There were plenty of great restaurants that opened in 2011. Choosing the best is a subjective process. The end of the year was an especially busy time for openings with seemingly two or three a week. So while I may have missed a few of the really good ones this year, here is my list of the best restaurants of 2011.
Mission Cheese: I love this small spot on Valencia Street. Although owner Sarah Dvorak is from Wisconsin and you can see some of her roots in the restaurant, it truly fits in perfectly with the Mission District. The interior is small and darker with natural light coming in off of Valencia. There are a few tables for outdoor seating and plenty of room at the bar as well. With a terrific, locally-driven wine and beer list and plenty of smaller bites to choose from, Mission Cheese offers diners plenty of options. Glass of wine or beer with some friends, eat a full meal, or just nibble. Everything is equally good and satisfying in its own “cheese” way on the menu, from the various cheese plates to the sandwiches and delicious sides. I also love the casual attitude from ordering off a blackboard to grabbing your own plate settings and utensils. To me, Mission Cheese “fits to a T” exactly what dining should be in the Bay Area.
Keiko à Nob Hill: Although Keiko à Nob Hill just opened in late November, I’m not sure I have had a better dining experience in the last few years. The husband and wife chef-owner team of Seigo Takei and Chef Keiko Takahashi have taken their tremendous cooking talents and massive wine list from Mill Valley ( El Paseo) to the former home of Charles of Nob Hill. Chef Keiko blends French technique with mainly Japanese ingredients to bring bold flavors and dishes to the menu. The wine list is unique and Takei is an expert if you have any questions. Service in the dining room and lounge is impeccable, not a beat is missed. Even though it is considered a fine dining experience, the restaurant is not overly stuffy. You can put your best clothes on for a night out and splurge on that special someone or just grab a wonderful glass of wine and bite or bites to eat in the cozy lounge/bar area. Expect the restaurant to only get better and better as time goes on in 2012.
Izakaya Yuzuki: I don’t like to choose favorites. But if I had to pick my favorite opening of the year, it might be this newbie in the Mission. Owner Yuko Hayashi wanted a true izakaya restaurant with authentic, homemade Japanese cuisine. She readily understands that the menu is not for everyone. But in terms of pure Japanese food, I’m not sure I have ever had any better. Homemade items include daily vegetables, tofu and age (fish cakes) among others. A lot of the cooking relies on a fermentation process using Koji mold, which plays heavily in the production of sake, miso and shoyu. The Koji process is said to make food taste better and easier to digest. I have not been disappointed by a dish yet and can give Izakaya Yuzuki the highest compliment possible. It really reminds me of my grandma’s cooking. And by the way, don’t forget to ask Yuko about sake and wine because she truly knows her stuff.
Park Tavern: Simple but elegant, Park Tavern opened in North Beach to much fanfare. And it has delivered since day one. Anna Weinberg and Jennifer Puccio, who also run and operate Marlowe, have created a restaurant not to be missed. In terms of food, everything from appetizers and small plates to entrees and desserts is excellent. There are a number of familiar items but each with a twist from Chef Puccio. The menu has a bit of everything for all types of diners. Service is excellent no matter how busy the restaurant is. Cocktails and a great wine list make the bar scene a must as well. Being that it is North Beach, you would think they would cater heavily towards tourists. But honestly, I believe the restaurant will be a favorite of both tourists and locals from the neighborhood in 2012.
Homeroom: Finally, I went outside the San Francisco bubble as I suggest everyone do on occasion. There are truly so many great restaurants around the entire Bay Area and one of the hotspots in 2012 in my opinion is going to be Oakland. Homeroom, which opened earlier this year, features mac and cheese and plenty of it. Co-owners Allison Arevalo and Erin Wade brought the ultimate comfort food and filled an entire menu with different varieties and flavors. The beer and wine selection is also amazing, featuring several local breweries and wineries. On to the mac and cheese, what can I say? It’s great no matter which selection you make. There are so many wonderful types of mac and cheese to choose from that you almost want to have a small sample of each before making your final choice. Ambience and service is very casual and homey. I think this might be my favorite spot for groups; you can grab a pitcher of beer and share 4-5 different mac and cheese variations, all in a very cool and welcoming environment.
So that’s it. There were plenty of other close calls on my list, restaurants that showed a lot of innovation, provided great food and that I would readily visit again. It’s truly difficult to narrow it down to only five choices. But these are the ones that really left a lasting impression in my mind and stomach. And guess what? We get to do it all again next year, with plenty more exciting restaurant openings scheduled for 2012. Bon Appétit!