San Francisco's 9 Hottest Restaurant Trends of 2016
The year flew by as restaurants opened at a pace that matched the Bay Area's recent tech economy growth. On the flip side, many great restaurants, especially in the emerging Mid-Market area, succumbed to ever-higher real estate prices and ever-expanding competition. Our meals this year were a blur of fast-casual wraps and bowls, one-bite crudo morsels and tacos with every possible filling. Japanese cuisine was everywhere, from ramen to yakitori, bento boxes to $200 omakase sushi. Regardless of all the changes to the restaurant scene over the past 12 months, one thing never goes out of style: our enjoyment of such an innovative and important restaurant city.
Cala and Californios led the high-end Mexican dining charge last year (it was one of our hottest trends of 2015), and the cuisine continued its growth, shifting toward the mid-range with Fenix from the Mercer Restaurant Group and Flores, courtesy of the Uno Dos Tacos and Belga folks. Meanwhile, the Tacolicious mini empire shows no signs of stopping and left its original location in the Marina for a nearby, more spacious home, in addition to an outpost at San Jose's Santana Row. North Beach's Don Pisto's also expanded with a more petite sequel in the Marina, serving more tacos, tequila and an excellent guacamole-topped Kobe burger. In short, if you're looking for sous vide carnitas tacos or Dungeness crab tostadas, you've never had more options.
Course names don’t matter
Where did appetizers and entrees go? The same direction as lobster Thermidor and fusion cuisine. Today's chefs are writing menus that don’t always delineate by courses but, instead, organize by lightest to heaviest or cheapest dish to the most expensive. In Situ, The Perennial, Aster and Bird Dog in Palo Alto are among the young and exciting restaurants that forgo traditional labels. Al's Place has "snackles" and lists meats as "sides." Babu Ji offers "from the street," "from the tandoor" and "from the pots." The list goes on in terms of menu language. As a result of splitting small plates into "bites" and "bigger bites," restaurants are allowing diners to eat and drink over a longer period of time, which means more revenue per table. This is definitely as much an economic trend as it is one catering to tastes.
Without question, this has been the trend of 2016. Ramen isn’t going anywhere thanks to newcomers like Mensho Tokyo and Oakland’s Itani Ramen. The former continues to draw hour-long nightly lines and the latter is a pivotal Oakland destination for late-night dining. Omakase blockbusters opened left and right led by wallet-busting, incredibly pristine sushi, nigiri and sashimi journeys at Omakase (opened summer 2015 but still can be considered new), Hinata and Hashiri. Today's izakayas are as hot as yesterday's gastropubs. Places like Miminashi in Napa, Two Birds One Stone in St. Helena, Okane near SoMa and Nomica in the Castro are doing the great drinks and even better bar food (ranging from duck ramen and grilled fish collar to delicate housemade tofu and chicken karaage with beer waffles) in settings that are more high-end than dark drinking dens.
The fast-casual movement
If it can be portable and customizable, chances are there is a fast-casual concept tackling the food. Indian-Mexican fusion as burritos or grain or salad bowls? That’s Dabba. Fried chicken sandwiches? The Bird. Greek wraps? Souvla owns that space and opened a second location this year. Onigilly (rice balls with creative fillings)? That is, well, the signature of Onigilly, probably the most rewarding taste-wise but most expensive of the lot. Poke bowls? They opened at a blistering pace (see below). Corridor and Little Gem test the boundaries of fast-casual with a more refined California cuisine — gorgeous seasonal salads, housemade flatbreads and pastas, excellent elevated American cooking with meatloaf, pork chops or salmon — while ordering at the counter (though you do have the choice of table service now too). The world has less patience and labor costs are rising. In the eyes of restaurateurs, the solution is often to turn fast-casual.
Large format dishes
Diners must be eating out in celebratory groups more and more because many restaurants are accompanying à la carte menus with dishes geared towards multiple diners. The Morris’ signature smoked duck is only offered for two or more as a half or whole bird. Nomica’s $100 pot pie–like chicken in brioche with miso butter needs to be ordered in advance and will make sure a party of five isn’t hungry. The revamped Central Kitchen offers a whole chicken and bone-in rib-eye for several hungry diners. Maybeck's in the Marina has a carnivore's dream with a massive dry-aged Flannery's prime beef with bagna cauda vinaigrette. Tawla's $140 leg of lamb could feed a family of six. Even Tartine Manufactory gets in on the large-scale fun with a $110 rib-eye for two to three diners — and of particular note, large-format ice cream pies for the whole table at dessert. So, as diners are we hungrier or just tired of small plates? Either way, make sure to bring your friends if you want to bypass à la carte and try any of these enormous platters.
Major-priced tasting menus
With an economic boom comes expense-account dining and restaurateurs responded with a flurry of elaborate venues opening up around the Bay Area. In San Francisco, Nightbird’s five-course prix fixe is $125, Mosu clocks in at $195 and Hashiri in the Mint Plaza soars even higher with a menu starting at $250. North of the city, Kenzo in Napa debuted at $225 per diner and Healdsburg’s Single Thread hits $295 per person, which includes tax and service charge. Yes, these are absolutely memorable dining experiences of the highest level, with an equally memorable bill at the evening's conclusion.
Poke and crudo
Like in many cities across the country, casual counter-service spots specializing in customizable poke bowls popped up across the Bay Area. The quality of fish and array of toppings differ greatly from place to place, but our favorite openings this year include Limu & Shoyu in NoPa and I'a Poke in the Castro. If you’re searching for poke of a higher caliber, look no further than the ahi one with smoked sesame oil and heart of palm served at Aina’s newly unveiled dinner service.
In SF, crudo is the new ahi tartare — ubiquitous on any casual bistro or fine-dining menu. Mister Jiu’s has a crudo, as does The Morris. Leo's Luxury Oyster Bar has a crudo section of the menu, even though only one of those raw fish selections actually is a crudo. Is crudo different from carpaccio or sashimi or tartare? Is this a trend just because San Francisco loves the decade-old Bar Crudo? Whatever the reason, we can't stop ordering crudo and its close friend, poke.
Los Angeles and New York have always focused more on restaurant decor, and we like to think it's because design has been a supporting player to the produce-driven food in SF restaurants. Still, things are changing with big-money projects becoming the norm. Bellota in the lobby of Airbnb's SoMa headquarters boasts a grandiose design of rustic leather walls, intricate tiles, a grand piano, a massive open kitchen and full barrels over the bar that serve cider and sangria on tap. In the Mission, Tawla and Wildhawk are indeed sexy and sleek, hardly the reclaimed-wood-meets-industrial-warehouse decor of 2013. Leo’s Luxury Oyster Bar in the FiDi doesn’t skimp with a sparkling gold- and floral print–filled mash-up of a Palm Beach vacation cottage meets 1950s Manhattan Mad Men power scene. And, we should mention the Tenderloin's recently opened Japanese spa/cafe, Onsen, which couldn't be more different.
Craft cocktails and craft beer show no signs of cooling down; however, the year also delivered good news for fans of wine. The city is seeing a resurgence of vino in venues that appeal to both grape nerds and those who want a glass in a bar atmosphere that's not clichéd. Wine Down in SoMa, High Treason and Corks in the Inner Richmond, and Pacific Heights' Italian-leaning Scopo Divino (which is also great for food) are enlightening us with wine knowledge while also letting us put our hair down while sipping a glass from a strange grape in Croatia. The Barrel Room in FiDi is having fun with the food and wine bar relationship by switching both menu's geographic themes each season, so you'll always be trying something different. Here’s the best part of this wine bar growth in size and quality: Both Dominique Crenn and the Marlowe team have already announced that they’ll be opening Parisian-style wine bars in 2017 (appropriately Bar Crenn and Bar Marlowe), so this is a trend that's likely to repeat on our list next December. You read it here first in 2016. Cheers to that.