It feels a bit uncomfortable to talk about “exciting openings” in a year as devastating to the local restaurant scene as 2020 has been. But inasmuch as the past nine months have seen more heartbreaking closures than we care to count, they’ve also been a time of unprecedented creativity and hustle.
We’ve seen long-running pop-ups take the final steps to realize their proprietors’ long-held brick-and-mortar dreams. We’ve seen laid-off chefs start successful Instagram-based food businesses that may be the seeds of a crop of exciting new restaurants in 2021 and beyond. And in a time when the financial realities of the coronavirus crisis threaten to leave national chains, fast casual places, and ghost kitchens as the only restaurants standing, we’ve seen new spots doing their best to add to the diversity of the Bay Area restaurant landscape.
Put another way, these newcomers — and many others — helped make this awful year just a little bit more bearable. Here, then, are 20 of the Bay Area’s most exciting new restaurants, arranged in rough chronological order of opening.
Anyone who had ever sat down for a blowout meal at Mister Jiu’s, Brandon Jew’s iconic California-Cantonese fine dining restaurant in SF Chinatown, was curious about how the chef would do with a whole restaurant centered on Chinese-American takeout classics like beef and broccoli and sweet and sour chicken. Very well, it turns out: Mamahuhu was an immediate hit in the Richmond District, and dishes like a vegan, shiitake mushroom-based take on mapo tofu quickly became San Francisco food canon. And, as fate would have it, really good Chinese takeout turned out to be exactly what the city needed to help get through the last nine months of shelter in place.
Remember those halcyon days of February 2020, when going out to a buzzy, crowded bar for cocktails and dessert was still a thing? That was when Viridian burst onto the downtown Oakland bar scene, with a one-of-a-kind formula: absurdly delicious cocktails, inspired Asian-leaning desserts, and a distinctly Asian-American aesthetic, with a purple-pink color scheme inspired by Lisa Frank and jelly roll pens to boot. For now, the place is serving a much more limited to-go menu, but part of what’s getting me through the rest of this pandemic is thinking about how fun it was to hang out here — and how great it’ll be to eventually go back.
Fish & Bird Izakaya
A bold, modern izakaya helmed by former B-Dama chef Asuka Uchida, Fish & Bird was the most inventive Japanese restaurant to hit the East Bay in years, dishing out a menu equally adept at blowing minds (cheese curds inside fried fish cakes?) as it was providing cozy comfort. It’s that latter category of cuisine that has served the restaurant well during the pandemic, as the kitchen has hustled to put out everything from shabu shabu kits to a reheat-and-eat Japanese meatball in brown gravy — a contender for any list of best things to eat over white rice.
With a built-in fanbase from years spent hawking Berliner doughnuts and Bienenstich (bee sting) cakes at local farmers markets, San Francisco’s only dedicated German bakery finally set up shop in NoPa in February, blessing the city with one of its prettiest (and most delicious) spreads of not-too-sweet cakes — a boon to homesick German expats and curious first-timers alike.
The greatness of San Francisco’s most exciting new sushi spot lies in part in how approachable it is. At Fenikkusu, the omakase options (still available for takeout) start at $25 for five nigiri — all of them stunning, thoroughly non-generic picks like buttery ocean trout dabbed with miso or blue shrimp topped with toasted pine nuts. Meanwhile, the izakaya-style appetizers, like King oyster mushrooms stir-fried in miso butter, are just as notable.
When Reem Assil opened her first restaurant and bakery in San Francisco, she inherited one of the most beloved community-oriented spaces in the Mission — the old Mission Pie spot — and made it thoroughly her own: a haven of mana’eesh (Arab flatbreads), ka’ik sandwiches, progressive politics, and warm hospitality. Though its oven is out of commission for the time being, Reem’s has cemented its status as one of the city’s most important, and most beloved, restaurants.
San Ho Won
Though chef Corey Lee’s first full-fledged Korean restaurant has had its permanent Mission District storefront waylaid by the pandemic, the bountiful prix fixe “test kitchen” dinners that Lee and his team have been slinging out of Benu have been one of the true delights of the past several months — fried Cornish hens stuffed with glutinous rice, delicately-wrappered dumplings, and fresh-milled rice cakes the likes of which San Francisco’s Korean food scene has never seen.
Palm City Wines
This Outer Sunset newcomer has ambitious dinner kits and an extensive, well-curated wine collection in its repertoire, but Palm City Wines by far best known for its selection of well-stuffed (and Instagram-friendly) Philly-style hoagies — a prime example of the Bay Area’s mid-pandemic big sandwich obsession.
Arepas en Bici
Of course, Arepas en Bici isn’t, strictly speaking, a restaurant. But in a year when “pandemic side hustle” entered the food media lexicon, this San Francisco-based arepa bike delivery service, more or less a one-man operation that laid-off chef Victor Aguiler promotes mainly via Instagram, represents the best of what pandemic-fueled ingenuity has produced. It’s also one of the only sources for traditional Venezuelan food in the city — itself a cause for excitement.
Fine dining vet Vic Donado may not have previously planned to be slinging burgers for the past seven months, but he’s leaned into the endeavor, taking the now-ubiquitous smash-styl eburger to extremes previously unseen in the Bay Area — the thinnest and crispiest patties, the most whimsical and outlandish toppings. All told, the pop-up, based first in Oakland and now in Alameda, has been a runaway hit from day one.
Japanese food obsessives and burger enthusiasts both nerded out over this early summer opening, which featured the talents of Masa Sasaki, one of the Bay Area’s most talented sushi chefs — applying his skills, now, at a burger shop. Masabaga is home to Sasaki’s original creation, the “toro burger” (featuring a juicy, katsu-fried piece of tuna belly), along with a handful of other creative, Japanese-inflected sandwiches.
Fans of what is arguably the Bay Area’s best, and most famous, version of the taco phenomenon known as quesabirria, had to abstain for several months while El Garage put the finishing touches on its first actual restaurant storefront. It was worth the wait: Being able to snag those cheesy, consommé-dipped beauties consistently every week, multiple days a week, has been a game-changer for the former driveway pop-up.
The Night Market
After disappearing from the scene for two years, this Hong Kong-inspired South San Francisco spot reemerged this summer with a full revamp of the space that made what had already been the Bay Area restaurant most similar to an Asian night market even more night market–like. Plastic stools and tables set up in the parking lot and new menu items like a Chiu-Chow style congee bar completed the effect.
The full glories of this cozy, banquette-lined French restaurant from the B. Patisserie team might not be seen until indoor dining returns, but for the past several months Routier has blessed diners with some of the most elegant and comforting takeout in the city — rillettes and financiers and a show-stopping lobster “grand aioli” salad.
The Bay Area has been hungry for more Caribbean food options for some time now, which is why this new Trinidadian spot in East Oakland was such a welcome addition to the scene: Its curry roti wraps, fiery and unspeakably tender jerk chicken, and house-made ginger beer are the real deal.
Chef-owner Hanif Sadr’s East Bay pop-up built up a faithful following over the years, and he’s now brought his homey Northern Iranian food — herb rice, herb frittatas, and assorted slow-cooked stews — to a Mission District cafe.
Lion Dance Cafe
Ever since it opened in September, this vegan Singaporean spot’s Friday and Saturday takeout offerings have been one of the toughest tickets in town, often selling out minutes after they’re posted online — a tribute to this former pop-up’s wild popularity, and to the bold flavors found in dishes like its trademark tofu- and yuba-stuffed shaobing sandwiches.
The Bay Area has never had a barbecue restaurant open with as much anticipation as Matt Horn’s new West Oakland spot, which, just a couple of months in, is already the kind of place that inspires pilgrimages — that’s how good the pitmaster’s Central Texas-style brisket and other slow-smoked offerings are.
The Anchovy Bar
If you’re a fan of oily little fish, it’s hard not to root for an entire restaurant built around that theme. That’s the premise of the State Bird Provisions newest spot, which preserves its anchovies in-house during the local season, but also serves a whole host of other treasures from the sea: Smoky braised oysters, cod roe butter over steamed potatoes, and uni toast are just a start.
Dumplings have no borders at this second restaurant from the chef-owner of the Excelsior’s Beijing Restaurant, which is, of course, all about the dumplings. It serves stellar, by-the-books renditions of staples like xiao long bao and shengjian bao, but also, even more audaciously, original creations like the Mission chicken potsticker, filled with ground chicken, sweet corn, and cheese.