Food & Drink

The 15 Greatest Restaurants in Palo Alto

Published On 05/20/2016 Published On 05/20/2016

Best Cuban food (and cigars): La Bodeguita del Medio

Evergreen Park
Hemingway probably would’ve loved this Latin and Caribbean restaurant on Cal Ave, named for the Havana bar he frequented -- you know, the one that (falsely) claims to have invented the mojito. Cigar enthusiasts light it up in the back patio, while rum lovers sip from the bar’s extensive collection, and the rest of us simply enjoy a sweet-tart Hemingway daiquiri and munch on a perfect Cubano sandwich.

Terun

Best pizza: Terun

Evergreen Park
Terun sets the bar for wood-fired pizza, and is arguably the best Italian restaurant in a city that seemingly has more Italian restaurants than Sorrento itself. From the exquisite falafel-like eggplant polpette to picture-perfect cannoli, the dolce vita is here. Really, just look at how al dente the chitarrine is, or how local Italian expats visit for a pre-dinner Americano and animatedly discuss who Berlusconi slept with last week.

Best Mexican: Palo Alto Sol 

Evergreen Park
For elevated mole poblano-drenched chicken, a definitive chile relleno, and killer shrimp enchiladas, this Cal Ave favorite is all you need to know. If that's not enough, know that there are also picture-perfect margaritas and guac on deck here. If that's not enough, know that Mark Zuckerberg (supposedly) loved this place when his company was headquartered nearby. That's gotta be enough, right?

Flickr/Kris Vera-Phillips

Best sushi: Homma's Brown Rice Sushi

Evergreen Park
Bring cash (no credit cards) and along with your raw fish appetite for the city’s premier sushi experience, which uses soft, nutty kernels of brown rice for its rolls. Nobu is apparently coming to Palo Alto soon, but Homma’s has owned the high-quality, no-frills (plastic tables, no website... ) sushi scene for three decades now.

VAM Asian Fusion Restaurant

Best unusual cuisine mashup: Valencia Asian Market

Barron Park/El Camino Real
Tacos, build-your-own salads, and Chinese barbecued pork: all some of our favorite things, and all available under one roof at this family-run cafe/marketplace on an otherwise unremarkable stretch of El Camino. The fact that you can have both a massaman curry, cotton candy, and an al pastor burrito at the same location means it's basically impossible to not fall in love with this place. Seriously, those homemade tortillas steal the show and make you wonder why everyone else doesn't do the same.

Best falafel: Mediterranean Wraps

Evergreen Park
Quick: who makes the best falafel in the whole Bay Area? You got it, this narrow Cal Ave space. You’ll be tempted by the glistening lamb-beef shawarma, and there is nothing wrong with going that meaty direction, but that parsley and green onion-stained falafel is one of the great dishes of Palo Alto. It's the real deal. Pro tip: grab the Turkish cappuccino from Zombie Runner, the café/running gear shop next door, and sit outside at the sidewalk tables with your falafel wrap.

Flickr/Johnn

Best contemporary Vietnamese: Tamarine

Downtown
Remember when Zibibbo and Spago were the main players on the Downtown Palo Alto dining scene? Back before Facebook even started in our lovely town? Yep, we’re looking at 2002, where Tamarine opened within days of when the Giants broke our hearts in the World Series and the economy was in the tank. Thirteen restaurant years is basically like 130 human years, and the contemporary Vietnamese favorites (shaking beef) and new ideas (grilled rice cakes with pork and dried seaweed) are as vibrant and refined at Tamarine today, as back then. Zibibbo and Spago? Long gone. Tamarine’s gorgeous art on the walls and crab and garlic noodles are here to stay.

Vino Locale

Best wine bar with real food: Vino Locale

Downtown
Palo Alto’s handful of wine bar/restaurants suffer not from the Goldilocks mindset: one has formulaic wines, one is way too expensive... etc. This little Downtown-area cottage (with a spectacular patio) fits just right, however, with legit California wines to match the sunny California mindset. The more substantial food can be iffy, but solid offerings like the bison meatballs and mushroom tart mean you’re not just in cheese and charcuterie territory.

Best bagels (and deli): Izzy's Brooklyn Bagels

Evergreen Park
For two decades, Palo Alto has been spoiled by bagels that could make the most resolute Brooklynite realize it's not all about the water. It's all about the smoked whitefish salad on rye pumpernickel. It’s all about the thick, pleasantly salty wild lox with sun-dried tomato cream cheese on a whole wheat sesame. In short, it’s all about Izzy's.

Zola

Best French: Zola

Downtown
There's classic French cooking like you’ll find at a handful of spots around the Palo Alto area (think: butter, croque monsieur, duck à l’orange), and then there's the kind of inspired, seasonal French cooking on offer at Zola. “Escargot butter” pairs with roasted mushrooms without a snail in sight (but tons of garlic); the beef bourguignon is elevated with delicately tender short ribs and the addition of bread crumbs; and the charred brassicas with golden raisins and curry spice are inspired from nowhere near Avignon or Lyon. It’s fun French food, basically.

Bonus: Zola's wine list might be the sharpest affordable option in the city.

Bird Dog

Best restaurant that belongs in SF: BirdDog

Downtown
Downtown’s splashiest opening in years arrived late in 2015, when this California cuisine destination with exciting Asian ingredients and techniques opened its doors. The food is captivating (fried chicken thighs with an uni-egg yolk dipping sauce, bright and gorgeous ceviche, and raw fish preparations), and the setting is simultaneously suave and whimsical -- think slick black seating, with wooden ducks dangling from the ceiling.

Flickr/Benjamin Listwon

Best Greek: Evvia

Downtown
Evvia is the younger sibling of San Francisco’s beloved Greek institution, Kokkari, and honestly, it's just as good. The retsina and ouzo are poured with gusto here, the lemon and oregano-kissed octopus is unmatched, and the Baklava's the perfect way to finish your meal.

Pro tip: it's hard (even by SF standards) to get a primetime reservation here any night of the week, so head to the back of the restaurant and try to snag a seat at the hidden bar there.

Best example of seasonal California cooking: Bistro Elan

Evergreen Park
Whether for that all-important third date or a dinner discussion on the theory of relativity, this is Palo Alto's go-to for simple, California-meets-France cooking -- our Zuni Cafe, in other words. The menu only has about 10 items, half of which seem to be salads, while the other half includes a scallops entree and robust meats like the superb version of duck confit. 

So, you ask, is the restaurant called Birch Street or Bistro Elan? It's BOTH (seriously, look at the online menu): a few years ago, Bistro Elan moved from Cal Ave to a side street called, yes, Birch St, and it's gone by both ever since. The name might be confusing, but the food definitely isn't.

Flickr/Jun Seita

Best wallet-bursting molecular gastronomy: Baumé

Evergreen Park
Just a block down from Palo Alto’s beloved (and only?) dive bar, Antonio's Nut House, sits one of the priciest meals in the entire Bay Area. The atmosphere here is Buddhist-tranquil and resolutely stoic, while the menu blends the "foams and spheres" theatricality of molecular gastronomy with the disciplined luxury of French cuisine. The tasting menu is seasonal, and while the price will vary by the ingredients, you'll ultimately have to decide whether or not to use part of your Series A funding to pay the bill.

Oren's Hummus Shop

Best Middle Eastern: Oren's Hummus Shop

Downtown
Yes, everyone knows about this consistently Middle Eastern spot on University Ave, as evidenced by the fact that it's consistently packed. Here's the thing, though: the hummus is truly legit, to the point that San Franciscans (this writer included) buy hummus here because nothing can match its quality for miles around. Also, you don’t HAVE to get hummus -- the couscous and shakshuka are also worth the inevitable wait. You should still get the hummus, though.

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1. La Bodeguita del Medio 463 S California Ave, Palo Alto, CA 94306

Named after the infamous Havana bar frequented by Hemingway, this Palo Alto restaurant serves up Cuban food and drink. The menu is heavy on fresh seafood and tender meats, and you can expect familiar items like sweet plantains, fried yuca, and a classic Cubano sandwich. Cigar enthusiasts light it up on the back patio, while rum fans sip through the bar's rum tasting boards.

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2. TerĂąn Pizzeria 448 S California Ave, Palo Alto, CA 94306

Terun in Evergreen Park sets the bar for wood-fired pizza, and is arguably the best Italian restaurant in a city that seemingly has more Italian restaurants than Sorrento itself. Homemade pasta, Southern Italian entrees and great wine round out the menu. The space is small so be sure to make reservations, especially if you want to enjoy the weather by eating outside.

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3. Palo Alto Sol 408 S California Ave, Palo Alto, CA 94306

This colorful cantina in Evergreen Park serves up traditional Puebla cuisine, from chile relleno to enchiladas. There are also perfectly made margaritas and guacamole, which are best enjoyed on the outdoor patio. All patrons get complimentary chips and salsa trios, which make for a comfortable and tasty food wait when this popular place gets packed.

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4. Homma's Brown Rice Sushi 2363 Birch St, Palo Alto, CA 94306

This tiny, bare-bones hole in the wall in Evergreen Park has been serving high-quality, no-frills sushi for three decades. They use soft, nutty kernels of brown rice in a perfect ratio with the raw fish for their rolls. You can get salads and other Japanese fare as well, but sushi is really what you're coming for. Be sure to have cash and, since good things take time, call in your order ahead of time to avoid a wait.

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5. Valencia Asian Market 3487 El Camino Real, Palo Alto, CA 94306

Tacos, build-your-own salads, and Chinese barbecued pork: all some of our favorite things, and all available under one roof at this family-run cafe/marketplace on an otherwise unremarkable stretch of El Camino. The fact that you can have a massaman curry, cotton candy, and an al pastor burrito at the same location means it's basically impossible to not fall in love with this place. Seriously, those homemade tortillas steal the show and make you wonder why everyone else doesn't do the same.

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6. Mediterranean Wraps 425 S California Ave, Palo Alto, CA 94306

This narrow Evergreen Park space makes arguably some of the best falafel in the whole Bay Area. You’ll be tempted by the glistening lamb-beef shawarma, and there is nothing wrong with going that meaty direction, but that parsley and green onion-stained falafel is what this place is known for. The interior is small, so we recommend taking your eats outside to the sun-soaked picnic tables.

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7. Tamarine Restaurant 546 University Ave, Palo Alto, CA 94301

Go for creative takes on traditional Vietnamese and Asian fusion fare at Tamarine, a refined bistro spot in the heart of downtown Palo Alto. Bright, citrus-y flavors set the tone for the menu and make dishes like big eye tuna crudo and tempura oysters must-orders. Upscale and private, it's good choice for business wine-ing and dining.

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8. Vino Locale 431 Kipling St, Palo Alto, CA 94301

This quaint bistro, art gallery, and wine bar is so cozy, you'll want to settle in and stay awhile. Set up in a refurbished Victorian townhouse, the vibe is welcoming and low-key (check out the cute outdoor garden!). Sample wines from local Napa Valley producers while checking out weekly live music or gallery exhibitions. Daily happy hour deals are generous and include $3 off all small plates.

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9. Izzy's Brooklyn Bagels 477 S California Ave, Palo Alto, CA 94306

Who would have thought there'd be worthy New York Style bagels this far out of the Big Apple? Enter Izzy's Brooklyn Bagels, a reputable contender for the title of the Bay Area's best bagel spot. This no-nonsense neighborhood cafe doles out everything from seasame to sea salt, from bacon egg and cheese, to "lox with schmear." Other deli items (sandwiches, soups, and fresh baked pastries) are available, as well as fresh roasted coffee and espresso.

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10. Zola 565 Bryant St, Palo Alto, CA 94301

Ducking into this this darkly lit, romantic bistro feels like stepping into another world. The menu of seasonal French fare is decidedly more Provence than Palo Alto. "Plats de resistance" like short rib Bourguignon, flounder Beurre Blanc, and steak frites play with classic examples of French cooking in a modern, yet approachable manner, but Zola's commitment to sustainably harvested produce and meat draws in the Cali crowd.

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11. Bird Dog 420 Ramona St, Palo Alto, CA 94301

This Californian cuisine destination uses unique techniques and occasional Asian ingredients to bring fun fusion food to Downtown Palo Alto. The atmosphere is simultaneously suave and whimsical - think slick black seating and hand-blow glass light fixtures with wooden ducks dangling from the ceiling. Everything from the food to the craft cocktails is excellent, so be sure to make a reservation, especially on the weekends when you should be calling weeks in advance for a table.

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12. Evvia 420 Emerson St, Palo Alto, CA 94301

Evvia in Downtown Palo Alto is the younger sibling of San Francisco’s beloved Greek institution, Kokkari, and honestly, it's just as good. The retsina and ouzo are poured with gusto here, the entrees (think fresh whole fish and tender grilled lamb chops) are unmatched, and the Baklava's the perfect way to finish your meal. It's hard (even by SF standards) to get a primetime reservation here any night of the week, so head to the back of the restaurant and try to snag a seat at the hidden bar there.

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13. Bistro Elan 2363 Birch St, Palo Alto, CA 94306

This Evergreen Park venue is Palo Alto's go-to for simple, California-meets-France cooking. The menu only has about 10 items, half of which are generally salads, while the other half includes a strong selection of hearty fish and meat entrees. The restaurant is actually referred to both as Birch Street and Bistro Elan: a few years ago, Bistro Elan moved from Cal Ave to a side street called, yes, Birch St, and it's gone by both ever since. The name might be confusing, but the food definitely isn't. The space itself is small and casual, with marble-topped bistro tables, black wooden chairs and a service counter that lets you peer into the kitchen.

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14. Baume 201 S. California Ave, Palo Alto, CA 94306 (South Bay)

From Michelin-starred chef Bruno Chemel who earned his bona fides at Chez TJ, the chic and sophisticated Maison Baume scores with its luxe fine dining fare. Named after a crazy French chemist, Baume eschews the a la carte menu and goes tasting only-- dishes are usually experimental, playful takes on the greats of French cuisine. This is the kind of place where you want to go all out.

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15. Oren's Hummus Shop 261 University Ave, Palo Alto, CA 94301

The Palo Alto outpost of this East Bay hummus and falafel mini-chain boasts an extensive menu for dine-in or take-out. The casual, counter service joint serves Israeli favorites like shakshuka and couscous salads, in addition to a solid round-up of pita sandwiches, grilled meat skewers, and vegetable sides. Using ingredients directly imported from the Middle East, dishes are fresh and authentic.