California has always been a leader when it comes to culinary innovation. Top chefs, abundant produce, expansive vineyards, and a variety of weather zones have contributed to the richness of offerings in the Golden State. The Bay Area and California wine country are especially committed to sustainability and organic farming, with dining and drinking outlets earning top spots on the must-visit list. On a trip to San Francisco, Oakland, and wine country, I was delighted by wonderful finds from street food and artisanal beverages to Michelin-starred dining and fine wines.
1. PABU Izakaya
Michael Mina’s San Francisco izakaya stands out for more than its extensive Japanese menu; PABU Izakaya is also notable for its extensive sake list and authentic Japanese ingredients. Overseen by Sake Master Stuart Morris, the sophisticated restaurant offers sake pairings to go with a variety of Japanese small plates on its notebook-sized menu. Cocktails, including many non-alcoholic selections, should not be overlooked; the fun menu from lead bartender Natalie Lichtman is inspired by Yokai, fantastical creatures from Japanese folklore. The izakaya’s fish is flown in daily from Japan’s Toyosu Market.
What To Order At PABU
Start with a cocktail and choose one of the many filtered and unfiltered sakes offered, or ask for a flight if you can’t decide. Any junmai (pure rice sake) is wonderful and there are numerous variations like ginjo pink and daiginjo. While seafood is always a Japanese specialty, you should also sample PABU’s A5 Japanese wagyu from the robatayaki menu. On the sushi menu, ask for the uni (sea urchin) from Hokkaido or the katsuo (Japanese bonito) for tastes not usually found at sushi bars.
2. The Ferry Building Marketplace
A San Francisco treasure, the 1898 Ferry Building is now the repository of many exciting food choices. You could create a progressive meal here wandering from oysters to ice cream or opting for sandwiches and heartier meals at sit-down restaurants, like Gott’s Roadside or the revered Slanted Door, with a few stops for coffee and drinks.
From morning through midday on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays, the Ferry Building’s farmers market on the plaza is an outdoor array of stands from local purveyors. The popular Roli Roti stand has queues that can last for an hour or more. If you’d rather eat than wait in line, there are lots of choices to sate your hunger including chilaquiles, tacos, and Hog Island oysters. Vegans, vegetarians, and meat eaters will all be happy here.
What To Order At The Ferry Building Marketplace
At popular Gott’s Roadside, try the kimchi burger with bacon and spicy gochujang mayo and a glass of California Cab or San Francisco-brewed Anchor Steam. For something light, try an Argentine empanada at El Porteno, followed by a vegan organic donut at The Donut Farm.
If you have the patience, strike a pose in the line formed for Roli Roti’s porchetta sandwich. The acclaimed food truck only serves this sandwich at the farmers market on Thursdays and Saturdays. The line crawls but you can send a friend to pick up a Vietnamese iced coffee from Red Bay Coffee to boost your stamina.
The recipient of a Wine Spectator “Best Restaurants” award, elegant San Francisco newcomer AFICI is all about meticulousness in food and presentation. Chef Eric Upper and his staff work harmoniously to put together exciting French- and Italian-inspired dishes on AFICI’s seasonally changing prix-fixe menu. This is where you go when you’re looking for that perfect romantic evening. Expect dishes like caviar, casoncelli pasta with pistachio puree, and wagyu confit, or chicken roulade with spinach ricotta dumplings and Point Reyes blue cheese. Vegetarians have their own special nine-course menu. For dessert, the French influence is apparent in the Paris-Brest with raspberry curd and chocolate. The wine list is impressive, so ask for recommendations.
What To Order At AFICI
Start your meal with a cocktail made from AFICI’s homemade bitters. (I suggest a “White Negroni” for a twist on the classic.) From charcuterie to oysters and pasta, cuisine travels from Europe through California with preparations and ingredients. The chefs make the choices easy for you with their multi-course menus. Just specify any dietary restrictions, ask for a wine pairing, and, as they say on The Bear, “let it rip.”
Pro Tip: If you’re not feeling like a full tasting experience, the bar/salon has a limited a la carte menu. On the other hand, you can add wagyu beef and caviar for an extension to your tasting meal for a supplement. If you happen to be there on a Friday, start your evening with an AFICI mixology class.
4. The Ritz-Carlton San Francisco Lounge
I was pleasantly surprised by the drink and food menus at the glamorous lobby lounge at the Ritz-Carlton San Francisco. Opting for a small-plate dinner instead of a multi-course evening, I ordered the fish special to satisfy my New Englander cravings and West Coast oysters since I was in California, along with drinks from the bar’s inventive menu. The wine list is heavy on California vintages but spans the globe with choices.
What To Order At The Ritz-Carlton San Francisco Lounge
Even if you don’t order food, you must sample one of the hotel’s cocktails. Try the “Uncle’s Fashioned,” a zingy libation of small-batch whiskey, amaro, and blood-orange bitters, aged in white oak barrels. Get your camera ready to video the “Negroni Sevillano,” a mix of Tanqueray Sevilla orange, bitters, Campari, and Spanish vermouth smoked tableside with a Ritz-Carlton-emblazoned ice cube at the top. Watch for the Chef’s Special Market San Francisco Halibut dish — the parsley crust, fennel puree, and leek ash make this photo-worthy as well.
Across the bay from San Francisco, Parche is emblematic of Oakland’s ethnic culinary scene. The colorful, buzzy restaurant pays homage to owner/operator Paul Iglesias’s Colombian roots with food and décor to inspire. Traditional Colombian dishes sizzle on Chef Saul Valdes’s small and large plates with modern twists like empanadas ajiacos with jalapeno-cilantro crema; patacones, plantains served with salsa criolla and labneh; or ceviche chicharrones, an unexpected presentation of pork rinds served ceviche-style.
What To Order At Parche
All plates are designed for sharing, so bring someone with you. If you think that all Brussels sprouts are alike, you have to try them at Parche: They’re cooked up crispy with lentils, quinoa, and a peach drizzle.
6. Oko At Tribune
Located on the ground level of the stunning 120-year-old Tribune Tower, Oko is helmed by talented Chef Michael Woods. The focus is on the African diaspora, with dishes both unusual and familiar including shrimp po’ boys with Cajun remoulade; oxtail tacos; and the Hoppin’ John, a southern favorite of red peas and rice. On Tuesdays, Oko fetes tostadas (instead of tacos) served with kabichi cabbage salad, while Wednesdays feature wine specials to accompany live jazz. The unusual “tap” bar has beer, cider, and kombucha on draft for a nice change from wine and cocktails.
What To Order At Oko
It may not seem like an exciting thing to choose at a restaurant that offers unusual ingredient combinations, but Chef’s Oko burger is a work of art. Dominating the plate with a pile of cheese, tobacco aioli, bacon, and house B&B pickles on a sweet potato bun, it can be your new guilty pleasure. For more Brussels sprouts wizardry, Oko’s are made with vadouvan spices, red curry vinaigrette, pickled shallots, labneh, and lavash.
When in California wine country, you should go to a wine-centric restaurant. PRESS is that place. Wine bottles line the shelves at beautiful PRESS in St. Helena, evincing a small selection from the restaurant’s extensive wine cellar. Focusing on ingredients sourced from local farms in Napa Valley, Michelin-starred PRESS offers a four-course prix-fixe menu and a seven-course Chef’s Tasting Menu that always deliver. A wine pairing is a must. Guided by wine director and “Sommelier of the Year” Vincent Morrow, I was introduced to one of my new favorites, DeSante Old Vines White. It was so good that I’ve since had a case shipped to me.
What To Order At PRESS
The prix-fixe menu gives you four categories with multiple choices. The menu changes by season but you can expect dishes like halibut crudo, chilled carrot-melon soup, and the signature ricotta gnudi with matsutake mushroom essence. I know it might sound strange, but PRESS’s pig ears are absolutely delicious, served sweet and sour with bing cherries or avocado crema. Worthy of Instagram, the Beau Soleil oysters are bathed in a green strawberry foam. Vegetarians will love the chanterelles charcoal-grilled with black truffle essence, while protein eaters can choose fish, chicken, or steak — all-star preparations from Chef Phillip Tessier.
Pro Tip: An a la carte menu is available at the bar for a more casual meal. Perfect for sampling, there are 22 wines available by the glass plus an extensive selection of dessert wines.
8. Taqueria El Sombrero
Healdsburg profits from its Mexican population with a multitude of authentic taquerias. Try Taqueria El Sombrero for an inexpensive snack. The 14 tacos offered are made simply, as they should be, with a choice of protein or veggies enhanced with chopped onions, cilantro, and perhaps a bit of salsa. Dress your casual best, order from the walk-up taco window, and grab a sidewalk seat.
What To Order At Taqueria El Sombrero
Tacos, tacos, tacos. There’s a reason the restaurant is named for them.
Pro Tip: If you’d like to combine tacos with a more extensive Mexican meal, try El Farolito just off the Main Square.
9. Noble Folk Ice Cream & Pie Bar
Healdsburg’s Noble Folk Ice Cream & Pie Bar offers a selection of pies that will keep you drooling. Homemade, the variety of pies changes frequently but you can count on lots of choices. Ice cream die-hards — take note. You can still have your pie a la mode: The ice cream here is homemade, too.
What To Order At Noble Folk Ice Cream And Pie Bar
I can never pass up pies that have lemon or blueberries, and Noble Folk’s strawberry blueberry crumble pie or Meyer lemon custard pie are standouts.
10. The Matheson
Wine lovers should make a beeline for The Matheson in downtown Healdsburg. The winner of Wine Spectator’s “Best of Excellence” award and a collaboration of experiences from Chef-Owner Dustin Valette, the multi-dimensional restaurant features a dramatic Wine Wall bar/lounge where you can begin your dining experience with a pour from 88 wines on tap. Don’t worry about being overwhelmed — the somms will help you decide what’s what and suggest new finds. The Wine Wall is also a happy precursor to a pre-dinner drink at the Roof 106 cocktail lounge above The Matheson, where you can enjoy wood-fired small plates, charcuterie, and pizza while seated around fire pits. The dining room below will give you the farm-focused experience that defines Sonoma wine country. Changing by micro-season, The Matheson’s menu features ingredients from area farmers and vintners.
What To Order At The Matheson
Dishes to watch for include mains like halibut, duck, and New York strip steak, accompanied by the vegetables of the moment. I encourage you to try a flight of wines — you can have them one-by-one at the Wine Wall or as part of your dining experiences at the roof bar or in the restaurant. The selection of wines is outstanding and encourages experimentation. I loved the zinfandel and cabernet sauvignon from California, the riesling from Germany, and the dry sake from Japan.
Pro Tip: The Matheson’s main restaurant and Roof 106 are very popular as is the sister restaurant Valette. Reserve well in advance for a table.