Despite what some may say was a down year for openings in 2012, I was pleasantly surprised by the quality and variety of new restaurants that popped up in the Bay Area. Making a list can be tough… but alas, here’s my list of best new restaurants of 2012.

A preface – I didn’t get to every new restaurant that opened up this year. In fact, I didn’t even try, it would be quite impossible.  But I went to quite a few and really thought there was a great crop to choose from. I selected five (listed in alphabetical order) that to me, stood out above the rest.

Bar Tartine Sandwich Shop – Bringing together the best of both worlds, owners Chad Robertson and Elisabeth Prueitt have combined the wonderful aspects of Tartine Bakery and Bar Tartine to create a terrific lunchtime sandwich shop. Located inside Bar Tartine, the menu is mostly made up of sandwiches, either of the larger variety or several open faced options. There are also plenty of smaller snacks (salads and veggies) and sweets as well. Coffee and tea are served for the earlier morning crowd along with beer and wine. The shop also started serving fresh bread loaves daily recently, meaning customers won’t have to wait in the massive lines at Tartine Bakery every afternoon. Service is friendly and the atmosphere is very relaxed, almost like an upscale deli. But the real star is the sandwiches. It’s just a very creative menu that changes often and mixes beautiful, fresh ingredients. The mix of ingredients is just something not seen at a lot of other sandwich shops. It’s not just a slab of meat with condiments, there is some thought into what goes into each sandwich. A great lunch addition to the Mission District. Bar Tartine’s Sandwich Shop is located at 561 Valencia Street in San Francisco. The sandwich shop is open Wednesday-Friday from 11:00-3:00.

Hopscotch – Pure and simple joy. Every time I get a chance to dine at Hopscotch in Oakland, that’s truly what I feel. Owners Jenny Schwarz and Kyle Itani have a gem in the East Bay that matches terrific food with great service. Schwarz leads the front of the house team with a big smile each time I make a visit. She and her staff do a great job of explaining the menu (some items may be a bit unfamiliar) and service is prompt and friendly. Itani and his team has created a unique menu – there is a definite Asian influence, but not all the food is Asian-inspired. Dishes like his fried chicken and gnocchi are unique, wonderful dishes where diners can readily see the technique shine through, but also are comforted by the down home nature of the food. Hopscotch’s cocktail program is terrific and very well-rounded. From seasonal cocktails to a wonderful selection of beers and wines on tap, it’s a perfect spot to grab a cocktail and some small bites before a show at one of the many venues in Uptown Oakland. But the best part of the restaurant – Jenny and Kyle aren’t afraid to try different things and take chances. From a ramen pop-up they started late nights on Fridays this fall to bringing in The Meatball Shop team for a hugely successful pop-up on a recent Monday night, to scotch and beer pairings, they have a great feel for what guests might be interested in and a refreshing take as new restaurant owners. Look for more on the menu in 2013. Hopscotch is located at 1915 San Pablo Avenue in Oakland.

Local’s Corner – Located on a fairly quiet corner (23rd and Bryant) in the Mission District, Local’s Corner from the team behind Local: Mission Eatery proved to be a tiny treasure dishing out amazing food this year. The first thing I noticed is the size of the kitchen – if not the smallest, it has to be one of the smallest I have seen in my travels to restaurants in the Bay Area. But while the size may not match other restaurants, the quality of the dishes coming out of the kitchen is on par with all the other great seafood spots in San Francisco. Local’s Corner’s menu is primarily seafood-driven, with most dishes on the small side. Because of the lack of an oven, many of the items are raw. The main fish items are prepared sous vide, locking in all the wonderful flavors of the fish that is being prepared. I love the mix of ingredients and colorful presentation of each dish. There is a certain attention to detail that I greatly appreciate. While most items are seafood in nature, I’ve had several wonderful vegetable dishes as well (the beet salad was one of the best I had all year). Because of the size of the restaurant, dining quarters can be a bit tight, but service is spot on. As a seafood lover, Local’s Corner has quickly become one of my favorite spots for creative, beautiful and wonderful tasty dishes in San Francisco. Local’s Corner is located at 2500 Bryant Street in San Francisco.

Rich Table – Evan and Sarah Rich have done it right. I’m not sure I can say much more than what I wrote here. The husband and wife team opened Rich Table in 2012 with all the chops from fine dining restaurants in San Francisco and New York. And while the menu and dishes showcase those skills, it is all in a casual and relaxed setting. From the starters to the pastas and mains (can’t forget about the desserts either), each dish is so rich in technique, taste and flavors, yet seemingly simple in nature. The best example- a pasta dish I had that looked like a simple preparation of spaghetti, but from the noodles to the mint and the fresh vegetables, each bite presented something different, from texture to a new, wonderful flavor with each bite. Cocktails are spot on (although I’m excited to try the new cocktail list from Jason LoGrasso) and the beer and wine list is well thought out as well. I know I haven’t ranked this list, but to be honest, Rich Table was a jaw-dropping experience on both occasions I dined there. It’s a lot of fun to see great people do great things and be successful, which is what Evan and Sarah have accomplished. Rich Table is located at 199 Gough Street in San Francisco.

State Bird Provisions – Some may call it quirky or weird while others may be put-off by the cart service and design of the restaurant. But in my opinion, that all adds to the charm of State Bird Provisions. Stuart Brioza and Nicole Krasinki and their staff present a wonderfully unique take on American cuisine served dim sum style. Provisions are brought out on carts and trays, with a wide variety of different small bites available to grab at will. The hardest part is saying no to the small bites and saving room for the Commandables. Each dish presents a different mix of ingredients, a different set of wonderful flavors – the quality and creativity of each dish is rather astounding. Not every dish is a hit, but that’s true about every restaurant diners might visit. What I respect is that Brioza and Krasinski are never afraid to try something different, something new; it’s truly what makes State Bird Provisions such a great restaurant. They are not going by the cookie cutter mold. The lines may be long and reservations may be scantly available, but put State Bird Provisions on the list of must try spots in San Francisco. State Bird Provisions is located at 1529 Fillmore Street in San Francisco.

So there it is. There were plenty of places I left off that I want to make sure I try again in 2013. And many more exciting restaurants to come in the new year as well. A quick note, two places I left off would have qualified, I’m just not sure they necessarily fit the best new restaurant category. William Werner’s Craftsman and Wolves pastry spot and Ravi Kapur’s Liholiho Yacht Club pop-up. Both chefs blew my mind this year with what they were creating. Congrats to all the successful restaurant openings in 2012 and best for years to come.