The Thrillist Awards: San Francisco's Best New Food & Drink of 2015
Every month we tell you what’s new and hot from the previous month, but because it’s December and we’re doing a lot of reflecting in front of our Christmas trees and Menorahs, and glasses of various alcohols, we’re gonna tell you EVERYTHING (well almost... we’re only human) that’s new and hot from all of 2015. Read on to refresh your memory on all the glorious places that came into our lives this year and then resolve to get to every single one in 2016.
Best new cocktail bar
Thoughtful, improvised cocktails served by the friendliest bartenders in a sexy, semi-hidden space: there are reasons this industrial bar atop Hotel G quickly skyrocketed to our favorite bar on all of Geary St (BOULEVARD, included!). You can hate us for that call, but you’ll still love Benjamin Cooper.
Best new first date bar
Technically this bar opened in December 2014, but its massive collection of arcade games (Ms. Pac-Man, Frogger, 1943, Final Fight, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Street Fighter II, The Simpsons, San Francisco Rush, Double Dragon, and tons more!) likely didn’t start start easing Tinder date awkwardness until 2015 (lots of New Year’s resolutions to “get back out there”), so we’re including it because calendars are arbitrary markers of time and we make the rules, OK? Stoke early love with a nostalgic trip back to your childhood... and the 25 craft beers they have on tap, many of which fall in the perfect first-date price range of $4-$9.
Best new beer garden
Ok it’s in Oakland, not San Francisco, BUT it’s only 20 minutes from downtown via Bart and again, we make the rules, AND it’s basically the beer garden of your dreams: 350 seats, fire pits, Adirondack loveseats, and the entire Drake's beer portfolio on tap, including experimental selections, usually only available at the brewery. Oh, and the garden part of the beer garden is housed in an old Dodge dealership that’s had its roof taken off but support beams left on, so it kinda feels like you’re drinking under the former Bay Bridge structure (the one that happened to meet its demise this year too -- how poignant).
Best new food-truck-gone-brick-and-mortar
For three years the wood-fired-pizza-oven-on-wheels spread Neapolitan pizza cheer all over the city from a glass-enclosed freight car until it finally found its forever-home (here’s hoping!) in a charming 50-seat Nob Hill storefront. The oven is rightfully the focal point of the space, while an expanded seasonal menu of California classics like Monterey Bay squid help to round out the meal.
Best new spot for big groups
It’s not just that this spacious, Thai island-inspired oasis can handle big groups, but the family-style menu actually begs for it because you should really try everything. Meanwhile, brightly covered picnic tables and amazing tiki drinks lend a casual vacation vibe that puts everyone into party mode. Pro tip: you can even do drinks family style when you order the Thai bottle service that, in true Bangkok fashion, is just Mekhong Thai whisky with selzer, and selections from the slushy machine. Yes, this place is basically just like backpacking through Thailand, only with fewer elephants. As in none.
Best new brasserie
2015 saw a lot of brasseries, which, in case the term is so widely used that it’s lost meaning for you, refers to an informal restaurant (usually of the French persuasion) that serves simple, hearty food and lots of drink options. Belga might be Belgian-leaning, but it’s got the breezy energy and amazing comfort food parts down. The spaetzle and the dry-roasted mussels are de fue/feuer/brand... (that’s “fire” in French, German, and Dutch, FYI). Now the drinks... every type of drinking experience is done well, from the interesting, yet approachable, beer list to the cocktails to the beer-cocktails. Order the Loophole, which is a mix of Aperol, IPA, gin, grapefruit, and egg white, that tastes like a grown-up, more delicious Fanta soda.
Best new most Instagrammable bar
Sure the rich teal hues, dark wood, and walls of books with spines facing the wrong way totally lend itself to the Ludwig filter, but the fact that The Dorian is one of the city’s most beautiful bars isn’t the only reason it will dominate your weekend feeds. No, that would be the GIF-making photobooth in the bar. Let the array of martinis on the menu or a couple Van Winkles loosen up your duck faces before making the sort of moving memes your social media presence definitely needs.
Best new instant classic
A lot of restaurants are called California cuisine and tout ingredient-forward simplicity, but Melissa Perello’s cozy Michelin-starred spot is now setting the standard for that very designation. An ever-changing menu of homey food is her jam, and when we say homey cooking, we don’t mean that you could cook this yourself -- hardly anyone can -- but rather that nothing is prepared with any fancy tricks, and you don’t need a dictionary or a copy of The Food and Wine Lover’s Companion to decipher the menu. In a time of highly stylized restaurants and culinary mash-ups, Perello’s mastery of subtlety makes her stand out. Also, everyone from your girlfriend to your grandparents will love this spot.
Best new coffee shop
Not only did Equator come in high on our definitive ranking of the Bay’s best roasters, but this small sidewalk cafe in the middle of the Mid-Market gentrification boom serves boozy coffee drinks, too, including a delicious coconut white Russian.
Best new place to power lunch
Michelin-starred chef Mourad Lahlou’s (Aziza) Moroccan cooking is delicious anytime of day, but the sprawling, grand setting -- featuring a massive marble bar, modern chandeliers that recall sea anemones, and bottles of wine that are literally suspended above you -- offers the sort of luxury usually reserved for expense accounts and your most important client. Lahlou’s lunch menu (must-orders include homemade fluffy flatbread with an assortment of spreads, avocado toast topped with albacore crudo, impossibly fluffy couscous, and a cucumber "salad" with merguez sausage and charred grapes) also lives up to the grandeur of the space. Order Anthony Parks’s cocktail trio, featuring mini versions of three of his interesting signature cocktails. Then take the rest of the afternoon off.
Best new place you haven’t heard of yet
The team behind Maven opened the jazz club of your dreams on December 15th, but we couldn’t wait for the New Year to tout everything it has going for it right out the gate: yummy drinks from the mind behind Maven, Prospect, and Nopa cocktails; a menu of booze-soaking bar bites that are at once “elevated” -- think brioche toast topped with Portuguese linguica sausage puree, pearl onions and nasturtium blossom vinegar -- and affordable (all nine dishes are $10 or under); live music seven nights a week with NO COVER EVER; and the kicker: a semi-private lounge area called THE OPIUM DEN. We know -- where has this place been all year/all life?! There's also a massive mural painted by local artist Amanda Lynn, which serves as the backdrop for rotating bands.
Best new concept
The latest Martin Cate (Smuggler’s Cove) project isn’t so much a bar as it is an immersive experience in steampunk fantasyland. The high-concept Tenderloin barstaurant/cocktail lounge takes revelers to “an abandoned Victorian London subway-turned-gin distillery.” It all makes sense when you get there and start drinking some of the 400 gins and 120 gin-based cocktails.
The San Francisco-iest (in a good way!) new brewery
Black Sands Brewery could be described with a lot of 2015 SF buzzwords. “Innovative": the homebrewers behind the operation also sell brewing kits and offer classes to DIY enthusiasts. “Diversified": It’s open at 9am for breakfast and they have an extensive cocktail menu from the former bar manager of The Hideout in Dalva and Lazy Bear, and a full lunch and dinner menu. “Local": even the owners live in the ‘hood and bike to work. “Ingredient-forward": the brewers experiment with just one grain and one hop for simple flavor profiles in their SMASH series. “Social": they’re all about educating the masses about beer and their blog offers regular peaks at the behind-the-scenes action. “Transparent": they give away brewing recipes to anyone who asks and the kitchen is so open you could literally help them stir things (note: don’t do that). In other words, the place could easily be the setting for a Portlandia-Silicon Valley crossover episode, but it’s also got a relaxed, friendly, and lively vibe that’s all genuine. Plus we’ve got multiple credible accounts of a delicious breakfast torta. A crew of ambitious, idealistic homebrewers, and a brewery that serves breakfast... what more do you want!?
Best new late-night happy hour
SF saw a lot of good happy hour additions including several late-night options in 2015 (the battle-winning Indian tacos at both DOSA locations are calling your name). But there are few things more baller than ordering champagne and oysters at midnight in a subterranean live music bar. This can be your life at the revamped Cafe du Nord that offers half-off champagne and oysters when midnight strikes and, thanks to Chef McNaughton (Flour + Water, Salumeria, Aatxe, Central Kitchen), has a killer menu well into the night.
Best new regular happy hour
Not only does this swanky, semi-secret new hangout in Gaspar Brasserie boast the largest selection of brandy in the city, but the place also lets you ball on a budget thanks to its killer happy hour deal: $1 oysters, $5 pomme frites, $6 glasses of red, white, and sparkling wine, and $7 Ma Cherie and Champage cocktails. Head there after work to fool yourself into thinking you’re Jay Gatsby.
Best new burger
2015 was a good year for burger connoisseurs which, um, we’re kinda paid to be (it's a seriously tough job). But while choosing favorite burgers in SF is kind of like living Sophie’s Choice, (Causwells, Cafe Du Nord, NOPA -- we’re still obsessed!), we’re giving this incredibly prestigious honor to Scotland Yard’s executive chef Jason Raffin for creating a burger that, months later, we’re still talking about. We’re pretty sure it has something to do with the bone marrow aioli, cornichon remoulade, two types of cheese, and double patties.
Best new brunch
What?! The counter-service deli/meat haven serves brunch?? Yes! And this still-under-the-radar spot totally won us over. Things we like about it, besides everything: first, the food is way above-average brunch food, while still being the kind of satisfying meal that can help undo last night’s damage. Definitely get the avocado toast that comes on sourdough bread and is topped with lime, chili, and seeds for texture, as well as the poached eggs with short ribs, polenta, and salsa verde, which is totally shareable though you might not want to. The space -- a sunlit covered patio with soothing water fixtures -- is beautiful and low-key too. As for the booze, the Blucher Creek cocktail with blood orange and rhubarb is way more refreshing and less acidic than the traditional mimosa (but they have those, too). And most convenient of all: the counter-service method of ordering tends to move things along quickly, BUT even if there’s a wait, you can (and should) order the homemade sticky bun to tie you over while you wait for a table to open up.
Best new date restaurant
Not only is the food comforting and delicious, but the prix-fixe tasting menu is maybe the best deal in town. $35 gets you three courses while an optional pasta supplement runs $10 and is so worth it. Bottles of wine are also reasonable with most clocking in around the $40 mark. The simple menu is designed to be shared and, refreshingly, offers only two options for its daily changing offerings, meaning you can save your decision-making skills for choosing which Netflix show to “chill” to after dinner.
Best new place for drinks and apps
While you could definitely enjoy a full meal at this Ne Timeas Group (Flour + Water) newcomer, the Basque-style tapas, excellent wine selection, and lively, stylish bar scene make this the perfect place for casual drinks and bites. Sit at the bar and try the octopus and the escabeches (conserved clams and mussels) that come in jars and are served with fresh bread.
Best new “secret” bar
Are bars still secret if Grant Marek tells you exactly how to get into all of them? You can ponder that and then quickly decide you don’t care when you’re sipping cocktails in an old bank vault in this underground -- literally and figuratively -- spot located under The Barrel Room’s wine shop.
Best new splurge
Mexico City’s star chef Gabriela Cámara made her stateside debut in Hayes Valley and will likely change everything you think you know about the cuisine. It’s high-end, but not in a forced way, it doesn’t rely on meat for the dinner menu and instead focuses on seafood dishes and delicate, zesty flavors and considerable heat, and a full, satisfying meal won’t leave you in a food coma. While the food impresses, the space is one of the most beautiful with lush foliage adding color to an industrial white room, and lanterns with cut-outs that cast glowy patterns across the space. It’s always lively, but the innovative system of strategically placed speakers and microphones make conversation easy. Also notable: the restaurant is run with an eye toward social issues, using a tip-inclusive policy and working with local probation offices to employ SF residents who previously had a hard time finding work due to minor conviction records. Pro tip: if you want to try it without spending a lot of money, head to the back-alley taco shop (open for lunch) for a taste of Cámara’s mastery of Mexican flavors and handmade tortillas.
Best new reason to wait in line
It's arguably the hottest restaurant of 2015, and it hasn’t cooled in 11 months. Chef Ravi Kapur’s food, inspired by his Hawaiian heritage, is everything California cuisine strives to be: subtly creative, fresh, and ingredient-centric. Plus, what this man can do with spam... unreal. Don’t let the line that often shows up before first seating discourage you from what will likely be one of your favorite meals of the year. The restaurant reserves a third of its seating for walk-ins -- and the bar, communal table, and booths in the front room are where it’s at anyway. Once you get in, definitely order the Clifton Special cocktail, a refreshing mix of gin and coconut water that hydrates while getting you in the island mood.
Best opening of the year
We declared love at first sight back in July, and six months later, Old Bus Tavern is still our favorite opening of the entire year. In fact, the only thing we don’t like about it is that we don’t live right next door. OBT is the kind of brew pub every neighborhood wants right down to the trio of co-owners/best buds that started the joint with the help of an Indiegogo fund and VW van. But most importantly, everything from the the food to the energy is on point. It’s got a laid back Southwestern vibe, which makes the fact that you’re eating perfect sous vide pickled quail eggs and other elevated “pub grub” all the more surprising. Oh, and the drinks? The classic American- and Belgian-style house-brews, cocktails, and coordinated beer-and-shots are all killer (we're fans of the Lemon Basil saison). Reason #782 we love OBT: the owners use a revenue share and a tip-inclusive policy to lessen the wage gap between servers and back-of-house workers. It’s not an easy model to make work so go eat and drink there so hopefully one day benefits and a living wage in the restaurant industry is the rule, not the exception. Now excuse us while we browse Craigslist for open apartments on OBT’s block.
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Amy Copperman is a regular contributor to Thrillist who believes there was no better year to be an eater/drinker than 2015. Follow her on Instagram @coppergirl