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Best Cuban food (and cigars): La Bodeguita del Medio
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.
Best pizza: Terun
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
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?
Best sushi: Homma's Brown Rice Sushi
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.
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
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.
Best contemporary Vietnamese: Tamarine
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.
Best wine bar with real food: Vino Locale
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
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.
Best French: Zola
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.
Best restaurant that belongs in SF: BirdDog
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.
Best Greek: Evvia
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
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.
Best wallet-bursting molecular gastronomy: Baumé
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.
Best Middle Eastern: Oren's Hummus Shop
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.