Quick, what did you have for dinner on May 11? I know where I ate, because I still have the receipt. (It was at Khai, the underrated Vietnamese restaurant on Townsend Street in SoMa.) And besides the mystical-seeming deep-water seaweed and the Dungeness-crab-and-matsutake-mushroom sausage that I remember distinctly, I have pics of every dish and plenty of notes. I say this not to tout my organizational prowess — I’m a discombobulated manchild, most of the time — but to underscore the weirdness of year-end lists. You could append one caveat or a hundred to the thought process behind compiling a Top 12 — but above all else, of the hundreds of meals I ate this year for this gig, most fade, and only a few still stand out.
So rather than focus on any single dinner, I’m aiming for a list that I hope encapsulates the best and most-representative new experiences that San Francisco and, to a lesser extent, Oakland have to offer. I’ve been burned at this very task before, but here goes: in no particular order, the 12 best restaurants that opened in 2017.
Jason Franey’s “geek cooking” belies the gorgeous interior of this restored Mid-Market hotel, formerly the Renoir. From the Everything Hawaiian Bread with strawberry chicken liver mousse, to “baby back ribs” that actually come wrapped in phyllo with fish sauce for dipping, it’s clever without sacrificing exuberance and love of the craft. And Villon is just as good for breakfast as it is for dinner. Standout dish: gnudi with pecorino.
In the Proper Hotel, 45 McAllister St., 415-735-7777 or properhotel.com
The subject of an Eater profile on the full costs of opening a restaurant in San Francisco, and the recipient of some ire because of his less-than-formal relationship with Japan, Adam Tortosa knocked one out of the park with Robin, the zenith of omakase dining. A meal here might not end until you want it to, and the components of the individual dishes might never be found in a Tokyo fish market. But this is a particular kind of opulence that resonates with the spirit of the times. Standout dish: Hokkaido scallop with uni.
620 Gough St., 415-548-2429 or robinsanfrancisco.com
I was initially a little skeptical, but China Live has been winning me over on each subsequent visit — especially as the xiaolongbao have improved. George Chen’s massive Chinese Eataly opened this year with dining, retail, and tea, then added an upscale cocktail lounge called Cold Drinks, and later rolled out the tasting menu at Eight Tables. China Live isn’t capitulating to tourist tastes, and any crisis of over-ambition appears to have resolved itself. Standout dish: China Live’s peanutty Chinese half-chicken ($18) and Cold Drinks’ Old Fashioned with strained duck fat.
644 Broadway, 415-788-8188 or chinalive.com
Owing to its saj, or grill, Reem Assil’s Arab bakery in Fruitvale is warm in every sense of the word. There, mana’eesh, or flatbreads are a parade of hits, especially the Pali Cal (a $15 sumac-spiced chicken wrap that almost has a broth inside it). To call it fast-casual is technically true, but Reem’s is unique above all else. Standout dish: the cumin-heavy shakshuka, a Tunisian dish of eggs poached in tomato-and-onion sauce with goat cheese ($12).
3301 East 12th St., Suite 133, Oakland, 510-832-9390 or reemscalifornia.com
Like Leo’s Oyster Bar, Anna Weinberg’s Petit Marlowe is haute Parisian — but grander. (It’s also like The Cavalier, another Big Night property.) Start with a dozen oysters at this SoMa bistro and build from there, making sure to land on smoked duck and deviled eggs. Yes, it’s pricey, but are you the person who puts a dollar amount on having the perfect spot to fall madly in love? Standout dish: the peppery, citrusy, $18 côte de boeuf tartare with porcini mushrooms.
234 Townsend St., 415-923-8577 or petitmarlowesf.com
When it opened, I wrote that Shinmai was Oakland’s best restaurant of 2017 up to that point, and I stand by it. A large izakaya, robata, and ramen spot Uptown, its status is all the more remarkable since chef Vincent Bryan stepped up when the opening chef departed abruptly. Shinmai does almost everything well at a very reasonable price point, including standbys like chicken karaage. Standout dish: a tie between a vegetable ramen with amazing mushroom notes and a gingery, garlicky ribeye with a phenomenal softness.
1825 San Pablo Ave., Oakland, 510-271-1888 or shinmaioakland.com
Let’s start a subcategory of fast-casual called “chef-driven fast-casual” and put RT Rotisserie at the top of the list. The Hayes Valley spinoff of Sarah and Evan Rich’s nearby Rich Table, RT is all about the chicken, with just enough effort expended on secondary items — like a house-made Dutch crunch — to keep it nimble and worthy of repeat visits. Hey chefs, more like this, please. Standout dish: the RT salad with porchetta, a $13 wonder with furikake, cotija, radishes, pickled onions, cotija, and herbs.
101 Oak St., 415-829-7086 or rtrotisserie.com
Finally, excellent Portuguese food in S.F.! Telmo Faria’s romantic Noe Valley stunner — it used to be Incanto — has a modest name (it means “a house”) and a modest way of extracting perfection from things that seem ordinary. Even the little accents are notable, like bread with two butters. Try the creamy pasteis de bacalhau, or salt cod fritters that blow regular crabcakes out of the water. Uma Casa is also notable for what it is not: yet another house of small plates. You might even call it romantic. Standout dish: the $28 caldeirada, a seafood stew that’s heavy on saffron.
1550 Church St., 415-829-2264 or umacasarestaurant.com
Chef Khai Duong may work the room himself as this surprisingly down-to-earth SoMa Vietnamese spot with two seatings nightly. While the nine-course tasting menu with wine pairing has increased in price to $180 (from $145 in May), it’s still a comparable bargain to hear anecdotes from a chef with a storied history. He ran Ana Mandara until rent hikes spurred him to return to his native Vietnam for inspiration. Standout dish: Black cod in a fish sauce over noodles with green onions and peanuts over noodles, a re-creation of a dish from Hanoi a restaurant has served daily for almost 150 years.
655 Townsend St., 415-724-2325 or chefkhai.com
Whither the mid-tier neighborhood spot, but this grill-centric Peruvian spot with Japanese inflections in the former La Parrilla at 24th and Folsom streets is a bullseye in a category that’s otherwise emptying out. Friendly staff, cocktails you’d never guess were low-ABV, and Peruvian classics like arroz chaufa — an elevated fried rice — fill the space. Standout dish: Avoid the lomo saltado and go for the ceviches, particularly the ceviche Nikkei, a poke-esque $13 sensation made with tiger milk.
2801 Folsom St., 415-341-0389 or almacocinasf.com
There’s no shortage of Cajun-Creole or otherwise Southern dining to be had these days, even if you focus only on the Mission. But Alba Ray’s is memorable for its wrought-iron interior, its voodoo-doll check presenters, and its slow-burning chicken-and-andouille gumbo — to say nothing about excellent wines by the glass and alluring boudin balls. Get thee hence before Lent, sinner. Standout dish: rabbit sausage over grits, an adventurous version of a Louisiana staple.
2293 Mission St., 415-872-9409 or albarays.com
A toast to hedonism, Robin Song’s fire-centric restaurant in Union Square’s Hotel Bijou is both long-awaited and well-executed. It does heavy lifting in restoring hotel restaurants to their proper level of glamor with cocktails like the the buttery Leather Manhattan and which-century-is-this treats like a bone marrow flan with lobster. Standout dish: clams in hay, a chowder of sorts with lardo, herbs, and potatoes.
Inside the Hotel Bijou, 111 Mason St., 415-771-1200 or hotelbijou.com/gibson