We’ve already told you about the top-rated 2014 San Francisco Bay Area restaurants specializing in the most popular cuisines: Californian, New American, Italian, Mediterranean, Chinese, etc. But part of what makes the Northern California dining scene so special is the diversity of offerings beyond the usual suspects. If you look hard enough, you'll find dynamic chefs cooking up faithful (and often innovative) renditions of their childhood favorites, reimagining vegetarian, BBQ and other cuisines and otherwise cooking out of the box. In the slideshow below, we tip our hats to the top-rated restaurants throughout the Bay Area that represent the best of their kind. Be sure to check out all of the 2014 San Francisco Bay Area restaurant coverage.
Forget about sprout sandwiches and Birkenstocks. Bay Area chefs are continuing to elevate meatless and vegetable-centric meals to new heights. For straight-up vegetarian or vegan cuisine, the top honor goes to the thoroughly modern Millennium, where long-time chef Eric Tucker earns raves for his culinary takes on seasonal bounty. To boot, the eclectic, visually arresting seasonal vegan dishes are served in a smart-looking Downtown dining room accompanied by a bar program that specializes in organic, artisanal wine, beer and spirits. The other top-rated vegetarian or vegan restaurants in the Bay Area include Greens, Gracias Madre, Udupi Palace and Cha-Ya Vegetarian.
Top Spanish/Basque Restaurants in the Bay Area
San Francisco used to be home to many family-style Basque restaurants in the 1950s and 1960s, but it’s only recently that Iberian food has become the It cuisine (to wit, just this year, we saw Food Network personality Michael Chiarello open the Spanish-inspired Coqueta on the San Francisco waterfront.) For the cream of the crop, surveyors praise Gerald Hiriyogen’s Downtown restaurant Piperade, where the gregarious chef/owner regales guests with the rustic food (such as the namesake piperade stew), local wines and signature hospitality of his Basque homeland. The four other top-rated Iberian-inspired restaurants include Contigo, Fringale, Zarzuela and Zuzu.
San Francisco ain’t Memphis or Kansas City, but the city by the Bay has made inroads in the world of barbecue. For the best of the lot, surveyors tip their hats to the historic Buckeye Roadhouse in Mill Valley, where the pit master’s ribs, chicken wings and other smoked meats (coaxed from a smoker out back) share the menu with oyster Bingo and swankier Americana fare. Others notables in the ‘cue queue are Thomas Keller’s wine-country pop-up Addendum, Tanya Holland’s West Oakland B-Side BBQ, the nouveau FiDi spot Wexler’s and the down-and-dirty Bo’s BBQ in Lafayette.
Aside from a few corner falafel joints, Arabic cuisine is largely underrepresented in the Bay Area. For the best taste of the Fertile Crescent, surveyors save their highest praises for Saha, which showcases fusion Arabic cuisine that marries traditional Yemenese dishes with a Californian larder. You’ll also find killer kebabs, kofta and other wide-ranging Arabic flavors down in the South Bay at Sunnyvale’s Dishdash and Kabul Afghan (at San Carlos and Burlingame locals) and in San Francisco proper, at the Persian-inspired Maykadeh and the Afghan-focused Helmand Palace.
Top Cajun-Creole Restaurants in the Bay Area
In recent years, a small but mighty coterie of chefs has been bringing hometown Southern comforts to local tables. When it comes to chicken 'n waffles, buttermilk biscuits and gumbo (made from local, seasonal and sustainable ingredients, natch), surveyors prefer to get their fix at Brown Sugar Kitchen in West Oakland, where chef/owner Tanya Holland turns out her signature soul food for the adoring breakfast and lunchtime crowds. San Francisco’s Brenda’s French Soul Food and The Broken Record also get the nod for their Cajun-Creole efforts as do the East Bay contenders Angeline’s Louisiana Kitchen and Pican.
Ten years ago there wouldn’t have been enough Peruvian restaurants to generate a top-five list, but thanks to a handful of prolific restaurateurs, pisco and ceviche are the new champagne and caviar. Gracing the top of the list is Piqueo’s, a tiny Peruvian tapas bar in Bernal Heights run by Carlos Altamirano, who also runs the oceanfront restaurant La Costanera in Montara Beach, which came in second (and Mochica in SoMa). Pasión, the Nuevo Latina offshoot of the traditional chain Fresca, clocks in at #3, followed the sprawling waterfronter La Mar Cebichera Peruana from renowned Lima restaurateur Gastón Acurio, and the more humble Limon Rotisserie, which serves its signature pollo a la brasa (roast chicken) and zesty ceviche at three San Francisco locations.
They may not be as trendy as their Vietnamese counterparts, but the Bay Area is home to many high-scoring, traditional Thai restaurants. The title of pad Thai exemplar goes to Sea Thai Bistro, a trio of restaurants in the North Bay whose name is short for Southeast Asian and is known for its affordable, modernized fare served in three sleek contemporary settings (Mill Valley, Corte Madera and Petaluma.) Other stellar Siamese restaurants rounding out the list include the city’s duo of Marnee Thai (Inner and Outer Sunset), Thep Phenom (Lower Haight), Basil Thai (two SoMa outposts) and the twin branches of Lers Ros Thai (Hayes Valley and the Tenderloin).
Top Traditional American Restaurants in the Bay Area
Adventurous foodies adore the creativity of the Bay Area's most inventive New American eateries, but that doesn't stop them from craving the occasional pot roast and creamed spinach. For food like mom used to make (only far, far better), surveyors beat a path to Ad Hoc, Thomas Keller’s casual wine country joint that serves misleadingly simple-sounding family-style set suppers. For more unapologetically old fashioned food, head to the city’s venerable House of Prime Rib, Yountville’s straightforward Rutherford Grill, Monterey’s Tarpy’s Roadhouse or Wayfare Tavern, Taylor Florence’s updated paean to the old Barbary Coast days.
Leave the clam chowder bread bowls to the tourists. True NorCal locals prefer responsibly-sourced catches over gimmicky presentations. So it's no surprise that the top-rated fish restaurant in the 2014 SF Bay Area Guide is Passionfish, a low-key haunt in Pacific Grove whose owners are credited for helping launch the sustainable seafood movement in Monterey Country. Rounding out the top five list are the vintage seafood counter Swan Oyster Depot, the farm-direct Hog Island Oyster Co, raw-centric Bar Crudo and the Italianate Sotto Mare.
Meat-and-potato types can also find their share of East Coast style chophouses to sink their teeth into throughout the Bay Area. The beefiest rating goes to Cole’s Chop House in Napa Valley, where diners can chose from 12-, 16- and 32-ounce portions of dry-aged, prime meats, along with the usual fixings and cult Cabernets. Press, another high-end, wine-country chophouse that caters to high rollers with fine premier cuts and an enviable Napa Valley wine list, clocks in the #2 spot. Also making the list are the traditional Harris’ and House of Prime Rib, and the ultra pricey, Japanese-influenced Alexander’s Steakhouse, which boasts branches in Cupertino and San Francisco.