SF's 8 Hottest Restaurant Trends of 2015

It was the year of fermenting, octopus and izakayas
December 29, 2015
by Trevor Felch

2015 featured a flurry of changes on the Bay Area restaurant scene. While some notable classics bid their final goodbyes, each week seemed to bring a handful of intriguing openings. Whether new kitchens establishing their identity or esteemed veterans trying to stay fresh, the past 12 months brought important innovations and issues to the table. Let's just say dining in San Francisco today means a lot more than just local and organic figs on a plate. Here are the most noteworthy trends we've noticed this year.

1. Ambitious Mexican Cooking
Outside of a few regional-specific restaurants in the Mission, dining out for Mexican cooking previously meant giant rice- and bean-filled burritos or a form of Tex-Mex where chips and salsa and margaritas are the primary focus. Mamacita, Padrecito and Nopalito signaled the initial change in San Francisco a few years ago, making their own tortillas and delving deeply into the cuisine with a chef's eye and touch and no shortage of mezcal cocktails. 2015 saw a complete overhaul with many Mexican restaurants doing fascinating interpretations of the country's cooking. Calavera opened as an anchor in Uptown Oakland's Hive complex. Traci des Jardins' Arguello in the Presidio, the tasting menu–only Californios, a reborn Cadillac Bar and Grill in the Twitter Building and Cala in Hayes Valley (from Gabriela Cámara, one of Mexico City's most celebrated chefs) opened our minds to new corners of Mexican cuisine.

2. Small Plates or Big Plates
Remind us what a three-course meal of an appetizer, an entree and a dessert is? Chefs across the city did away with any form of structure, creating menu headings like "Single Bites," "Daily Requirements," "Snackles" and "Slightly Larger Plates," or even skipping categories altogether and simply listing dishes lightest to heaviest. The one unifying element of all of these menus is an emphasis on sharing. New izakayas (Japan's answer to gastropubs) like Village Sake in Fairfax and Ginto Izakaya Japonaise offer drink-friendly snacks like chicken wings, bacon-wrapped mochi, yakitori skewers and the most talked-about dish at the most talked-about new izakaya: the delicate omelet at Rintaro. At the opposite end of the spectrum, many restaurants emphasized "family-style" platters. Some of Liholiho Yacht Club's large plates, including fried Cornish game hen and a pile of beef short ribs, could easily feed four. The Progress invites diners to select their own tasting menu to be served family-style. Oro and Mourad both feature popular large-format roast chicken dishes for two or more. We may not know the difference between a snack and a "snackle," but one thing is certain: the typical three-course meal has gone the way of turkey tetrazzini and molten chocolate cakes.

Quince [Photo Source: Virginia Miller]

3. Vegetables Deserve Respect
The Bay Area's climate and the local, sustainable, organic ideology have always given plenty of attention to produce. This year chefs took a step further and decided nonvegetarians should even be tempted by meat-free meals. We could say that 2015 was simply The Year of Al's PlaceAaron London's acclaimed Outer Mission restaurant where vegetables are the stars of the table and meat dishes are relegated to sides. At Rich Table, Douglas fir pierogies and grilled chicory with buttermilk and togarashi beckon. Stones Throw's country-fried maitake mushrooms and Trick Dog's mountainous kale salad are now two of San Francisco's most beloved bar snacks. The recently renovated Quince decided to follow The French Laundry's lead by offering a vegetarian tasting menu alongside the regular one. 

4. To Tip or Not to Tip?
The national discussion of this subject is only getting started. Atelier Crenn, Comal, Homestead, Coi, Lazy Bear, Lord Stanley and Aster all have service included either in the menu prices or as an automatic percentage on the bill. We also saw Trou Normand, Bar Agricole and Sous Beurre Kitchen attempt to go tip-less, only to backtrack later in the year. Add to this equation the city's (rapidly) rising cost of living and the still-controversial Healthy SF tax for restaurant workers' health insurance, and, well, it's easy to see how this subject will be a pivotal story to follow in 2016.

5. There Are Lots of Fish in the Sea
Octopus has replaced pork belly as the new "it" protein on seemingly every menu. And uni isn't far behind. Meanwhile, anchovies, fish collars, ling cod, mackerel and rockfish are showing up on menus regularly as chefs turn an eye toward sustainability and a "whole hog" approach to fish. The Commissary and Rich Table have been serving local, wild trout as an alternative to overfished options like salmon, ahi tuna or halibut. Of course a surge in the popularity of seafood generally means a surge in the popularity of sushi, and rookies Kusakabe and Omakase became two of the most in-demand tickets this year, even without a focus on local and sustainable fish.

Trick Dog [Photo Source: Virginia Miller]

6. Cocktails, Craft Beer, Cider and Amaro 
Craft cocktails and craft beer are now the norm. Even dive bars are making their own syrups, and upscale restaurants are including beer and tea alongside the usual wine pairings. Cider has found a niche beyond being the namesake of the Polk Gulch bar UpCider. At dessert time, diners can ask for Oro's amaro cart, and Nostra's Bar Mia is deeply devoted to amaros that go well beyond San Francisco's beloved Fernet Branca. One of the best exemplars of the trend: Old Bus Tavern in Bernal Heights, one of the city's most talked about new restaurants for its food, cocktails and tap list (some of the beers are brewed in-house). 

7. Blockbuster Sequels (With a Twist)
Many of the year's most notable openings are sequels to San Francisco's favorite restaurants, even if they don't hue exactly to the original's formula. Aziza's Moroccan decor and menu somehow led to the grand atmosphere and global New American cooking at Mourad. State Bird Provisions' dim sum–style service and dishes contrast greatly with The Progress' communal eating format. And Atelier Crenn's whimsical tasting menus are hardly a twin of Petit Crenn's Brittany-inspired prix fixe dinners. Stones Throw and Trestle? Smugglers' Cove and Whitechapel? Oro and Commonwealth? Frances and Octavia? The theme continued to repeat itself. As 2016 approaches, the most anticipated restaurant to be unveiled in January is Volta from the Perbacco and Barbacco team. Maybe 2016 will be the year of the trilogy?

Old Bus Tavern [Photo Source: Virginia Miller]

8. Pickling, Smoking and Fermentation
We can trace the pickling and fermenting movement of San Francisco to Nic Balla and Cortney Burns' extensive larder program started a few years ago at Bar Tartine. As a result, "funk" and "char" could certainly be considered the two most prominent flavor profiles in 2015. Sour beers were the fashionable style poured from taps, led by Bay Area breweries such as The Rare Barrel, Almanac, Russian River and Palo Alto Brewing Co. Al's Place ferments the potatoes used in their fries. Del Popolo serves a smoked sweet potato starter and smoky mezcal is the newest ubiquitous spirit on seemingly every cocktail menu. Ninebark in Napa and The Boxing Room's house-cured pickle plates and Old Bus Tavern's pickled quail eggs are considered must-order specialties. Let's just end with this: it's highly probable that twice as many San Franciscans can spell "kombucha" compared to last year.

craft cocktails
hayes valley
small bites
craft beers
mexican cuisine
large dishes