethos, full of rice-field salted crab, eggy pad thai hor kai, and pork larb. Unless you’re going super-high-end, Thai restaurants that escape the takeout-joint-that-looks-like-a-day-spa vibe are rare. But Saap Ver, a maximally colorful restaurant decked out with images of vintage Thai film stars, does it. It’s a food-centric place to party.

Volta (closed)
868 Mission St.

I know, I know: It’s gone. And technically it opened at the very tail end of 2015, too. But this Franco-Scandinavian restaurant was one of my favorites, all the same. Chef Steffan Terje, who, along with Umberto Gibin, also runs Perbacco and Barbacco, put out mushroom toast, Jansson’s Frestelse, and herring five ways that I could eat forever. It’s easy to armchair-quarterback the reasons why Volta failed to catch on — like, maybe a fine-dining establishment in a former ‘Wichcraft behind a mall wasn’t going to generate sufficient traffic to pay the bills. But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t a beautifully thought-out concept. R.I.P., Volta, the saddest closure of 2016.

Mister Jiu’s
28 Waverly Place

Three-and-a-half years in the making, Brandon Jew’s playful, upscale Chinese restaurant has tinkered with its menu since opening in the spring, but it’s that sense of endless refinement that vaults it among the best openings of the year. From the tea-smoked quail egg to cheong fun to the use of pork floss in the BBQ pork buns, Mister Jiu’s updates the Chinese banquet beautifully.

Celeriac and goat cheese profiteroles, at In Situ (Peter Lawrence Kane)
Celeriac and goat cheese profiteroles, at In Situ (Peter Lawrence Kane)

In Situ
151 Third St. (inside SFMOMA)

To get it out of the way: This is San Francsico’s best, most audacious new restaurant, period. Corey Lee scavenged the earth for 80 dishes from chefs worldwide to create a Greatest Hits of Earth Cuisine, and the result is a riot of flavors and textures that may occasionally favor technical brilliance over sensual enjoyment but always impresses. And it’s a stunning interior. Don’t feel like paying $38 for soup? Go for the much cheaper lunch in the cafe section instead.

Old Devil Moon
3472 Mission St.

New Orleans will always be the best food city in America, and this Bernal Heights bar — the only one in the country owned by three cicerones — is an arch-gothic testament to po’ boys, craft cocktails, and craft beer. With a Tarot reader on staff and a custom-made draft system for optimum pours, this is place to jeopardize your soul over Oysters Rockefeller. Hail, Dark Lord: This is my favorite new bar of the year.

Nightbird
330 Gough St.

The priciest dinner I ate this year, Kim Alter’s Michelin-baiting Nightbird is a wonder. She’s put in time at half a dozen of the Bay Area’s most revered kitchens, and her owl-heavy solo project effortlessly inventive, its tasting menu studded with dishes like “Variations of corn” (corn pudding, huitlacoche, charred baby corn, and popcorn) that are paired with a string of marvelous wines.

Bellota
888 Brannan St.

Confession: I could eat Vietnamese food and Spanish food every day for the rest of my life. Serving the latter better than almost every other tapas restaurant is Bellota, a mega-restaurant on the ground floor of Airbnb headquarters. Except it’s much more than a tapas place, with extraordinary paellas and a chorizo-and-morcilla-based bean stew called a Fabada that was among the very best dishes I ate all year.

Sandwiches and pastries at Tartine Manufactory (Peter Lawrence Kane)
Sandwiches and pastries at Tartine Manufactory (Peter Lawrence Kane)

Tartine Manufactory
595 Alabama St.

Bread and wine and sandwiches and brunch and dinner and ice cream and everything else you might want, an a haute-industrial space. That’s Chad Robertson and Liz Prueitt’s Tartine Manufactory, which in spite of being a working bakery remains a comfy place to sit and eat even as the sun streams through the windows. It’s made to wow, which can get one’s guard up, but in the end: Wow.

Fénix
1077 Mission St.

The follow-up to TBD, Matt Liberman’s SoMa Mexican restaurant Fénix is a place to eat yourself into a state of near-catatonia on oxtail sopes, chicken tinga, pork shank, and four different sangrias. The format is simple and brilliant: Every big dish comes with a ton of little sides, Korean banchan-style. Oh, and the tortilla warmers are patterned with lucha libre fighters.

Tawla
206 Valencia St.

California by way of the Eastern Mediterranean, Valencia’s other wonderful newcomer goes deep into the various cuisines of that region. High-acid musaka, the heavily spiced raw lamb sirloin patty called kibbeh niyyeh, and a preparation of lamb for four people — everything here is worth trying, and it’s more of a date spot than its peers.

 

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