The 14 Top New Bay Area Restaurants of 2019

As with the past decade plus, here are my top 14 new Bay Area restaurant openings of 2019 (and last year’s 2018 bests here; with all prior years here).

Click on each restaurant name for links to my initial reviews/articles on each:

Breadbelly’s kaya toast

1. Breadbelly, Inner Richmond
Yes, I am dubbing Breadbelly, a tiny bakery from three Atelier Crenn alum, as the opening of the year. Not only for its delicious uniqueness but because it adds yet another pioneering layer of a superb Asian-influenced bakery to the city that has led the baking renaissance for decades (more on that here and here; but don’t just take my word for it. How about Vogue’s? Or Bon Appetit’s?)

Nari’s miang appetizer

2. Nari, Japantown
Pim Techamuanvivit’s third restaurant, Nari (more on Nari here) — a dead-ringer for another Michelin star as both her longtime SF restaurant, Kin Khao, and Bangkok restaurant, Nahm, already have — is another forward-thinking-but-past-honoring Thai restaurant others would do well to take inspiration from. Chef de cuisine Meghan Clark helms the kitchen & Megan Daniel-Hoang (formerly Whitechapel), the bar.

3. Chef’s Table at Merchant Roots, Fillmore Street
Chef’s Table at Merchant Roots is not technically a restaurant so much as a regular “pop-up” in the back of a wine and gourmet cafe/shop (read more about it clicking on the restaurant name). Whether the initial earth elements dinner or “Vanity Fair”/Thackeray-themed dinner, each visit has been exciting, unique, memorable.

4. The Shota, Financial District
Open late 2018, I made it to The Shota in 2019, impressed by the exceptional service, sushi, sake pairings and long, sleek counter feeling upscale-elegant compared to a more traditional, wood-lined sushi bar. Chef-owner Ingi “Shota” Son comes from the likes of Morimoto Napa and SF’s Michelin-starred Hashiri and Omakase. This one immediately feels worthy of a Michelin star.

Chef’s Table at Merchant Roots “Vanity Fair” dinner (shellfish broth course)

5. Dear Inga, Mission
While there is no replacement for Nick Balla’s pioneering modern Eastern European/Hungarian cooking at Bar Tartine — given further layers from his years in Japan — Dear Inga is now my “modern Eastern European” go-to, serving Germanic/Eastern European/Scandinavian spirits in cocktails to delightful dishes like potato-sauerkraut pierogi dotted with a borscht sauce and cultured cream.

6. Aziza, Outer Richmond
Mourad Lahlou has done it again: a classic reborn and a new experience in its own right. The U.S.’ King of Moroccan food — the pioneering Cal-Moroccan kind of the past two decades — has introduced a brand new era of Aziza.

Palette Tea House durian dim sum

7. Palette Tea House, Fisherman’s Wharf
At first visit, I found Palette Tea House a solid dim sum option IF a local should ever find themselves in Ghirardelli Square (which is rare). After a return, their spot-on Szechuan hot sauce (transporting me right back to Chengdu, China, the home Sichuan cuisine, where I was traveling the week before), fabulous Iberico cha siu rice “crêpes”, decadent uni crab yi-fu noodles, wok-sautéed live geoduck and quality cocktails (from drink vet Carlos Yturria) confirmed for me this is actually one of our best Chinese restaurants overall.

8. Prubechu, The Mission
I loved (and wrote this in-depth review) of Guamanian restaurant Prubechu when it first opened in 2014. Since December 3, 2019, Prubechu returned in a new space: the recently-closed Commonwealth. Though I will never get over losing what was one of SF’s all-time best restaurants (staying tuned for what you have next, Chef Jason Fox!), I’d rather it be Prubechu in that space than most. This is a rarity anywhere for Chamorro food, Guam’s traditional cuisine. The space oozes island breezes from reggae soundtrack to greenery, paired with comforting Guamanian food.

The Vault’s spring pea salad

9. Che Fico Alimentari, Western Addition/NoPa
The great Che Fico (my #3 opening of 2018) did it again with cozy Che Fico Alimentari downstairs. Where upstairs is sheer San Francisco — perfect technique and ingredients meeting innovation and a unique SF slant — Alimentari is more like a NYC Italian restaurant: traditional yet chic, done to perfection.

10. The Vault, FiDi (Financial District) The Vault is great for two reasons off the bat: because it comes from the always spot-on Hi Neighbor Group but because the kitchen is helmed by the talented chef Robin Song.

O’ by Claude Le Tohic pomegranate gazpacho, marmalade of charcoal-roasted beets, herb salad

11. Niku Steakhouse, Design District
I’m going to hold Niku Steakhouse on this list with a caveat: my initial visit would have placed this pricey-exciting Japanese-influenced steakhouse — though it’s much more than that — even higher on this list. But with the initial chef leaving within weeks and following shake-ups, it’s hard to say where the dust will settle and if this will remain an SF “great.”

12. O’ by Claude Le Tohic, Union Square
This the best French fine dining restaurant to come along in years in a city that once reigned in this category with the likes of Masa, Fleur de Lys, Piperade and La Folie (thankfully, the latter two longtimers remain).  O’ by Claude Le Tohic is the first French fine dining restaurant worthy of following in those footsteps with modern vision.

SSAL’s crab and crab egg rice

13. Square Pie Guys, SoMa
While the Detroit-style pizza at January 2019’s new Cellarmaker House of Pizza is legit, even excellent (along with top-notch beer), Square Pie Guys’ bustling SoMa spot is the more realized “restaurant” for Detroit pizza this year (they also nail much more than pizza: oh, that cheeseburger salad!) But as ever, Tony Gemignani’s Tony’s Pizza Napoletana remains #1 (for all styles of pizza) and has been doing Detroit-style pizza for a decade, years before it trended nationally.

14. SSAL, Russian Hill
Quietly open in April 2019, SSAL is an unexpected slice of refined Korean food on Polk Street. Husband-wife, Hyunyoung and chef Junsoo Bae, and their team hand-shell crab legs during Dungeness season, served in the shell with an irresistible crab egg rice I can’t stop scooping down to the last drop. Their Berkshire pork collar ssam arrives with the traditional lettuce leaves/wraps and killer gojuchang chili paste and kimchi. I wish we could bag up those house seaweed and kabocha squash chips: the ideal daily snack.

Honorable Mentions: Palette, Mago (Oakland), Selby’s in Atherton, Sushi Nagai, William Tell House (Marin), Matterhorn, Ittoryu Gozu, Fort Point Valencia, flour + water pizzeria, Great Gold
Top “Cheap Eats” Newcomers (It’s been a rich year of affordable new openings): Falafelland, Cafe Owakari, Senor Sisig, aPizza,, AL’s Deli, Konomama, Berliner Berliner

Sushi Nagai’s daily fish selection