It’s been another long pandemic year for Bay Area restaurants and diners. There have been many highs: a return to indoor dining, a slew of thrilling pop-ups, and a crowd of new restaurants and bars offering charcoal-charred Korean barbecue, elegant washoku-inspired cuisine, and delicately layered Filipino upscale dining. At the same time, we’re hurtling toward the end of the year while grappling with a new variant that’s making predictions for the months ahead seem anything but clear.
Eater San Francisco’s most-read stories of 2021 demonstrate the tension of navigating the intricacies of a public health crisis and the necessity of finding a path forward that’s more equitable and sustainable than before. In the past 12 months, Bay Area diners gravitated to the story of a historic Chinatown banquet hall given new life by a star chef and consumed the ongoing battle between delivery giants and independent restaurant owners. Here are the 10 most read Eater San Francisco stories of 2021 — and five more that you might have missed.
The much-anticipated Empress by Boon debuted in June, taking over the historic Empress of China banquet hall in Chinatown. More than two years in the making, the modern Cantonese restaurant is the first solo project for chef Ho Chee Boon, who chased Michelin stars around the world for 30 years as the executive chef at global hotspot empire Hakkasan. With a restored interior washed in blues and updated with modern leather and glass, it was altogether one of the most ambitious and exciting new restaurant openings of the year.
In mid-February, the first U.S. outlet of Hinoya Curry, one of Tokyo’s most popular curry chains, opened for business at 3347 Fillmore Street in the Marina district. The restaurant came courtesy of Northern California natives Barry Louie and Thomas Uehara, who spent the past 25 years living and working in Japan; to the couple’s knowledge, it’s the first established Japanese curry brand from Japan to open a restaurant in the Bay Area.
8. Chick-Fil-A Brings Fried Chicken Sandwiches and Anti-LGBQT Controversy to San Francisco’s Doorstep
In November, Chick-fil-A, the Atlanta-based fast food chain known almost as well for its close ties to groups opposed to LGBTQ rights as for its fried chicken sandwiches, opened its newest Bay Area restaurant — just outside San Francisco city limits. The controversial chain has seemed eager to expand in the Bay Area in recent years, opening in the San Jose airport and proposing locations in Campbell (where it was rejected by the city council over traffic concerns) and Redwood City (where it opened despite official opposition by San Mateo County).
Edward Dang brought thick cuts of medium-rare prime rib to the Sunset this fall, in hopes of feeding at least some of the diners who can’t seem to snag a coveted reservation at the House of Prime Rib, one of San Francisco’s classic and most beloved restaurant icons. You have to give him credit for ambition.
Restaurants coming back from the dead? In April the San Francisco Chronicle investigated a case of what is more than mistaken identity, involving popular restaurant Blowfish Sushi to Die For (that closed in December 2020) and Wagyumafia, a high-priced wagyu restaurant out of Japan that once had plans to open in San Francisco (but never did). Despite ostensibly not existing, both restaurants popped up online for takeout and delivery.
San Francisco’s first H Mart, the wildly popular Korean-American supermarket, opened in April and we tapped Um.ma chef Chris Oh to share his hottest shopping tips — from what to grab for in-car snacking to how to navigate that enormous noodle aisle.
“The 9-to-5 workday is dead; and the employee experience is about more than ping-pong tables and snacks,” declared Salesforce, San Francisco’s biggest employer in February. The announcement left downtown business owners reeling, wondering how to move forward with some 10,000 Salesforce employees removed from the area’s daily economy.
San Francisco resident and then-Doordash driver Jeffrey Fang experienced a nightmare in February. While he delivered an order, thieves stole his vehicle — with his two children inside. The kidnapping spurred conversation about the problems with the gig worker economy and the consequences of California’s Prop 22, which denies workers like Fang basic protections like minimum wage, paid time off, and unemployment benefits.
2. Five California Counties Are Allowed to Reopen Indoor Dining Today, Eight More Can Reopen Next Week
Unsurprisingly, it was big news when improvements in COVID-19 infection rates for five California counties allowed them to move from the purple to the red tier in the state’s color-coded reopening plan. The tier change was a major one, allowing indoor dining to resume in those areas if approved by each county’s health officials.
January 1, 2021 saw the implementation of a California law requiring apps to offer delivery only from restaurants with which they have a direct partnership and to pull listings from any restaurants with which they do not have a current contract. The legislation was born out of a scandal that began in the Bay Area: In January 2020, Pim Techamuanvivit, the owner of San Francisco’s Michelin-starred Thai restaurant Kin Khao, was stunned to discover that delivery services were offering food purportedly from her menu for delivery without her permission.
Five Stories Worth Reading Right Now
Inside the Bay Area’s Corgi Butt Boba Phenomenon — by Becky Duffett
What Makes a Koreatown? — by Cathy Park
What Makes a Bar Queer? — by Rey Levy Uyeda