How 8 top Bay Area restaurants are staying fresh

By Virginia Miller

In cities like San Francisco, the competitive restaurant world is tougher than ever, with vanishingly narrow profit margins and the challenge of finding—and keeping—good staff, given the high costs of living. To top it off, chef’s bursting with creative ideas face the balancing act of presenting their more adventurous dishes in the face of some of the general public’s demand for burgers and more familiar comfort food. But these eight restaurants—some of them barely a year old, others a robust 20 years—are beating the odds to draw diners in droves while finding ways to stay fresh, encompassing new aspects, or reinventing themselves.

Cassava has been one of SF’s truly great neighborhood gems since opening in 2012, with husband-and-wife owners Kris Toliao (chef) and Yuka Ioroi (GM) ensuring a warm welcome in a cozy space that’s an order-at-the-counter café by day and sit-down restaurant by night. Talented chef Toliao’s dishes are a sure delight, whether buttermilk-marinated, sous vide fried chicken thighs or local halibut fresh out of the SF Bay, accented with watermelon rind, spring onion confit, lentils, and Jimmy Nardello peppers. Cassava continues to stay relevant by offering a steal of a $42, four-course tasting menu at nights, while Ioroi gets inventive with low-proof cocktails and sake pairings, making the drink aspect a highlight even sans bar.
Neighborhood: Outer Richmond MAP

E&O Kitchen & Bar
Open since 1997, E&O Kitchen & Bar has been a Bay Area pioneer of modern Asian cuisine for 20 years, with a kitchen helmed by chef Sharon Nahm turning our their now iconic Indonesian corn fritters. While some of us miss the more Tiki-esque vibe of their older (pre-renovation) space, the multi-level restaurant is always lively and bustling—an easy place to pop in for drinks and bites or to linger over a meal. E&O Kitchen & Bar continues to mix up food and drink menu pairings like their Spice Route menu (which they plan to revive soon), rotating Asian beer pairings, and reinventing menu favorites such as the corn fritters in burger form—as the buns themselves, layered with white Cheddar, bacon Sriracha aïoli, and kimchi.
Neighborhood: Union Square MAP

Poggio, Sausalito
Opened in 2003, Poggio fast became a Sausalito classic—the coastal, Mediterranean-esque town’s Italian go-to for handmade pastas and focaccia paired with Negronis. For nearly 15 years, the long, mahogany and marble-lined restaurant has remained packed from lunch through dinner any day of the week, bustling with regulars as well as tourists taking the ferry over from SF. Partner and Executive Chef Benjamin Balesteri came back to Poggio in 2012 after a stint in NYC, and has kept Poggio relevant with his regular travels to Italy, where he gets inspiration for regional dishes and perfects his skills, whether serving silky, savory sformatino or dreamy short rib-filled agnolotti.
Neighborhood: Sausalito MAP

Bluestem Brasserie
Just hitting its six year anniversary this June, Blustem Brasserie continues to juggle tourists, weekday shoppers, and work crowds in its heavily trafficked downtown spot with grace. While comfort leads in many dishes here, the menu has pushed into some new directions with dishes including Steelhead Trout Tartar with smoked trout caviar, Saffron Tagliatelle with Manilla Clams, or the very popular Brasserie Burger with two seared grass fed beef patties. Thanks to thoughtful owners Stacy and Adam Jed, Bluestem’s wine-on-tap and sustainable meats and ingredients approach has set them apart in touristy Union Square from day one. They’re, in fact, sustainable across all processes, from whole-animal utilization to the environmentally friendly design in the Olle Lundberg–designed space.
Neighborhood: Union Square MAP

The Morris

The Morris
Just opened in 2016, The Morris was already a winner right out of the gate with owner and lauded sommelier Paul Einbund’s fantastic wine list (ask for “the book”), vintage Chartreuse, and Madeira selection, not to mention chef Gavin Schmidt’s seasonal dishes and whole animal butchery practices. Not content to rest on their proverbial laurels, they’ve employed a slew of new elements this summer, like launching lunch, adding sidewalk seating, and introducing a Champagne and oysters happy hour. As if that weren’t enough, they also launched Einbund’s Cellar Series, where he shares and talks rarities in wine, Chartreuse, and Madeira.
Neighborhood: Mission MAP

Right down to its dramatic circle bar, Jardiniere has been innovative chef Traci Des Jardins’ flagship restaurant for 20 years. While chef Audie Golder has been cooking here since 2011, it was only in late 2016 he moved up to chef de cuisine, experimenting with some new dishes and angles for the pre-Symphony, opera, ballet, and SF Jazz crowds. While many flock to the bar to try the much-discussed Impossible Burger, Golder is quietly turning out more refined excellence, like a Carolina Gold rice dish that simultaneously transports you to Charleston as it recalls the proper al dente chewiness of Italian risotto, laden with morel mushrooms, English peas, and Meyer lemon. No, these aren’t the dishes you expect at Jardinere, but they are a delightful surprise.
Neighborhood: Hayes Valley MAP

Tuna casserole at Finn Town

Finn Town
Another newcomer in 2016, Finn Town went through a chef change earlier this summer and recently unveiled new dinner and brunch menus. The vibe is pure Castro, in a chic yet relaxed “tavern with a twist” space. So when it opened, it immediately felt like a longtime watering hole for the ‘hood, drawing in locals from bustling Market Street. This summer, they’ve made some big changes, starting with new Executive Chef Steve Dustin (formerly of The Cavalier and Big Night Restaurant Group), who is playing on the tavern and comfort food with a twist angle, in dishes like the country fried pork, the quinoa burger, and the tuna casserole topped with seared tuna. They also introduced a new weekday happy hour (Monday through Thursday from 5-7pm and Friday 4-7pm) with $6 to $7 bites—think deviled eggs, crispy Brussels sprouts, heritage pork croquettes, and more.
Neighborhood: Castro MAP

Alexander’s Steakhouse
Near the ballpark, Alexander’s Steakhouse SF—the original location is in Cupertino, and others reach from Pasadena to Tokyo—is a splurge, to be sure, whether you go for the $248 chef’s tasting menu or something off the list of A5-grade steaks from around Japan. Alexander’s service and flow welcomes crowds full of Japanese expats and high rollers, while chef Mark Zimmerman’s dishes are more elegant and inventive than ever, still pushing the boundaries as they have since the early days. Think Japanese A5 steak with a tray of 12 salts from around the globe, or a mini-beef tongue clay pot over bulgur congee. In addition, their cocktails and deep spirits collection have grown to be a draw alone.
Neighborhood: SoMa MAP

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