And while restaurants didn’t get many chances to use their dining rooms in 2020, the introduction of COVID vaccines this year reinvigorated indoor dining for those who were able to venture out. Some of the newcomers, like the Matheson in Healdsburg and Oakland’s Daytrip, put a particular emphasis on artful decor in their spaces.
While I thought that there wouldn’t be as much to choose from this year, it was surprisingly hard to whittle down my choices to just the 14 places on this list. But I believe that all of these projects — whether they’re restaurants, pop-ups or something more — have already added immeasurable color and texture to the Bay Area’s food scene.
Inside of Cupertino’s Residence Inn hotel is Bar Bonmot, a low-key and romantically lit restaurant that unites French and Korean cuisines. Conceived by chef James Lim, the menu is full of surprises, like a potato terrine that turns out to be a luxe take on the tater tot, and sweet-and-salty pork belly wraps glazed with banana gochujang. A particular standout is the Korean-style mashed sweet potato salad, topped with deeply savory salmon roe marinated in a sweet potato-infused soy sauce. It’s a simple dish on paper, but it expresses the idea of “surf and turf” in a surprising and incredibly flavorful way. Cocktails follow a similar route and take full advantage of Asian components like roasted barley tea, yuzu and ginger marmalade and fish sauce. Of special note is the tableware, all made by Lim and his wife, who are budding ceramists in their own right.
Bar Bonmot. 5-10 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday. 19429 Stevens Creek Blvd., Cupertino. 408-645-5747 or barbonmot.com
New to San Francisco’s Civic Center is Chao Pescao, which opened in June. Its teal and guava-pink facade and brightly painted interior are cheery indicators of the restaurant’s casual format, engineered to offer affordable Cuban and Colombian dishes to locals. Run by owner Rene Denis, whose upscale restaurant Soluna once occupied the same space, Chao Pescao goes for tried-and-true, slow-braised favorites. There’s beef ropa vieja, mixed with plump olives and peppers, as well as garlicky, tender pork that you can get as a plate with rice and beans or stuffed into toothsome Colombian-style empanadas made with masa. All the dishes are made to withstand the trials of takeout and delivery service, though the dining room is also open.
Chao Pescao. 11:30 a.m.-8 p.m. Monday-Saturday. 272 McAllister St., San Francisco. 415-621-2200 or chaopescaosf.com
“Funky” is the operative word when it comes to describing Temescal’s Daytrip, opened in October by owners Stella Dennig and Finn Stern. The interior of the combination bottle shop and restaurant is decked out like an indie gallery, with iridescent materials and trippy wall art, and the menu is all about preserved ingredients and naturally fermented wine. The food menu is packed with sharply piquant lacto-fermented chile peppers, experimental miso pastes and dehydrated powders. This all culminates in aggressively flavored dishes like miso butter pasta and celery salad with aged sheep cheese and habanero dressing. The shelves at the front of the restaurant emphasize vintages from community-driven wineries and breweries, and you can easily grab a bottle to have with dinner.
Daytrip. 4-9 p.m. Wednesday-Thursday and Sunday; 4-10 p.m. Friday and Saturday. 4316 Telegraph Ave., Oakland. thisisdaytrip.com
Diamond Head General Store
From the get-go, it was clear that Diamond Head was meeting a sorely unmet need in its community. For the first few weeks of its existence, the San Bruno Hawaiian grocery store and cafe routinely sold out of ahi poke, loco moco and other Pacific favorites just a few hours into each day. Owners Monica and Chad Kaneshiro, former fine dining chefs who once ran a brunch restaurant in the same space, do a lot in the small space: They fry fresh doughnuts, called andagi; shape warm musubi with Spam and eggs; and shower fluffy shave ice with a plethora of house-made syrups and toppings. Browse the shelves for a wide selection of island delicacies, like hurricane popcorn, furikake Chex mix and frozen poi. You can eat at the counter or take everything to go.
Diamond Head. Full kitchen is open 10:30 a.m.-3 p.m. Wednesday-Sunday. 260 El Camino Real, San Bruno. 650-636-4007
We’re awash in Italian restaurants in San Francisco, so any new place that opens has to contend with distinguishing itself in an already-packed pool. But Itria, which opened in its new iteration in August, succeeds in being memorable. I still think about the toothy cencioni pasta I had there, mixed with a rich five-mushroom sugo and brightened with a spoonful of gremolata. And then there’s the crudo menu, a gallery of pristine raw fish paired with ingredients like wild Italian mint and charred tomato. Combine all of that with Itria’s exciting list of natural wines and sake, and you have a primo hangout spot.
Itria. 5:30-9:30 p.m. Wednesday-Thursday and Sunday; 5:30-10 p.m. Friday and Saturday. 3266 24th St., San Francisco. 415-874-9821 or itriasf.com
Jolly-Jolly Coffee Kitchen
In a tiny cafe space across from West Oakland Station, Nigerian expat Jahswill Ukagumaoha produces a succinct but strong menu of West African specialties. Jolly-Jolly is the pandemic-born dream of Ukagumaoha, who worked in nonprofits before opening the restaurant in March. Jollof rice — skillfully spiced and steeped with caramelly, savory aromas — is the must-have item here. Each plump grain of rice pulses with flavor and a hint of fire, and crunchy fried plantains are draped on top. Get it topped with tender stewed and fried oxtails or even kale and shrimp. There is limited seating on-site.
Jolly-Jolly Coffee Kitchen. 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Tuesday-Friday; 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Saturday; noon-8 p.m. Sunday. 1498 Seventh St., Suite B, Oakland. 415-941-8817 or jollyjollyllc.com
Jo’s Modern Thai
Blazing a new path for Thai restaurants in the East Bay is Jo’s Modern Thai, born of a partnership between first-time restaurateur Kao Saelee and chef Intu-on Kornnawong. Inspired by Kornnawong’s eponymous San Francisco pop-up and her time cooking at acclaimed restaurants like Kin Khao and Los Angeles’ Night + Market, the menu is full of surprises: a burger made with a lime-scented fried pork patty, stir-fried noodles mixed with smoked brisket, and a banger of a michelada made with spicy nam jim sauce. Set up with a chic patio and a bustling dining room, Jo’s is primed to be a hot spot for Oakland’s Laurel neighborhood.
Jo’s Modern Thai. 4-9 p.m. Wednesday-Sunday. 3725 MacArthur Blvd., Oakland. josmodernthai.com
La Cocina Municipal Marketplace
The most exciting recent development in San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood is this 7,000-square-foot food hall by La Cocina, the acclaimed incubator focused on helping low-income and immigrant women succeed in the food business. The organization’s mission manifests in every inch of the place, from the sustaining $5 meals available at every vendor to the free-to-use community computers with internet access. And, of course, the food is fantastic: Try Teranga’s Senegalese muffaletta sandwiches, Kayma’s Algerian flavorful vegan stew and an ube latte from Fluid Coop, a worker-owned coffee shop. The marketplace is open for indoor and outdoor dining.
La Cocina Municipal Marketplace. 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Monday-Friday. 332 Golden Gate Ave., San Francisco. lacocinamarketplace.com
La Q Marin
In a stroke of sheer genius, restaurateur Steve Paoli and chef Francisco Cazares opened this petite cheesy taco cart in a shopping center in Greenbrae. Situated in front of a Trader Joe’s, La Q Marin’s motto is “Never shop hungry,” which are wise words for anyone who’s hovered a little too long in the grocer’s potato chip aisle. The specialty is the crisp cheesy taco, built on freshly made corn tortillas and available with fillings like charred broccolini and cauliflower or prawns. Don’t miss the calzados, the stall’s take on a riceless burrito, finished with a long press on the plancha. Cazares’ sprightly pineapple habanero salsa is a must with each bite. You can sit and eat in the parking lot or take your order on the road.
La Q Marin. 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Monday-Saturday; 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Sunday. 2040 Redwood Hwy., Greenbrae. Takeout. laqmarin.com
At Berkeley’s Lulu, chef and owner Mona Leena sprinkles hummus with chopped Serrano peppers, packs crisp falafel with fennel and glazes fried chicken with anise-scented arak and miso. Her style is a marriage of Middle Eastern and Californian flavors brought together to represent her multicultural upbringing in the Bay Area. Weekend brunch is an especially exciting experience, thanks to Leena’s vibrant mezze platters filled to the gills with delectable house-made flatbreads, pickles, seasonal vegetable dishes and spreads. Both the airy dining room and cozy patio are open.
Lulu. 8:30-11 a.m. and 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday; 9:30 a.m.-3 p.m. Friday-Sunday. 1019 Camelia St., Berkeley. 510-529-4300 or luluberkeley.com
Healdsburg got a splashy opening this year in the Matheson, a three-story restaurant complex that boasts 130 wines by the glass, a sushi bar concept by chef Ken Tominaga, wood-fired pizza and a new take on Wine Country cuisine by lauded local chef Dustin Valette. The 88-tap “wine wall” is a fun way to try little tastes of premium wines you’ve always wondered about, from Chateau d’Yquem to a wide selection of Russian River Valley Pinot Noirs. It’s a gourmet amusement park of sorts, but the Matheson follows through on quality on every level. The lively rooftop, with its views of Healdsburg and informal service, is the highlight. Snack on juicy fried sweet corn seasoned with chile salt and pizza made with the same yeast used to make Pinot Noir. I recommend the pepperoni pie: A drizzle of honey and cinnamon-tinged Thai basil give it a wholly unique aroma.
The Matheson. 5:30-9:30 p.m. daily; rooftop open 5-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday and noon-10 p.m. Friday-Sunday. 106 Matheson St., Healdsburg. 707-723-1106 or thematheson.com
This pop-up dinner series is a true event, set with sculptural towers of squash, eccentric custom ceramics and wine made by the proprietor himself. Alex Lauritzen, who works at Russian Hill restaurant Seven Hills, teamed up with a group of talented friends to create a one-of-a-kind multicourse meal ($130) centered on vegan cooking. The aesthetic is a celebratory throwback to the 1960s — namely, San Francisco psychedelia and classic, oversaturated American cookbooks. A salad of grated carrots, beets and chickpeas shimmers like a tropical anemone, and drippy passion fruit pulp and puffed quinoa give a Concord grape sorbet a paisley appearance. Events are announced on the Mushroom’s Instagram page.
The Mushroom. Locations vary; see Instagram for more information. www.instagram.com/themushroomsf
A sister restaurant to the Mission District’s now-closed Son’s Addition, Otra in Haight-Ashbury revolves around beans, tortillas and salsa. Almost every dish includes some form of masa, whether it’s as powerfully crunchy chips with salsa molcajete, warm tortillas served with grilled hamachi collar or a pliant huarache piled with cotija cheese and hen of the woods mushrooms. Chef and co-owner Nick Cobarruvias, a Texas native, found inspiration in the homey and simple dishes he grew up eating, and you see that influence in the decor, too: The walls are decorated with framed photos of Cobarruvias’ Mexican ancestors, who watch over the space from beyond.
Otra. 4:30-10 p.m. daily. 682 Haight St., San Francisco. 415-500-2774 or otrasf.com
Pho Auntie 7
During the pandemic, I was thrilled to stumble upon Auntie 7’s Kitchen, a family-run meal-delivery service that provided incredible Vietnamese food. And then there was even better news: The team opened a restaurant in Castro Valley in May. Dishes include many that are relative rarities in the Bay Area. Try the savory and slurpable rice cakes, steamed in ceramic ramekins and topped with Danang-style shrimp and pork sauce. And if you only think of pho when you consider Vietnamese food, check out the restaurant’s mi quang, a hybrid noodle salad/soup decked out with crunchy peanuts, caramelized shrimp, a toasted sesame cracker and slippery turmeric-stained rice noodles in a rich broth.
Pho Auntie 7. 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday and Wednesday-Sunday. 2690 Castro Valley Blvd., Castro Valley. 510-885-1068 or phoauntie7.square.site
Soleil Ho is The San Francisco Chronicle’s restaurant critic. Email: email@example.com Twitter: @hooleil