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San Francisco Bay Area Food Experts Discuss Their Best Restaurant Meals of the Year

The most delicious meals to eat in San Francisco and beyond, according to Bay Area food insiders

A table covered in plates of food.
Eater Award winner Dalida served some of the year’s most memorable meals.
Patricia Chang

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Welcome to the Year in Eater 2023 an annual tradition that looks back at the highs, lows, and in-betweens of the San Francisco Bay Area’s restaurant scene. Today, the Bay Area’s top food writers, editors, reporters, and other industry experts share their best restaurant meals of the year.

Josh Decolongon, audience engagement producer (and host of “No Crumbs”) at KQED Food: Despite exciting openings and trends, Poc-Chuc’s namesake dish always stays satisfying me. Same goes with the niño pobre Puerto Rican po’ boy at Sol Food along with their mofongo relleno de camarones. They’ve never failed me in a year that demanded comfort and community.

Dessert-wise, I’d have to go with De La Creamery’s elote ice cream. I’ve had a few iterations across different creameries that have attempted to synergize the two components together, but I’ve gotta say this one blew the rest out of the water.

Madeline Wells, senior food reporter at SFGATE: A late summer dinner at Rintaro for a friend’s birthday: melt-in-your-mouth sashimi, early girl tomatoes and cucumbers with creamy yuzu mayonnaise, hand-rolled udon in dashi broth, and a fabulous poached peach, kanten jelly and raspberry sauce ice cream parfait for dessert.

Paolo Bicchieri, Eater SF reporter: I do think of myself as a simple pleasures person — butter mochi and strong coffee at Ocean Beach is my happy place. Still, SingleThread in Healdsburg was a transportive phenomenon for my dining partner and me. The duck liver parfait was the best dish of the week for me, just one-tenth of the tasting menu, thanks to its thoughtful composition and rich, creamy meat, flanked by pear and pistachio. The nonalcoholic drinks were on a whole other level, and the hours blurred together creating a Murakami-esque escapist joy. The opposite of a simple pleasure, but that level of commitment to food, drink, and hospitality is convincing.

Andrew Calisterio, photographer based in Sacramento: I’ve been fortunate to have some great meals this year but a few times I’ve returned to the “Chef’s Menu” at Dalida. The option reads “WE WILL CURATE THE EXPERIENCE FOR YOU” and usually includes their mezza plate. Don’t skip the cocktails from bar director Evan Williams, some of the most thoughtful creations in the city.

Lauren Saria, Eater SF editor: I think my most memorable meal of the year has to be the blow-out dinner at Smyth in Chicago — but since we’re talking about the Bay Area here I’m going to say it’s a tie between Ssal and Kiln. Both meals revived my excitement around fine dining and tasting menus with dishes that were both technically impressive and utterly delicious.

Elena Kadvany, San Francisco Chronicle food reporter: Chez Noir in Carmel, hands down. Owners Jonny and Monique Black won their first Michelin star this year, but Chez Noir feels anything but pretentious. They’ve created a vibe that somehow gives both Parisian dinner party and fine-dining experience with the highest of standards. Every dish feels like it could only be served here on the Central Coast, a few blocks from the beach: gildas with Monterey Bay squid, sweet spot prawns caught the same day, and rotating pastas featuring local cheese and produce. Service is warm and impeccable, from drink recommendations to the chocolate chip cookie you’re sent home with at the end of the night.

Fresh pasta from Chez Noir
Joseph Weaver

Astrid Kane, senior editor at the San Francisco Standard: Almost nothing brings me more joy than just going to town at House of Prime Rib, but I haven’t eaten a Henry VIII cut since last November, so I have to say Merchant Roots’ “Time Traveler” tasting menu. They cut their communal table into four two-tops and given the proximity of the prep area to the dining area, it’s less an open kitchen than something closer to a “dinner in the round.” It’s by far the best concept for a tasting experience I’ve had in years. And if you watch a lot of movies and you have the means to get there, I can’t emphasize how sexy a date at the Cinelounge in Tiburon is. That was a wonderful surprise.

Dianne de Guzman, Eater SF deputy editor: There isn’t much I haven’t already shared via our Best Dishes column or pushed into Eater Awards territory, but I will shout out a surprising-in-a-most-excellent-way dinner: Four Kings. My first Four Kings meal was really enchanting, starting with the deceptively simple Mouthwatering Tomato and continuing on to the XO butter escargot and mapo spaghetti. It’s what kept luring me back to their other pop-up events, and it’s what keeps me hanging onto news of their upcoming restaurant, set to open in 2024.

Food from San Francisco pop-up Four Kings
San Francisco pop-up Four Kings will move into a permanent space next year.
Pete Lee

Intu-on Kornnawong, chef and partner at Jo’s Modern Thai: It’s so hard to choose just one meal, however I had some great dining experiences at San Ho Won, Ernest, and Eem in Portland.

Kevin Alexander, author of Burn The Ice: The American Culinary Revolution and Its End: With apologies to Dalida’s ridiculous steal of a chef’s menu (that’s my runner up) and every meal I ever have at Hillstone, the best meal I had in 2024 was made by Anthony from Lou’s Takeaway in San Rafael. Lou’s has quietly been building more and more of a national reputation, but it is honestly one of the most innovative, creative, and delicious restaurants in the Bay (it just has no place to sit). Anthony reminds me of Portland’s famous chef Gabriel Rucker — everything he makes is random and original, but so accessible. This summer I had this “Snacky Fried Chicken,” which had a dehydrated snippet cheddar sour cream spice mix, Thai Chili Calabrian sauce, and a toasted kombu red miso “ranch” dressing. It was INSANE. And I think maybe that same day he also did his fried duroc pork belly with a Thai chili garlic vinegar. And then some fresh greens he’d just gotten from the Marin Farmers market. Honestly, I can’t stop thinking about it. I’m going there today.

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