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. Next up: our panelists’ favorite restaurant (and restaurant-adjacent) meals of 2019.
Becky Duffett, reporter at Eater SF: The Progress. Five years in, and every dish is memorable. I finally got the big duck platter, and life may never be the same. Also, have you had the shot of peanut milk? It’s like all of your childhood memories of peanut butter ice cream distilled into a tiny glass.
Elena Kadvany, food reporter at Palo Alto Weekly: I find myself daydreaming about the Hunan food at Wonderful in Millbrae more often than I care to admit. The hand-rolled noodles, served cold with slivers of cucumber, green onion, and peanuts; the smoked Hunan pork; the lamb stir fried with cilantro, tender stems and all; the signature godfather’s sauce, the stuff of spicy, umami fantasies. The service is always friendly and the portions generous. The first time I ate there I learned a valuable lesson from the diners sitting one table over, who unabashedly pulled out their own Tupperware containers to make the wonderful meal last that much longer.
Soleil Ho, restaurant critic at SF Chronicle: My best meal wasn’t at a proper restaurant, but at an in-home ramen pop-up called Noodle in a Haystack. The level of care Yoko and Clint put into these meals destroys every bowl of ramen in the Bay; after eating here, lesser noodles turn to ash in my mouth. No other ramen is good to me anymore. Also, their dog is cute.
Luke Tsai, editor at Eater SF: My most memorable bites of the year weren’t at sit-down restaurants at all. Instead, I can’t stop thinking about that first bite of an El Garage quesabirria taco that I took leaning against the hood of a friend’s car in a residential neighborhood in Richmond, the meat juices dribbling everywhere, and, later, another version of those same tacos from Los Originales, eaten during an excursion to the Mexican swap meet in Antioch with my kids. Or the first time I ate the salmon-and-crawfish musubi at San Mateo’s Takahashi Market, a portable snack food made with such care that it goes toe to toe, in terms of sheer deliciousness, with any fine dining entrée.
Katherine Hamilton, restaurant critic at East Bay Express: Top Hatters Kitchen truly impressed me from start to finish, from appetizers like the chopped clams and savory doughnuts to mains like the oxtail and grits with citrus gremolata. I often daydream about the buttermilk panna cotta with citrus granita and crumbled tallow shortbread, as well as the lusciously foamy egg coffee. Both the interior and the patio are beautiful yet unpretentious, and the servers are some of the kindest I’ve encountered.
Janelle Bitker, food enterprise reporter at SF Chronicle: This might be cheating, but definitely my most memorable meal was at a La Cocina collaboration dinner between Old Damascus Fare and Michelle Minori. It was an incredible and incredibly generous Syrian feast, and I still think about that lamb with smoked rice. If I have to pick a meal that other people can actually experience on a regular basis, I’ll go with Maum, the fabulous Korean fine dining spot in Palo Alto that feels like an intimate dinner party.
Eve Batey, senior editor at Eater SF: Every meal feels like my best meal for the first few bites, you know? (Does this mean I am always hungry?) I can’t stop thinking about an exceptionally perfect poke burrito I had at Hook Fish Co., and the thing that makes me crazy that I don’t know what kind of fish was in it, just that it was their fish of the day. The rice was just right, the slaw was perfectly crunchy, and it all felt like magic.
Ellen Fort, food editor at Sunset Magazine: This is always the hardest question to answer, but Maum in Palo Alto really stands out. Thoughtful, delicious, beautiful Korean food presented in a unique dining environment. They deserve their Michelin star (and more).
Sarah Han, editor at Berkeleyside Nosh: Berkeleyside’s holiday dinner at Top Hatters Kitchen and Bar in San Leandro was hands down the best meal I had in 2019. There were enough of us that we ordered several dishes from each section of the menu I loved the variety of flavors and influences on the menu, from a seared rice cake with Chinese sausage and dried shrimp to savory ricotta doughnuts with Pecorino and bacon. My favorite dish from that night was the slow-roasted brisket with pan-fried grapes and peasant rice. I was so full by the time it came to the table, but I had seconds (maybe thirds) because I couldn’t let any of it go to waste.
Paolo Lucchesi, editorial director at Resy: I think all of my restaurant standbys could count as some of my best meals (hence the standby status), but I’ll go with meals that, for me, were singular experiences: a stunning tasting menu experience at Nightbird, a flooringly beautiful dinner at Rintaro, and an unexpectedly vegan dinner at the bar at Plaj. But my favorite was probably due to sentimental reasons: sharing a special occasion meal with family the historic and beautiful Savoy in Helsinki.