The best restaurants of 2011 may not be trend setters, but they give San Franciscans more of what they love — gentle innovation, skillful cooking, local ingredients and moderate prices. There was, however, geographic groundbreaking with major openings in North Beach, San Mateo and a cornucopia of eateries in Oakland, which more and more resembles a new Brooklyn. BART makes them all accessible. Here’s my list of 10 to try in 2012.
399 Grove St. (at Gough Street), S.F. (415) 430-6590
Chef Justin Simoneaux nimbly incorporates the cooking of both his native southern Louisiana and his adopted San Francisco. He imports seafood from the Gulf but uses lots of California produce as well. Start with crisp, light, hush puppies with red pepper jelly ($5) or boudin balls ($5). Don’t miss fried oyster salad ($11) or fried shrimp po’boys ($15). His juicy Southern fried chicken ($18) hits that special spot. A high ceilinged, bare-raftered room, filled with New Orleans music and piles of golden fried food delivers that Crescent City kind of happiness.
231 Franklin St. (between Hayes and Fell streets), S.F., (415) 896-4587
Ame veteran Greg Dunmore carries on the San Francisco tradition of bringing local ingredients to Asian cooking, in this case Japanese. His simple, direct, big-flavored Japanese cooking radiates freshness and goodness — Japanese with Midwestern values. Nojo means “farm.” Every item on the daily-changing izakaya menu tastes original, from winter pickles ($5.75) to Dungeness crab chawan mushi, an egg custard ($14.50).
2400 Polk St. (at Union Street), S.F., (415) 474-2000
This roaring, if small, Austrian beer hall and restaurant has been mobbed from day one. Owned by two brothers, Klaus and Albert Rainer, Leopold’s unabashedly celebrates old fashioned Mitteleuropa — from the dirndl-clad waitstaff to the straight-ahead Austrian fare, including golden schnitzel ($13.75); a magnificent choucroute platter ($18.75) with vibrant fresh sauerkraut and savory pork in many forms; and strudel ($5.75).
557 Valencia St. (between 16th and 17th streets), S.F., (415) 863-6800
This new Roman restaurant from the Delfina group specializes in “fifth quarter” dishes — oxtails ($21), fried sweetbreads with artichokes ($12), pigs’ ear terrine ($9) — all super tasty. The pasta ($14 to $18) is house-made and al dente, southern Italian-style. Main courses such as a guinea hen leg ($21), boned, stuffed, wrapped in pancetta and grilled, is one of the best dishes of the year.
Westfield Center, fourth floor, 845 Market St., S.F., (415) 896-5600
The last place you’d expect to find an extraordinary meal is on the fourth floor of a shopping mall, but Cupola Pizzeria is the real deal. The pizzas ($11 to $16.75) emerge from a dome-shaped, almond-wood-burning pizza oven, with thin, crisp yet elastic crusts, and perfectly proportioned toppings. Starters such as warm, hand-pulled mozzarella ($11.75), vegetable antipasti and salads ($4.50 to $9), and a spectacular fork-tender pork shoulder ($21.50), fill out the menu. The convenience of Cupola’s location near Yerba Buena and downtown is unsurpassed.
1652 Stockton St. (between Union and Fillmore streets), S.F., (415) 989-7300
This sophisticated tavern and restaurant was the hottest ticket in town from the moment it opened in North Beach. Chef Jennifer Puccio’s versatile menu delivers lots of small plates meant for sharing. Her deviled eggs ($1.50), and deep-fried brussels sprout leaves ($6) have already become San Francisco classics. Throw in the fried oyster caesar ($12); twice-baked potatoes ($7); and grown-up vegetable sticks with green goddess dip ($7), all of which go with cocktails, and you’ll adopt Park Tavern as your neighborhood hang — even if you live across town.
39 South B St., San Mateo, (650) 579-6021
Channan Kamen, who manned the pasta station at the original Quince, opened his own place on the Peninsula this year, and it’s a hit. House-made tajarin with black truffles ($17), bigoli with minced lamb and saffron ($18) and parsnip ravioli with short rib sauce ($18) all rival the master’s. A heaping fritto misto ($11) is perfect, as is thin-crusted, voluptuously topped pizza. Don’t miss the succulent duck breast ($24). Osteria Coppa is so good and so fairly priced, it’s worth a trip from The City.
1299 18th St. (at Texas Street), S.F., (415) 821-7569
Go for the simple, radiant breakfast and lunch dishes from a Potrero Hill couple who met in Oliveto’s kitchen. The fried-egg sandwich ($11) with bacon, melted cheddar and aioli that comes with Plow’s now famous craggy, golden, crushed potatoes is iconic. Puffy ricotta pancakes ($9.50), delicate tea-smoked chicken salad ($10), and the definitive portobello sandwich with romesco and melted Point Reyes toma cheese ($9.50) are all faves at this sun-filled corner cafe. Expect a wait for limited tables.
2214 Broadway (at Grand Avenue), Oakland, (510) 444-7586
The energy and creativity of Daniel Patterson, who founded Coi, knows no bounds. At his sleek Plum, most of the small plates are made with familiar ingredients but end up tasting new and exciting. Look for dishes like beet boudin noir ($12), savory sausage-shaped hunks of shredded beet on a bed of tiny brussels sprouts in vinegar-spiked beet “blood”: a dead ringer for a sausage, without pork.
1001 Minnesota St. (at 22nd Street), S.F., (415) 824-4224
The two women who started Piccino as a tiny Dogpatch cafe just moved into a contemporary, 70-seat space a block away. Piccino still exults in good design, Italian-inspired local food, and sophisticated European wines. Pizza ($10 to $18) with thin thin crusts and spare toppings remain at the heart of the menu, but there are clever antipasti and small plates — broccoli sprouts and farro salad ($5) and semolina gnocchi ($13).