All in all, 2007 proved to be a good year for newrestaurants. This year's winners do include Chez TJ — which has been open for 25 years — but acquired a brilliant young chef who transformed it. Not included, though of note, are well-established One Market and Bacar, which were invigorated by new chefs Mark Dommen and Robbie Lewis, respectively.
1 The Rockridge neighborhood took immediately to this small, noisy, wood-trimmed bar and restaurant. A small, versatile menu of seductively polished if hearty fare encourages eating at all hours. Snack on chef Max DiMare’s soft, savory rabbit rillettes ($5) with grilled bread. For lunch, have garbanzo bean soup ($7) heaped with tender shredded pork shoulder. For dinner, try Wicked Good Seafood Stew ($22), moist fish on top of clams, mussels, rock shrimp, and many thin slices of hot, garlicky Portuguese sausage. A long list of tasty wines by the glass, artisan beers and a full bar complete the wildly popular gastropub concept.
6317 College Ave., Oakland, (510) 654-6607
This urbane northern Italian restaurant lets you joyfully eat and drink through the afternoon with photogenic plates of house-made salumi ($12) or warm pig’s head terrine ($7) in pickle-y vinaigrette.
Chef/owner Staffan Terje makes an exquisite tajarin, a tangle of delicate, fresh tagliatelle topped with five-hour pork sugo ($10/$15), a destination dish. Equally luscious are agnolotti dal plin ($10/$15), “little priest’s caps” of house-made pasta filled with veal and cabbage. Partner Umberto Gibin, a super-pro in the dining room and Italian wine expert, makes this Financial District hot spot welcoming.
230 California St., San Francisco, (415) 955-0663,
Chef Darren McRonald, a Chez Panisse alum, has put together a menu that reminds me of Zuni, but leans more toward Italy: oysters on the half shell, salumi, sparkly starters and salads, wood-oven pizza, al dente pasta and main courses such as fish soup or buttery prime rib. Ingredients are pristine and seasonal, presentations simple and appealing. I’ve had this kind and level of cooking in San Francisco and Berkeley, but never in Sebastopol. The sprawling, rough-edged space designed by architect Cass Calder Smith allows for many seating options: bar, kitchen counter and airy dining room.
6948 Sebastopol Ave. (on the plaza), Sebastopol, (707) 829-9500
Young chef Christopher Kostow creates heady world-class cuisine in an immaculate 113-year-old cottage in downtown Mountain View. Inspired by beautiful ingredients from local sources, every morsel on his multi-course tasting menus possesses the shimmering clarity of the just-picked. He cooks fancy, but his food never feels manipulated or contrived. The textures embrace, the flavors excite, the presentations delight. One of the gifts of this restaurant is the almost retail pricing on premier cru Burgundies. If you’re in the market for this kind of lofty culinary experience, it’s worth a detour to Mountain View.
939 Villa St., Mountain View, (650) 964-7466,
At Two, in the former Hawthorne Lane, dinner costs $50 instead of $150, and the crowds are back. The bar room now feels like a tavern — woodsy and masculine with shaggy light fixtures. The single-spaced menu offers a maddening wealth of sexy choices: old-fashioned deep-fried clam strips ($10), chopped salad ($10.50), a swirl of tender house-made angel hair pasta with basil-scented tomato sauce ($9), crisp, crumb-coated and pan-fried pork schnitzel graced with sauteed escarole ($22). All are hearty with big flavor and unabashed richness. Every meal begins with irresistible parmesan crackers and tiny herbed biscuits. Tasty house wines in carafes keep the tab affordable.
22 Hawthorne Lane, San Francisco, (415) 777-9779, www.two-sf.com
One bite of chef Paolo Laboa’s silken “handkerchiefs” of handmade pasta slathered in a creamy green basil sauce ($15) announces that this Genovese restaurant is the real thing. Don’t miss another hyper Ligurian dish, tortelli filled with ricotta and fresh borage in a creamy brown sauce that tastes like fresh walnuts ($15). Daily vegetable dishes ($5) — roasted peppers and celery in a little vinegar; grilled cauliflower with charred edges — are as good as vegetables can get. Many drop in at this converted cookie bakery for focaccia di Recco ($12), — melted mozzarella-like stracchino cheese sandwiched between two paper-thin layers of pizza crust.
3560 18th St., (between Guerrero and
Valencia streets), San Francisco, (415) 565-0360
This small, exciting tapas bar from chef Mark Denham delivers a high-end experience in a casual setting. The menu charmingly reflects the season, but welcome perennials are cheesy, golden chickpea croquetas ($7), whole local anchovies ($9) fried in olive oil and tiny, juicy, lamb meatballs ($9). Pork headcheese ($8) comes slathered with piquant salsa verde; translucent slices of raw Pacific halibut ($13) get relishy chopped egg. Desserts ($7) like an intense, velvety chocolate pudding sprinkled with sea salt and olive oil served with thin toasts, match the sensibility of the menu. Even wines by the glass come in little carafes so they can be shared.
2031 Chestnut St., San Francisco, (415) 346-5641, www.laiola.com
The restaurant group that gave us A-16 now takes us from Naples to Rome. The soul of the smaller SPQR resides in driedhouse-made pasta sauced with traditional simplicity. When you bite into SPQR pasta it fights back, springy, feisty, almost meaty, and chefs Nate Appleman and Daniel Holzman treat it as the main attraction. However, the ideal meal begins with shared antipasti. Try the revelatory fried Brussels sprouts with crisp leaves and crackling hits of garlic, caper and parsley. End with almond milk granita. Italian wine guru Shelley Lindgren curates with offerings in all price ranges and sizes.
1911 Fillmore St. (at Bush Street), San Francisco, (415) 771-7779, www.spqrsf.com
9 Chef David Rosales’ carnitas ($15) burst open in your mouth releasing an explosion of pure pork flavor captured in a crackling crisp crust. Wrapped in a small, freshly made corn tortilla drizzled with one of three haunting hand-crushed salsas and a spoonful of warm cactus and chayote salad, it’s among the best tastes in the Bay Area; I challenge anyone to find a better mouthful. Frankly, everything on this menu is thrilling. The kitchen cooks well-sourced ingredients with a light hand and a level of refinement that allows you to taste classic Mexican cooking in a new way — stylish, simple and radiant.
1395 Steuart St., San Francisco, (415) 808-1048,
Much anticipated, Spruce started pouring champagne and slicing foie gras in a transformed Pacific Heights garage four months ago. It instantly became a tony clubhouse, reminding me of the old Stars. The operation projects an aura of luxury and full service but still embraces casual fare like a hamburger and exemplary french fries — especially for those who want to pair it with a $300 cabernet. Chef/partner Mark Sullivan keeps things relatively simple with a short, deluxe menu inspired by local produce, much of which comes from the restaurant group’s own Peninsula farm. I like a late lunch of “harvest” salad ($10) and juicy bavette steak ($18).
3640 Sacramento St., San Francisco, (415) 931-5100