The year 2021, also known as pandemic take two, really was a wild ride for restaurants, and the food trends to spiral out of it reflect that. We went from full lockdown to full reopening, first bundling up for the coolest parklets before finally taking a seat in plant-filled dining rooms. But San Francisco diners ate their hearts out through it all, and the city that obsesses over food still found plenty of dishes, drinks, and other dining details to buzz about. From the freshest and finest crudos to pineapple buns pumped with custard, surprisingly affordable tasting menus to dining with dogs, here are the food trends that defined San Francisco in 2021.
Fancy Freezer Pizza
While it may seem like a distant memory, only 12 months ago San Francisco was still fully locked down, and one of the coolest trends was — fancy freezer pizza. So much so that your hardworking Eater SF editors did a definitive guide with spicy tasting notes. Pizzeria Delfina, Tony’s, Piccino, and Casey’s do still seem to be offering frozen pies, if you wish to stock up for the winter. What a shelter-in-place throwback, right?
Real Raw Fish
Moving into full reopening over the summer, suddenly it seemed like the Bay Area collectively craved raw fish. Itria coolly opened in the Mission with half a dozen different crudos on the menu, while Le Fantastique dazzled in Hayes Valley with small plates of raw and cured fish that defy omakase or crudo categorization. Even hot new openings like Ernest and Penny Roma no longer have one hamachi on the menu, but several different crudos, carpaccios, and tartares.
Teeming Tinned Fish
The tinned fish trend has been happening for a while, but while it arguably started on the home cooking side, it’s now brimming on menus across the city. Anchovy Bar was one of the biggest openings this pandemic, where the State Bird team is not only curing local anchovies, but you can also taste various tins side by side. While fun new bars like Chezchez and La Bande are prying open tins of sardines and mussels and proudly setting them on plates.
All Asian-American Pastries
A cohort of talented bakers dug into Asian-American flavors and nostalgia this past year: Bake Sum rained purple pineapple buns across the Bay, Sunday Bakeshop stuffed cruffins with strawberry Pocky, Jina Bakes folded spicy braised short ribs into croissants, while Grand Opening stunned with its star burnt honey pie.
Appealingly Affordable Tastings
Michelin star mania set in by fall, when those fancy French inspectors dropped an update to the California guide. But Bay Area diners seem interested in more affordable tasting menus these days: The city fell in love with Marlena, the mom-and-pop Michelin stunner in Bernal Heights, where four courses run $65. In affordable omakase, Chisai Sushi Club debuted a full experience at $80, while Sushi Sato is doing snacky tastings for $40 to $55. The new Hilda and Jesse is even doing a tasting menu for breakfast — serving three courses for $45.
Espresso Martini Mania
Let’s not call it a trend, because we’ve always had strong coffee cocktails in San Francisco. But in particular, espresso martinis went on an ultra caffeinated overdrive this year. Smooth and sweet with double the buzz, the velvet hammer is on nitro tap at Balboa Cafe and shaking at 15 Romolo and Macondray, just to name a notable few excellent versions, and drinkers can’t seem to get enough.
Cool, Creative Parklets
The pandemic puppy boom also infiltrated restaurants. First of all, several locals named their restaurants after dogs: Meet lady pitbull Lucy of Lucinda’s Deli, resident bar dog Kona of Kona’s Street Market, and of course the esteemed Mr. Digby of Mr. Digby’s. But it’s not just chefs and bartenders who are obsessed with their dogs. Diners love bringing them to parklets, so much so that restaurants are obliging with “yappy hour” menus around town, from canine “caviar” at Angler to “churro chews” at Tacolicious.
Lots of Lush Plants
And the plant-mom trend is also thriving in restaurants. Once dining rooms reopened, everywhere you look, restaurants and bars are dripping with plants. Propagation plant bar, Nightingale fern bar, Macondray, and others are so full of plants, it’s like you can’t even sip a cocktail without brushing into fronds – in a good way.
Never-Ending Natural Wine
And finally, the natural wine trend never stopped flowing this year. Hip new wine bars like Daytrip, Snail Bar, and Bar Part Time dug out natural and funky bottles, cranking them open under glittering disco balls and turning would-be regular nights into bacchanal parties. And even in hot new restaurant openings, it feels like you can’t flip open a menu without natties featuring prominently on the wine list.