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Dessert at Marlena

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The Best Meals at San Francisco-Bay Area Restaurants in 2021

Here’s to the meals we won’t soon forget

Patricia Chang

Welcome to Year in Eater 2021, Eater’s annual tradition of celebrating the past 12 months with help from some of the Bay Area’s top food writers. Between now and end of the year, Eater SF will post daily questions about the Bay Area restaurant scene with answers from those who know it best.

In the Bay, I had a really great meal at Marlena — love seeing the evolution of the space and the cooking, it just keeps getting better and better. Also had a really great meal at Octavia. [Chef de cuisine] Nico [Pena] is killing it right now. That lasagna tho. — Omar Mamoon, writer, Esquire

I worried that Octavia wouldn’t be the same when it reopened after such a long pandemic closure, but when I went over the summer, it was pretty flawless from start to finish. It was my first full tasting menu in many, many months, and it couldn’t have been a sweeter return to San Francisco dining, teasing all of the NorCal farm favorites: sweet fresh mozzarella with Jimmy Nardellos; tart stonefruit topped with peppery greens; Brentwood corn lasagna with sweet corn and bright chiles; crispy and fatty king salmon with sungolds and saffron; and a malted chocolate cremeux with candied hazelnuts and salted chantilly. — Becky Duffett, Deputy Editor Eater SF

Californios, hands down. Dining on the chic garden patio transported me to Mexico City, but the menu was pure Val [Cantu] NorCal. Still dreaming of that squab al pastor taco (and tortilla). Every dish, every plate, every pairing…so beautiful, crazy-delicious, and creative, but it was also fun and not fussy. A true feast for the senses, complete with an edgy soundtrack and a story. — Marcia Gagliardi, founder/editor of

Kaidao Thai Street Food, an unexpectedly great little place I stumbled upon in a strip mall near the Sacramento suburb of Rancho Cordova. After each dish set down by our funny, snarky server — sticky coconut moo ping, rambutan red curry and a makrut lime-heavy southern Thai dry curry called kua kling — my friend and I looked at each other and remarked, “damn, that’s like, really good.” — Benjy Egel, food and drink reporter, The Sacramento Bee

A mezze platter from Lulu Berkeley with a mix of house-baked breads, dips, spreads, and shareable items including Za’atar Fried Eggs, Fried Halloumi, Labneh, Baba Ganoush, Shakshuka, Za’atar Mana’eesh, seasonal fruit, and more. Lulu

I loved the brunch board at Lulu in Berkeley. After missing out on indoor brunches for the better half of a year, it was really special to go there and be treated to beautiful, delicious Palestinian bites. The labneh-whipped deviled eggs, homemade pita and cardamom mocha are still fresh in my mind. — Jessica Yadegaran, food and dining writer, The Mercury News and East Bay Times

Kaiseki Saryo Hachi, a kaiseki pop-up in a ramen restaurant in Burlingame. My colleague Soleil Ho was kind enough to bring me along with her. I’d never had a proper kaiseki meal before, and I found this one awe-inspiring. The beverage pairing was special, too. — Esther Mobley, senior wine critic, San Francisco Chronicle

In terms of sheer enjoyment, probably a meal that I technically cooked myself a few weeks ago at Berkeley’s Fish & Bird. They have these little tabletop yakiniku grills, and you sit outside cooking whole spot prawns, scallops, A5 wagyu, and sauce-slathered onigiri over the hot binchotan coals at your leisure. So good and so fun! — Luke Tsai, food editor, KQED

Basteeya from Mourad Lauren Saria

I’ve got two: I’m still swooning over the meal I had in late summer at Mourad. Not only was every dish utterly gorgeous and perfectly executed — from the delicate flower-crowned basteeya to the oversize la’acha — but the service was also some of the smoothest I’ve experienced in a long while. I’m also in love with Rinatro, which feels like a hidden gem somehow, and was the setting for a special dinner in July filled with silky smooth tofu, pristine sashimi, and the absolutely warmest staff. — Lauren Saria, editor, Eater SF

On most Sunday’s, my family and I like to have dinner together at a local restaurant and we often crave Japanese food. One of the best meals I had during these outings was from Iyasare in Berkeley. The last time I visited, we split the chirashi don, which comes with an assortment of fresh, colorful fish topped over a bed of rice, and it was the perfect end of the week meal. They also have some of the best nigiri I’ve tried around the bay. — Susana Guerrero, reporter, SFGATE

The best restaurant meal I had in 2021 was at Bombera, Chef Dominica Rice-Cisneros’ new restaurant. “Bombera,” which means firewoman, is outstanding. Located in a former fire station, it’s now transformed into a warm, aesthetic indoor and outdoor dining space. Everything I tried on the menu was both homey and exciting, from the refreshing watermelon salad to the crispy shrimp tacos. Tucked away in the Dimond neighborhood on a residential corner, it’s truly a gem of a restaurant and we are lucky to have her in Oakland. — Momo Chang, freelance food writer and Oakland Voices co-director

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