As the owner of 18 restaurants, Mina is one of the most successful chefs and restaurateurs in the country, but he's not a TV food star (yet) and he remains somewhat under the radar. He has become an important figure in the Las Vegas restaurant scene, but its his flagship restaurant in San Francisco, Michael Mina, which was named as Esquires Best Restaurant of 2011, that gets the most praise for its Japanese- and French-inspired take on the best American ingredients.
All the standard Thai dishes are done very well at this well-known storefront restaurant in Thai Town, but the southern Thai specialties, many of which are found nowhere else in America, are the real draw. Try the oxtail soup, crisp catfish salad, softshell crabs with yellow curry, sea bass with caramelized garlic, and whatever else proprietor Sarintip "Jazz" Singsanong recommends even the beef curry called khua kling Phat Lung, quite possibly the spiciest dish in L.A.
Boulevard exudes the warm, relaxed San Franciscan ambience that marks many of the city's best restaurants, but chef and owner Nancy Oakes, named 2010 Best California Chef by the James Beard Foundation, aims high with her hearty but modern, sophisticated American cuisine the likes of Monterey red abalone with abalone mushrooms, artichokes, sunchokes, and octopus; wood-oven-roasted California lamb with potatoes crushed with nettles, sauted chard, and romanesco broccoli with Tokyo turnips; and DeVoto Gardens apple tart with cranberry caramel and bruled fig.
The latest venture by the chef duo behind Animal (a repeat fixture on our 101 Best list), Son of a Gun does to fish what their first restaurant does to meat; that is, find ingenious ways to take familiar tastes and recast them in new roles with more esoteric ingredients. Lauded chefs Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo use the element of surprise to their advantage they prefer low-key interiors and minimal flourishes to spotlight the complexity of their seemingly simplistic "beach shack" food. To add to diners sense of excitement, the menu at Son of a Gun, like Animal, is ever-shifting, so one day it might include a smoked fish dip and another alligator schnitzel, but oysters on the half-shell and a lobster roll with celery and lemon aoli are in heavy rotation likely due to demand.
Spanish food, whether traditional or avant-garde, has no more fervent and eloquent champion in America than Jos Andrs, proprietor of this multi-part restaurant and culinary theme park. Whether you choose to sample hot and cold foie soup with corn at Saam, Ottoman carrot fritters with apricot and pistachio sauce at Bar Centro, or the best jamn Ibrico in America at Rojo y Blanco or, best of all, a combination of the traditional and the completely mad, easily achieved here youll have a memorable, one-of-a-kind experience here, that is until the second location of The Bazaar, which is currently being built, opens in Miami.
Naming San Francisco's "best tacos" is such a personal thing, its likely to start arguments, but La Taqueria seems to be one place that a large majority of the city and the rest of the nation can agree on. It's one of the Missions many casual Mexican joints, but at around $3.50 a taco, it's one of the more expensive ones. Still, the hugely popular tacos and rice-free burritos, especially the melt-in-your-mouth-tender grilled carne asada version, keep the seat-yourself tables packed with an eclectic mix of diners, who come in droves before heading to the bars on weekend nights.
The "barbecue" tradition of Santa Maria, north of Santa Barbara, based not on long-smoked pork but on tri-tip steak, grilled on red oak, helps define the cooking of Californias Central Coast. This homey, always bustling place, celebrating its 25th year, extends and improves the basic idiom, and adds a knockout wine list, full of vintages made by the proprietor and his neighbors.
The quintessential neighborhood restaurant, Gjelina, on the trendy Abbott Kinney Boulevard, has anchored the Venice restaurant scene as the neighborhood has turned from grimy to gourmet. Chef Travis Letts modern American cuisine is firmly rooted in the abundance of farmers market findings, and both the fire pit and wood-burning oven speak to the restaurants ardent rusticity, much like the typical patrons unshaven faces and shabbily artful outfits. Crispy, thin-crust pizzas and a roster of creatively prepared vegetable dishes reveal a minimalist sensibility that requires lots of attention to detail. As Lett said to the Los Angeles Times, "We're working really hard to not look like we're working really hard."
Thomas Kellers fourth showing on this list, Ad Hoc began as his opportunity to showcase the dishes that he grew up eating, presented in a warmer and more casual setting than fancy places like Per Se or the French Laundry provide. Ad Hoc started as a simple, temporary concept with a single, constantly changing, four-course, family-style meal served nightly (except for the legendary buttermilk fried chicken, which is available every day except during the winter), designed as a space-holder while Keller developed another restaurant here. The response was so positive, though, that Keller and his staff decided to make this one permanent. The restaurant is currently undergoing a remodel and will open again in March 2012.
What do you get when you go to Father's Office, chef Sang Yoon's gastropub in Los Angeles (now in both Santa Monica and Culver City)? No table service. And no pretention. There's a wood-paneled, comfortable vibe of a great local lived-in spot, but it's clean and to the point. There are great craft beers and small bites (think smoked eel, sobrasada, spinach mushrooms, and white anchovies). You can also "Eat Big" and opt for the spicy oatmeal stout ribs or the bistro steak. But lets face it, you're here for the Office Burger, which many people in L.A. refer to as the city's best burger. There's nothing bougie or frou-frou about it, just caramelized onion, bacon, Gruyre, Maytag blue, and arugula. It's a very, very juicy burger with funk, freshness, and great flavor. Checklist item? You bet.
Piero Selvaggio opened Valentino 40 years ago, in 1972, when L.A. Italian dining meant spaghetti with red sauce and veal parmigiana. He was in no small part responsible for changing how not just California but all of America looked at (and ate) the cooking of his native land. By sourcing the best products from both California and Italy, building a wine list (Italian and otherwise) that is one of the most comprehensive in the country, and serving both classic and imaginative Italian food with consummate skill, Selvaggio created an enduring gastronomic landmark.
Using carefully sourced ingredients, Coi chef Daniel Patterson serves thoughtful Northern California cuisine, balancing classical methods with modern techniques to create unusual and evocative experiences for diners. Some of Cois many accolades include a two-star Michelin rating, four stars from San Francisco Magazine, and the title of 75th best restaurant in the world according to San Pellegrino.
This more elaborate but immediate descendent of the original groundbreaking Spago remains the flagship of the ever-growing Wolfgang Puck empire. Full of glamour and glitz, it nevertheless remains a place where food is taken very seriously. The famous Spago pizzas are available only for lunch, but its almost a shame to waste your appetite on them anyway (almost), given all the first-rate modern Californian fare cooked here under the direction of executive chef Lee Hefter, one of the most underrated chefs in America.
Napa Valley winemakers crowd into the unpretentious Mustards Grill to sample Cindy Pawlcyns American-international cooking, encompassing everything from wild mushroom tamales to grilled Laotian-style quail to seafood tostadas to one of Californias best burgers. Pawlcyn is one of the chefs that were part of making Napa into what it has become foodwise.
Chef Suzanne Goin was nominated for a 2011 James Beard Award for her first endeavor, which remains as good as ever.The restaurant shines with a warm dining room, an enchanting patio, and a menu of bright, full-flavored food (ricotta dumplings with sunchokes and walnuts, slow-roasted lamb sirloin with parsnip pure), based on raw materials from sources "guided by principles of sustainability."
There was a time when many chefs felt obliged to list every single farm, grower, vintner, and cheesemaker on the menu. Then, there was the backlash. None of this seems to matter to chef Ray Garcia, whose philosophy at his Wilshire Boulevard restaurant is to put ingredients first, building a menu around what's in peak season (with the help of their in-house forager Kerry Clasby). The bistro menu features enough vegetables to have critics raving, and a pastaless lasagna keeps the gluten-free happy, but with a playful Bloody Mary menu (Foie Mary, anyone?) and dishes like the black truffle cavatelli and cte de boeuf for two, it doesnt skimp on the soul-satisfying stuff, either. With the queso fundido, theres even a nod to Garcias background.
Award-winning chef Charles Phans Slanted Door serves a modern interpretation of classic Vietnamese street food, with a focus on locally sourced, fresh ingredients. Located in an airy and relaxed new space in the Ferry Building, it has become a must for food-loving visitors; a meal here, overlooking the San Francisco Bay, is not to be missed, but good luck getting a table.
Flour + Water is a great neighborhood spot on the corner of Harrison and 20th, but its also just a great restaurant. Owners David White and David Steele (longtime Mission residents) and Thomas McNaughton, their 2011 James Beard finalist for Rising Star Chef, call pasta their focus, and it's excellent and unusual (where else will you find tajarin with brown butter-braised giblets and chiles?). But they also serve some of the countrys best Neapolitan pizza, including a textbook Margherita (heirloom tomatoes, basil, fior di latte, and extra-virgin olive oil) and a spicy Salsiccia (tomato, sausage, gaeta olives, smoked caciocavallo cheese, and chile).
Zuni showcases San Francisco Mediterranean cooking at its best, with dishes from chef Judy Rodgers, and Chez Panisse alumnus Gilbert Pilgram now in charge of the dining room. The house-cured anchovies with celery, parmigiano, and coquillo olives; the grilled local opah; and the whole roasted chicken with bread salad for two are among the emblematic dishes in this food-mad town.
Shellfish platters, foie gras terrine, salt cod beignets, steak frites, steamed mussels, profiteroles, and other bistro basics are on the menu at this authentic-looking French bistro reimagined in the Napa Valley and the fact that the man behind the place is Thomas Keller means that its all very, very good.
At this ultimate haven for adventurous carnivores, chefs Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo have won a host of awards for their hearty, straightforward, and innovative cooking. Dishes like their foie-gras-spiked loco moco, oxtail poutine, and "Buffalo style" crispy pig's tail keep chefs and civilians alike coming back for more.
Nancy Silverton, whose La Brea Bakery changed the game for artisanal bread in America, teams up here with New York-based Italian-food moguls Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich in this lively urban restaurant, complete with a mozzarella bar, unusual pasta (calfs brain ravioli, spaghetti with marinated white anchovies), and main dishes ranging from sea trout with lentils to grilled pancetta-wrapped quail. In 2011, Mozza pastry chef Dahlia Narvaez was named a James Beard Award finalist.
How did a chef whose innovative restaurant in Manhattan failed and who headed west to cook in a downtown L.A. hotel suddenly emerge in the Napa Valley to create a restaurant to rival the great three-star establishments of rural France? Hard work and outsize talent, most probably. Taking over what had been a good but far simpler restaurant, chef Thomas Keller approached contemporary American food with classical technique, and his French Laundry established new standards for fine dining in this country. In 2012, Keller and the French Laundry received a coveted AAA Five Diamond Award, just another honor to add to the pile.
Celebrating 40 years in business and still going strong, Chez Panisse was instrumental in changing the American food scene; before this restaurant, practically nobody in America served only fresh local foods and wrote menus daily, according to the season. Alice Waters, an organic-living pioneer, is also the founder of The Edible Schoolyard, a foundation that is bringing healthy breakfasts and lunches to schools across the nation. It has become fashionable to criticize this culinary icon as irrelevant or pretentious, but the truth is that her restaurant's food is still superb, both in the one-menu-a-night downstairs restaurant and the lively, diversified upstairs Caf.