Dreading the Holidays? You Need This Cranberry Sauce Margarita.
What to get: Chef's tasting menu or pan-seared sea bass and creamy yogurt kebab
Located in the middle of a parking lot between a home-goods store and a women’s clothing shop, this modern Indian restaurant in a 1906 Victorian house is one of the most unique restaurants in the Bay Area. The intimate dining room spans the entire downstairs, but it only fits a few tables. The spot is owned by Shoshana Wolff and her husband, Chef Sachin Chopra, and their interpretation of Indian fine dining includes dishes like a “Not Your Mama’s Aloo Gobi” cauliflower course and duck breast with sunchoke espuma (and huckleberries!).
What to get: The eight-course tasting menu
Everything you’ve heard about the Peninsula’s most expensive restaurant is true. It’s going to cost you some serious green... unless your startup just got a Series B round of funding. The food is elaborate (think scallop mousse topped with uni and dehydrated black trumpet mushrooms). Baumé is quiet and contemplative, some may even describe the atmosphere as boring. The food, however, is relentlessly innovative. Save up and go to town if you can.
What to get: Wood-grilled avocado; fried chicken thigh; any crudo or sashimi
They said you can’t eat just avocado for dinner. They were wrong. The signature wood-grilled avocado at Bird Dog is good enough that you won’t share -- and you may even find yourself eating more than one serving. But looking past the avocado, you’ll find intriguing cocktails and a well-curated new school wine, plus dishes like duck, pumpkin, and banana, or a fried chicken thigh paired with an uni and egg yolk dipping sauce. And best of all, amidst a stunning chic and almost all-black Armani-like decor, Palo Alto at last has its much needed independent, big-city quality restaurant.
Half Moon Bay
What to get: Hamburger; mushroom sandwich
When you hear about a Benu and Saison alum opening up their solo debut restaurant, you expect... well, anything but a train caboose along Highway One that serves burgers, hot dogs, and $5 bowls of bean, bacon, and kale soup. It’s true that Scott Clark made the enormous leap from fine dining to coastal roadside (high-quality) fast food. And yes, the grass-fed burger is $12, but it has more in common with a Zuni Café or Nopa burger than an In-n-Out or Five Guys.
What to get: Spicy diced chicken; ma po tofu; spicy hot pot
Trick question: Where is the best Sichuan food in SF? In Menlo Park. Fey is about balanced, methodical, and downright fiery dishes full of Sichuan peppers. You’ll find the gold standards of Sichuan cuisine -- ma po tofu and mouth-numbing dan dan noodles -- as well as unfamiliar dishes that you should try for the sake of trying, like vermicelli noodles with pork intestine and sautéed frog. If it’s cold out, Fey will warm you up in no time.
What to get: Braised lamb with ricotta gnocchi and/or literally anything seasonal
Jesse Cool is the Alice Waters of the Peninsula, having championed all-organic ingredients and European-style cuisine long before every restaurant became local, organic, and sustainable. There’s no point in recommending a number of specific dishes since they change all the time, though the short ribs with horseradish cream is a great choice, when available. The café doesn’t have the generic suburban dining room feel of many Peninsula restaurants, instead, it’s homey, charming, and bistro-like.
South San Francisco
What to get: Jerk chicken; curried goat
South City diners (and smart SFO pre-gamers from the city) dig in for a rousing rendition of jerk chicken that might get them thinking about chugging a ½ gallon of milk after a few bites. Accompany said chicken with curried goat, saltfish and ackee, and plantains for good measure. Caribbean cuisine hasn’t found much of a foothold in SF -- or anywhere around the Bay. At least the Peninsula has a spot that shows the highlights of Jamaica, even if the temperature outside is on average 30 degrees cooler than in Kingston.
What to get: Omakase
San Bruno gets a shoutout thanks to the chic atmosphere and noteworthy raw fish offered on a random strip of El Camino Real. The first decision is the toughest at Gintei: Do you want the omakase at the sushi counter or choose your own a la carte choices in the dining room? (Hint: Get the omakase.) Don’t forget to round out your meal with some cooked items like chicken karaage or beef tongue stew, since Gintei has some izakaya chops too.
What to get: Brisket; baby back ribs
Not that we’re trying to throw shade at Texas, Kansas City, or any of the ‘cue capitals of the country but, really, what’s the one thing we’ve got that they definitely don’t have? The ocean, of course! Nestled just past Devil’s Slide, Gorilla Barbeque serves unbeatable baby back ribs. Take them to the beach nearby or sit in the car with a view of the converted rail car restaurant. Don’t skip the brisket and hot links... and please don’t share them with seagulls at your picnic.
What to get: Seafood ramen; warm eggplant salad
Combine a Manresa alum and a former chef at New York’s Momofuku, and you get... a humble restaurant in a random Mountain View strip mall? Damn right. That’s the case with Kumino, where the seafood ramen requires one pound of tilapia to fortify the broth of just one bowl of the soup. The restaurant is as low key as it gets for a place with such a resume, and makes its own hot sauce for addictive crispy rice cakes.
What to get: Any ceviche; arroz con mariscos; huitlacoche-potato dumplings
Big brother La Viga specializes in Mexico City tacos and regional Mexican specialties, but it’s the younger sibling in Chef Manuel Martinez’s Redwood City duo that has the mezcal cocktails, knockout ceviches, and seafood-centric Latin fare. Note that meat-lovers will be plenty satisfied, especially with the messy but delicious lunch tortas.
What to get: Xiao long bao; shrimp har gow; egg custard tart; steamed chicken feet
Koi Palace can hold about 400 diners... and that’s still not enough space for all the hungry diners. Hint: Don’t go on a weekend. However, weekday dim sum simply can’t be beat, even by the stiff local competition. You’ll write down what you want and then a few minutes later start devouring a parade of slick BBQ pork rice rolls, congee bowls, chicken feet, egg custard tart....and basically as many other dishes as diners in the restaurant.
What to get: Whatever they're making on the wood-burning hearth
First of all, the view. My god, THE VIEW. Second of all, THE FOOD. Michelin-starred Madera, situated inside the five-star Rosewood Sand Hill since 2009, serves a daily-changing menu centered around the wood-burning hearth. Roasted chicken or suckling pig are standouts (when they’re on the menu), and luckily, you won’t be forced into a tasting menu here.
What to get: The eight-course, $125 kaiseki
Replacing vaunted Kaygetsu four years ago, Mitsunobu basically is Steve Young stepping in for Joe Montana (as opposed to Jeff Garcia replacing Steve Young). From the jewel box of small, powerful morsels to the soothing rice course, this is formidable kaiseki dining. Set decisions aside and order the $125 seasonal kaiseki, which will do more for putting you in tune with your inner environment and spirit than any yoga class or juice cleanse.
What to get: Any kind of meat you've never eaten in your life
The tinted glass exterior of Mokutanya -- located in a weird, kind of hard-to-find Burlingame strip mall -- belies the shockingly cool interior, which is as futuristic a Bay Area interior as you'll find. The reason it makes the list (other than the date night-winning insides): exotic meat Wednesdays and Thursdays. From 6pm to 2am you'll be able to dine on everything from peacock and iguana to kangaroo and swan, which are all way better than they sound (in some cases a lot better). Also cool: If you come in with a party of four or more any night of the week between 10pm and 1:30am, they'll hook you up with a FREE $60 bottle of sake.
What to get: Del Cafone pizza
Get past the generic name and the generic strip mall location along El Camino Real. This is real Neapolitan pizza, with a rip-roaring wood-fired oven and certification by the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana to back it up. Start with the blank canvas Margherita, then migrate to the tomato sauceless Del Cafone with bitter rapini, homemade Italian sausage, and smoked mozzarella. A little dose of olive oil finishes most pies like gold.
Half Moon Bay
What to get: Ahi tuna ribbons; maple glazed duck breast
Sometimes, you need a vacation. On the Peninsula, the closest thing you'll get is a one-hour drive sending you to the magical land of the the Ritz-Carlton, south of Half Moon Bay. The dining options there can go in two directions. Formal Navio is your dinner spot with plenty of caviar-adorned dishes, crisp-skinned duck, and excellent raw seafood starters. Or, take a seat in the lively Conservatory for a lunch of salads, fish with quinoa, and sandwiches -- all whilst appreciating the ocean views beyond the windows and outside firepits. Either way, you’ll eat well and return home with that relaxed, rejuvenating feeling only coastal breezes and a staycation can accomplish.
What to get: Baby clam pizza; roasted shiitake salad
Longtime Peninsula chef Andy Gambardella grew up in the Northeast and, naturally, has a New Haven clam pizza loaded with garlic. But really, the two best dishes are as Bostonian or Italian as they are San Carlos-ian. Green beans fritti with Meyer lemon aioli for dipping. A roasted shiitake and ricotta salata umami explosion of a salad. This is forceful cooking in a jazz club level-relaxed room with Gambardella tending to his retirement project (an impressive, wood-powered oven).
What to get: Crab sandwich; garlic bread
Talk about a time warp. This Pacifica classic is now in its ninth decade as a de-facto community gathering spot for stiff drinks, jukebox classics at the bar, and bowls of clam chowder in the dining room. Let’s not mess around, though. Nick’s is all about the Dungeness crab sandwich. It’s on gently griddled sourdough and overflowing with mayonnaise-kissed fresh and pure crab meat. A tomato slice is the only necessary add-on (you don’t need the optional slice of cheese). There are also Dungeness Crab Louies, cocktails, whole crabs -- you name it, Nick's has it.
What to get: Reuben; Goofy Fries
If you want the best pastrami on the Peninsula, you go to Refuge. If you want the best Belgian beer selection on the Peninsula (18 on tap!), you go to Refuge. If you want French fries smothered in cheese sauce and pastrami, you go to... Refuge! Lauded by almost everyone on the internet and TV, this line-out-the-door San Carlos spot (which now has a second location in Menlo Park with 24 Belgian beers on tap) will put you in the kind of food and beer coma you'd be happy to never wake up from. Try something with the house pastrami, one of its sliced-fresh ribeye cheesesteaks, or one of the house-blended burgers.
What to get: Dahi Vada; Bombay "Sliders"
Rasa’s 2ft-long white elephant dosa and Monet-worthy presentation of “Dahi Vada” lentil dumplings with yogurt, mint chutney, and tamarind would be requisite orders almost anywhere, simply for their grandiose appearances. Vijay Kumar (formerly of Dosa) makes truly bright and forceful dishes, like a bracing chicken and cashew curry and vegetarian Bombay Sliders.
Half Moon Bay
What to get: Lobster roll
Selected in 2007 by the Today Show as having one of the five best sandwiches in America, Sam's Chowder House's lobster roll STILL might be one of the five best sandwiches in America, especially when you're eating it on the Pacific Ocean-facing deck.
What to get: Miso ramen with stewed pork
The miso here is vivid with citrus and nuttiness, comes with corn, and -- if you add the stewed pork (duh) -- tastes like a summer barbecue translated into noodles and soup. It’s one of the most iconic bowls of ramen on the Peninsula.
What to get: Meat/fish farm board; pasta; pistachio hummus
Many of us in the Bay Area don’t know anything about Philadelphia dining outside of cheesesteaks. Well, here’s a big freakin' curveball for you -- the most important Philly dining personality isn’t Pat or Geno, but Marc Vetri. Since he teamed up with Urban Outfitters to open restaurants at their stores, he’s become a national figure. Attached to Anthropologie, Terrain boasts a Cali-yoga-garden dining room with a menu that leans heavily on produce. Vetri is renowned for his pastas, so when you see spaghetti cacio e pepe (or something like it) on the menu, don’t think twice.
What to get: Ebi bacon; beef tatami; Buta kimchi
Sandwiched between a pet store and a cobbler, this Laurel St spot exudes a sleek and sexy vibe thanks to a booth-heavy exterior and dark wood. The sushi bar is a strong move and the omakase doesn't disappoint (both on the eyes and on the palate), but the robata grill is an even stronger move. Get the marbled pork topped with scallions and shioyaki, a tiger prawn wrapped in bacon, and anything from the More to Share menu... which, technically, you don't have to share.
What to get: Eggplant polpette; pizza
After surviving an initial name change (started as Terrone before the big Canada-based pizzeria Terroni threatened to sue), Térun is the Palo Alto destination to know for both feeling like you’re in Italy and eating accomplished Italian cuisine. Pizzas (especially the nduja-zucchini) and pastas are terrific, as is the eggplant polpette and wine list.
What to get: The $145 Yohei omakase
The Peninsula loves its kaiseki and omakase journeys almost as much as the Giants. And here’s one of the finest. Akira Yoshizumi arrived in Downtown San Mateo after working at elite sushi bars in New York and Tokyo, and the less sushi-focused Umami in San Francisco. Think you know the brilliant subtlety of Edomae-style fish and rice together? Not yet, unless you’re one of the handful to have dined here already. The dining room has a nine-seat capacity and the omakase needs to booked two weeks advance, so plan accordingly.
What to get: Town Power Lunch; Philly cheesesteak; spring rolls; teriyaki skirt steak
Town is like some sort of perfect food-making robot sent from the future to... make perfect food. No kitchen runs as efficiently, no staff is as well trained, and no menu comes out as consistently delicious as Town's does. Located in the Tivoli Building, an old theater that'll sort of remind you of the clocktower building in Back to the Future, Town does modern American food (think deviled eggs finished with crispy jalapeños or a skirt steak gloriously topped with a bushel of crispy onion rings), and drinks (get the New Fashioned with Angel’s Envy rye), plus offers one of Laurel St's best front patios to eat them on.
What to get: Sausage & honey red pie; mushroom toast
Good news: This casual lunch spot in Downtown Redwood City saves a good number of spots for walk-ins, meaning you can probably get its incredible pizza without a reservation. Though pizza is the obvious choice here, the small plates are creative and noteworthy, like the mushroom toast, grilled carrots, and cauliflower served with toasted almonds, currants, serrano chili, honey, and bread crumbs.
What to get: The $98 nine-course menu
Not that anybody needs us to loudly trumpet Wakuriya’s excellence anymore -- the handful of reservations here basically don’t exist unless you’re a longtime regular or you run Tesla or Salesforce. There are two start times for dinner and one menu. Katsuhiro Yamasaki truly is a master of the kaiseki art, and his house-made sesame tofu, delicate-as-air broiled lobster, and pristine sashimi is as good as it gets.
What to get: Burger at lunch, duck at dinner
This is the kind of place where you'd find Peter Gregory, not Ulrich Bachmann. Sadly it isn't really a pub as much as it is a smallish, white table-clothed, French-type bistro. That said, the food is impeccable, in particular the aged Muscovy duck, whole roasted for two. The best part though? The freaking bread -- it comes in a basket with four types, all delicious, and they aren't stingy about making a return trip.