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The Biggest Dining Surprise of 2019

A year in Bay Area pop-ups, closures, and unlikely neighborhood favorites

Voraciously One bowl Tom McCorkle for The Washington Post via Getty Images; food styling by Lisa Cherkasky for The Washington Post via Getty Images

We asked a group of local restaurant critics, journalists, and other assorted, and uniformly brilliant, friends of Eater SF to weigh in on this past year in food. We’ll share their answers to the annual “Year in Eater” survey over the course of several posts during this next week. Up next: the restaurant news and newcomers that genuinely surprised our panelists.

Becky Duffett, reporter at Eater SF: Watching Sayat and Laura Ozyilmaz get locked out of their own restaurant. They were stars, Noosh was wonderful, it was heartbreaking.

Janelle Bitker, food enterprise reporter at SF Chronicle: Maybe not necessarily a surprise, but it was great to see so many serious bagel makers emerge all at once between Boichik Bagels, Daily Driver, and Midnight Bagel pop-ups, plus new interesting bagel options at other bakeries and restaurants. The more obvious answer is so many longstanding restaurants closed, which always felt like a surprise in the moment, but again, maybe not actually a surprise?

Ellen Fort, food editor at Sunset Magazine: That people still get excited about fancy Parker House Rolls.

Sarah Han, editor at Berkeleyside Nosh: Hidden Café was my favorite dining surprise of 2019. This charming spot opened this year in a historic building on the edge of Strawberry Creek Park in Berkeley. The owners are three friendly artist-types (the chef is a poet), who’ve created this oasis where they serve tasty and thoughtfully sourced snacks and drinks. And then, after you’ve finished your meal or beverage, you walk out into this serene neighborhood park, with a huge lawn, lots of trees and a babbling creek. It’s very quaint, very Berkeley, but still a big surprise.

Eve Batey, senior editor at Eater SF: How just ... okay a lot of much-hyped places were. I’m not going to name any names, because who knows, maybe they’re still working things out — but it seemed like there were more places than usual that made “most anticipated” lists, but haven’t managed to live up to expectations. (My guess is that a combination of excellent PR people and less stellar on-site staffing made this happen, a tough mix!)

Elena Kadvany, food reporter at Palo Alto Weekly: It hits hard when communities lose longtime, beloved restaurants, which feels like it’s happening more and more often. Yet looking back at the restaurants that opened on the Peninsula in 2019, I’m surprised by all of the successful revivals of longtime eateries, from Rose International Market in Mountain View (which survived a major redevelopment) to the Alpine Inn in Portola Valley (purchased and restored to its former glory by new owners) and Redwood City sandwich standby Woodside Deli (which reopened just this week under new ownership).

Luke Tsai, editor at Eater SF: Nothing prepared me for how truly excellent the food at 2207, the little takeout lunch spot that opened in my neighborhood, was going to be. I probably should have included it on my list of standbys — my God, what a boon for work-from-home days. And while I suspected I would enjoy the northern Chinese breakfast offerings at Dumpling Specialist, I was bowled over by how satisfying it was. It’s not anywhere close to conveniently located for me, but I’ve already been back three times in the span of a couple of months.

Soleil Ho, restaurant critic at SF Chronicle: Honestly, I didn’t show up with S + M Vegan (now Lion Dance Café) with many expectations, but what I had there completely blew me away. During my month of vegetarian eating, I noticed that a lot of the veg places were relying on the same archetypes of cuisine — burgers, salads, pasta — whereas this pop-up was selling a totally unique take on vegan food that felt fresh and new.

Katherine Hamilton, restaurant critic at East Bay Express: I’ve led a very sad, burger-less existence since Lovely’s left The Lodge on short notice earlier this year. I’m very glad to hear they’re back now at Eli’s Mile High Club on the weekends, but I haven’t managed to brave the lines yet. Here’s to hoping for a permanent brick-and-mortar location in 2020.

Paolo Lucchesi, editorial director at Resy: I, for one, cannot believe that a robot quinoa restaurant didn’t make it.