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Dining out is such a personal experience. Some people stick to counter-service, while others prefer prix fixe. Some of us are willing to cross the county – heck, the region – for the promise of the best vegan sandwich, while others find themselves returning to that trusted neighborhood trattoria.
Lucky for us, the East and South Bays offer innumerable dining experiences that are not only wonderful but represent nearly every global cuisine, from Japanese izakayas to taquerias, chaat houses and more. Consider this the first taste of our list of the 50 Best Restaurants.
So how did we even begin to choose? First, we took San Francisco out of the equation. That bastion of gastronomy gets enough ink, and our readers live here. (And, because this is all about delightful discoveries, we gave those starry Michelin restaurants we all know about their own list.) Next, we spent months visiting and revisiting restaurants – and eating kale in between – to produce a list that offers something for everyone and (hello!) every price point.
Consider these sensational bistros, cafes, swanky fine-dining and tiny holes-in-the-wall not so much a ranking as a delicious guide for all occasions and cravings, whether that yen is for wildly creative twists on seasonal fare or classics, like handmade pastas, biscuits or XLB dumplings.
A guide to the abbreviations:
$: A typical entree is $15 or less
$$$$: More than $100
Daytrip, Oakland: When you crave the brilliantly unexpected
Let’s be clear: Months ago, before Bon Appetit named Oakland’s Daytrip one of the best new restaurants in America, the trend-setting natural wine bar had already shot to the top of our list. Finn Stern and Stella Dennig’s Temescal neighborhood bistro is a revelation, a place where you will experience funky, palate-opening wines alongside dishes so lively and scrumptious, they make standard fine dining fare (we’re talking about you, roast chicken) an absolute bore.
The secret is executive chef Stern’s razor-focused pursuit of fermentation, which brightens everything from salad to pasta. Sonnets could be written about Daytrip’s now-famous celery salad, the way the feathery Sardinian sheep’s cheese balances perky habanero and lemon verbena chlorophyll. Or how it would be a crime to toss handmade sourdough basil pasta in marinara, when it clearly belongs with Sugar Kiss melon vinegar, goat’s milk brunet and Shared Cultures’ small-batch miso.
As if Daytrip could get any better, the atmosphere is fun and unpretentious, the service confident, and nothing on the menu, which changes often, is more than $28. One more gush: They list the names of every Daytrip employee on the menu in alphabetical order, with Dennig and Stern tucked in the middle, not at the top. Here’s to starting more trends like that.
Don’t miss: The ever-changing menu typically offers a dozen dishes, including desserts, but the pastas, mussels, hot focaccia and salads always shine.
Details: 4316 Telegraph Ave., Oakland; www.thisisdaytrip.com; $$
Ettan, Palo Alto: When you want Michelin-quality Indian in a fun, photo-worthy setting
The first indication you’re in for a special meal at Ettan is the space itself – a virtual palace of exquisite tilework and chandeliers that leads to a patio of lush greenery and upside-down umbrellas. Once you’re done gawking, you can sit and enjoy the Cal-Indian cooking of Srijith Gopinathan, who hails from Kerala and snagged two Michelin stars at San Francisco’s Taj Campton Place.
Gopinathan’s dishes are artful and bursting with texture and brightness, a prime example being the sesame leaves with “chaat flavors.” Crispy, fried leaves are piled with juicy mango, chickpea crumble, candied sesame and cilantro – like the most interesting loaded Pringle ever; you won’t be able to eat just one. Buttered monkey bread in hot cast iron makes a perfect vehicle for assertive kale and eggplant chutneys. The pea kulcha with ricotta sings of springtime (there’s an earthier version with a shower of black truffle), and chicken wings with fermented chiles are astonishingly juicy.
Perhaps it’s the chef’s roots near the Malabar Coast, but anything seafood-related is a guaranteed hit, from the velvetiest scallops with tamarind to shallot-crusted black cod in a shrimp curry whose complex flavors unfold seemingly forever.
Don’t miss: Everything mentioned above, plus the wild mushroom “one pot” with potato korma and idiyappam, black cod in shallot crust with coconut rice and the Travancore shrimp curry.
Details: 518 Bryant St., Palo Alto; ettanrestaurant.com, $$$
Acopio, San Jose: When you want what the taqueria trailblazers are cooking
Taqueria Lorena held down an East San Jose corner for decades, until a fire shuttered the family business founded by Jose and Carmen Vidrios. That’s when daughter Lorena, the namesake, started putting a second-generation plan into motion with brother Carlos: They would open a modern, evolutionary Mexican restaurant, the sort of place that Lorena said San Jose hadn’t seen before. The plan by the siblings, both chefs, came to fruition earlier this year with Acopio — the name means a reunion or gathering — on the East Side.
With executive chef Marshall Reid, they’ve created a contemporary menu with Old World touches. The soft, supple tortillas, for example, are handmade from blue corn nixtamalized onsite. A Lebanese-spiced grilled pork taco pays homage to the Arabic influence that led to Mexico’s famous spit-roasted al pastor.
The Mole de Pato, a chile adobo confit duck leg served with pistachio mole and seared, spiced masa cake and sprinkled with pomegranate seeds, quickly became Acopio’s signature dish. It’s a stunner, beautifully cooked and composed, texturally interesting and Instagram-gorgeous. The preparation varies — this fall it’s Pipian Verde con Pato, with a green mole and lemon-thyme masa cake — but the pistachio version will return come pomegranate season this winter.
Don’t miss: Start with the Tortillas de Casa appetizer, served with frijoles puercos, queso fresco, chiltomate salsa and salsa verde cruda, or the spicy corn ribs, Costiillas de Elote, before tucking into the duck entree or the Carne de Res with grilled chayote.
Details: 399 S. 24th St., San Jose; www.acopiosj.com; $$
Belotti Ristorante, Oakland: When only the most delicate stuffed pastas will do
Take that first bite of Michele (mee-ke-le) Belotti’s food, and you can almost hear the dramatic symphonic music that opens Netflix’s “Chef’s Table,” where the Italian chef flicks flour on the cutting board. Belotti, who grew up near Milan, could join their ranks. His eponymous Rockridge restaurant, conceived and run with his wife, Joyce, strips gourmet Italian food to its essence: simple, minimal ingredients combined in ways that print memories on the palate. The handmade pastas are headline-worthy: casoncelli stuffed with beef and pork shoulder, bigoli tangled in duck sugo and orange zest, tagliatelle topped with grappa-marinated wild boar and Tuscan pecorino.
Belotti Ristorante is that rare neighborhood bistro that hits every mark. It offers a reasonable price point, exceptional wine list, long and convenient hours and confident servers who make spot-on recommendations, as they breeze by with samples of world-class Brunello. Even the simplest of desserts, a traditional panna cotta, is not the typical jiggly mold but a pot of silky, raspberry-topped cream custard that cues the music again.
Don’t miss: The Casoncelli Bergamaschi (Bergamo-style stuffed pasta with beef, pork shoulder, prosciutto, Grana Padano, sage, butter and smoked pancetta) is a crowd-pleaser. Also wonderful: the tortellini tradizionali in brodo (tiny tortellini in short rib-chicken-oxtail bone broth) and Agnolotti di Lidia (stuffed pasta with beef shank, flat iron, pork loin, sausage, escarole and spinach).
Details: 5403 College Ave., Oakland, with a take-out and pasta shop at 4001B Piedmont Ave., also in Oakland; https://belottirb.com; $$
Black Sheep Brasserie, San Jose: When you want to pretend you’re in Paris
If you think of Willow Glen’s see-and-be-seen street as Rue Lincoln, then Black Sheep is the chic brasserie everyone calls their favorite. For good reason.
This contemporary French-California kitchen, which has its roots in restaurateur Don Durante’s long-ago Le Mouton Noir, puts outstanding meal after outstanding meal on the table, and diners have come to expect that level of quality.
Many swear by the 38 North Duck Breast, with seasonal accompaniments. Others wouldn’t think of starting their meal without the Duck Liver Mousse appetizer. The “Burnt” French Onion Soup, crowned with Comté cheese, is the richest around. (You’ll also find Comté, France’s meltiest, atop the burger here.) Craving scallops? Black Sheep Brasserie brings in only the coveted sweet Hokkaido ones, and they’re cooked to perfection, with just the right amount of sear.
And don’t be surprised to hear a foodie at a nearby table rhapsodize about the evolving gnocchi preparation, which this season is a roasted – and smoked! – pumpkin version with sage cream and walnuts.
If you’ve left room for dessert, the promise of Maple-Calvados Caramel with the Buttermilk Beignets should make that decision easy.
Don’t miss: The Steamed Mussels, served with saffron cream, aioli and a pile of pommes frites.
Details: 1202 Lincoln Ave., San Jose; https://bsbwillowglen.com; $$
Orchard City Kitchen, Campbell: When your taste buds need a wake-up call
If you’ve been eating off too many predictable menus, re-energize your palate with a trip to Orchard City Kitchen. You’ll want to grab a few friends, because the appeal here is wildly inventive, hyper-seasonal small plates, and chef/owner Jeff Stout and his team come up with some outrageous combinations that work. (The overall-wearing chef with Michelin cred also owns and operates the upscale and creative Be.Steak.A, located nearby.)
To get the full OCK experience, you need to share plenty of dishes. A popular starter is the BBB (biscuits, bacon, honey butter). But earlier this fall, the kitchen was making a Hungarian fry bread called Langos and serving it with chimichurri-cultured butter and aged cheddar. That’s hard to pass up. Moving on, a Bitter Tropical Salad of radicchio, cabbage, coconut, peanut and nuoc cham makes for a refreshing palate cleanser, and then there’s a Tamarind Pork Belly served with Jimmy Nardello peppers, piloncillo and marcona almonds. (Even serious foodies spend a lot of time here googling ingredients.)
The Bone Marrow Orecchiette is accompanied by water chestnuts, dates, crispy shallots and blue cheese. And Sauerkraut Fritters become German-Italian fusion when served with ricotta, basil aioli and red onions. Who dreams up this stuff?!
Just order and enjoy. Because on your next visit, there will be a whole new assortment of small plates.
Don’t miss: If you’d feel more comfortable with a couple of menu standbys, you can’t go wrong with the aforementioned BBB, the Korean Fried Chicken or the seasonal vegetable dishes.
Details: 1875 S. Bascom Ave., Campbell; www.orchardcitykitchen.com; $-$$
Lion Dance Cafe, Oakland: When you want a road trip-worthy sandwich and so much more
One of the most exciting restaurants in Oakland is vegan, doesn’t have indoor seating and is perhaps most famous for a sandwich that’s only served on Saturdays. Oh, but what a sandwich: The shaobing is a triumph of spice and funk, with a recent version featuring velvety slabs of Asian eggplant, potato and smoked-tofu fritter, pickled Thai chile mayo and fresh herbs and lime leaf. It’s squished between chewy bread baked with sesame oil in the dough and encrusted in sesame seeds – one could eat the bread alone and be happy, it’s that good.
Order from the quick-moving line, then have a seat at the festive parklet among youngsters much cooler than you to enjoy more Singapore-inspired cooking from C-Y Chia and Shane Stanbridge. A huge clump of maitake mushrooms, seemingly ripped whole from the forest floor, is perfectly battered and zippy with Fresno-chilei sambal. The sesame-peanut noodles are a textural feast with chewy strips of seared yuba and crunchy veggies, plus an encore of mala numbing spice.
For dessert, don’t miss the A.S.S. Cookie (take your mind out of the gutter, it’s almonds, sesame and shallots). You’ll never be bored at Lion Dance, and you’ll never miss meat or dairy. In fact, the brined-tofu nuggets, which were recently on hiatus (but may come back!) due to their intensive week-long preparation, might actually make you swear off Mickey D’s.
Don’t miss: That shaobing sandwich #72, the mushroom goreng with sambal, sesame L.G.M. Noodles with stir-fried market veg and, if you can score them, those tofu nuggs with sambal mayo.
Details: 380 17th St., Oakland; liondancecafe.com, $-$$
, and at 2505 Sand Creek Road, #112, in Brentwood
Flea Street, Menlo Park: When you want a beautiful taste of the season
The two lists that book-end the Flea Street menu tell you all you need to know about pioneering chef Jesse Cool’s priorities.
One is an appreciation of the many purveyors — from Harley Farm to Dirty Girl Produce to Webb Ranch and 25 others — whose devotion to “sustainable, organic and pasture-raised products” fuels this iconic Peninsula restaurant. The other is a “Heart of the House” tribute naming the employees who share the passion of Cool and chef/GM Bryan Thuerk.
Service in these serene dining rooms is friendly and very attentive. As for the fare, the summer menu showcased Brentwood corn in a soup garnished with avocado, salsa verde and smoked chile dust and Central Valley stone fruit in a homey dessert called the Masumoto Family Farm Nectarine Galette.
Making the transition to the winter menu will be the luxurious Slow Braised, Grass-Fed Short Ribs, a customer favorite with an evolving cast of supporting characters. On a recent evening, it was smoked shiitake mushrooms starring with horseradish spaetzle and blistered padron peppers to make a superlative entree. All meals come with a bread basket that includes the restaurant’s legendary little buttermilk biscuits.
Don’t miss: The clever “Which Came First?” entree is a variation on the theme. This summer, Thuerk reimagined the question as a Cobb salad with buttermilk fried chicken and pickled hen egg. Another time it was chicken topped with soft-poached egg raviolo.
Details: 3607 Alameda de las Pulgas, Menlo Park; www.cooleatz.com; $$$
Fish & Bird Sousaku Izakaya, Berkeley: When you want to try the evolution of Japanese bar food
“Sousaku” refers to creative reimagining, and sousaku is all over the old B-Dama crew’s Fish & Bird, from the stylish space with its soundtrack of The Pogues and Professor Longhair to izakaya plates executed with modern flair. From the bar, one might enjoy an Espadin mezcal with red yuzu kosho, then move on to something from the charcoal grill that elevates everything it touches: local cod marinated in Oakland sake lees, say, or marbled steak with bracing anchovy ponzu. One of the restaurant’s most sought-out meals is a platter-for-two of fresh seafood and A5 wagyu, which diners cook themselves over tabletop charcoal burners.
The negitoro minidon is a small but ridiculously sumptuous bowl of glistening fatty-tuna cubes, nestled on soft pads of dashi omelet. A corn and sea-bean fritter mixes fresh kernels and the asparaguslike plants grown in salt marshes, then tempura-fries them into a matcha-dusted bird’s nest for the perfect sweet-salty indulgence.
Don’t miss: All of the above, plus the A5 wagyu yakiniku and seafood for two. Finish with that Basque cheesecake.
Details: 2451 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley; fishbirdizakaya.com, $$-$$$
Dumpling Hours, Walnut Creek and Brentwood: When you want to one-up Din Tai Fung
In a town where the fine dining restaurants can sometimes blur, Walnut Creek’s Dumpling Hours provides an impeccably delicious, one-of-a-kind experience. Made-to-order dumplings — boiled, pan-fried or soup — are the stars at this in-the-know favorite, with dough so delicate and deftly pinched, you can see the spicy pork and black truffle through each elegant sachet.
Dumpling Hours doesn’t take reservations, but wait times are reasonable, because the staff runs a tight operation with a clipboard wait list that keeps things moving and service that is reliably swift. Salads, noodles and sides are executed with as much focus as the dim sum. In addition to altar-worthy xiao long bao, look for Mandarin dishes otherwise missing in downtown Walnut Creek, like crispy pig ears and cucumbers in a nose-clearing spicy sauce and snappy wood and silver ear mushrooms in house dressing.
Don’t miss: The hot and spicy pork xiao long bao, of course, but also the ginger and scallion noodles, shrimp and pork pot stickers, Brussels sprouts with truffle and the bright green vegetable dumplings decorated to look like fall leaves.
Details: 1389 N. Main St. in Walnut Creek, and at 2505 Sand Creek Road, #112, in Brentwood; www.dumplinghours.com; $
But wait, there’s more!
These are the top 10 on our 50 best list for 2022. We’ll reveal the rest in the coming weeks.