Bay Area News Group
In February, our thoughts turn to roses, white linen tablecloths and a certain amount of swanky splendor in our dining choices. This is the month of valentines, after all -- and a reprieve from all those draconian new year's resolutions.
But the truth is, date night with your sweetheart ought to roll around every week, not once a year. All that white linened propriety is a bit much. And if this is a first or second date, there's nothing more daunting than getting to know someone at a table for two set with 12 forks -- and nothing to drown out the nervous silence.
So these are our picks for the Bay Area's 12 hottest, buzziest new restaurants, places that knocked our socks off and will do the same for you. They run the full gamut, from the simple farm-to-fork elegance of Oakland's Homestead to the city chic of San Francisco's newly reborn Tosca. There's Indian street food, Korean bibimbop, trendy tapas and gastropub fare, with prices to fit every pocketbook. No white tablecloths. And much too much buzz for awkward silences.
So here are a dozen date night destinations. Go. Sip. Savor.
The vibe: It's not your imagination that Oakland dominates this list. Much as one might like to showcase an equal number of great restaurants in every city by the Bay, Oakland's population swelled last year with a disproportionate share of the region's great chefs, as A16 and other San Francisco restaurants moved east or their chefs decided to launch their own ventures here. Homestead falls squarely into that category.
Fred and Elizabeth Sassen's eatery opened last summer in a 1920s Julia Morgan building, and they have anticipated every possible desire, even ones you didn't realize you had -- for homemade butter, for heaven's sakes, cloth towels in the restroom and vegetarian dishe that are even more astonishingly lovely than the carnivorous-centric entrees.
Reservations are essential here, especially if you're hoping to impress a date. There are no bad tables, just winsome ones tucked along the narrow dining room,painted in pale greens and fresh creams, and hung with an eclectic mix of farm tools, antiques and local art.
The dish: The small menu changes nearly every night, so it's difficult to give advice other than to say every single vegetable-centric dish is to die for. Months later, even thinking about the curried butternut squash entree and a pumpkin chiffon cake is enough to make our mouths water.
The details: 4029 Piedmont Ave., Oakland; www.homesteadoakland.com.
2. Zona Rosa
The vibe: Typical Mexican restaurants are so family friendly, they're not considered good date night material, but ditch the kids and all ideas of saucy rice-and-bean combo plates and head to Zona Rosa in San Jose's Rose Garden neighborhood for south of the border fare that's fresh and unfussy, but elegant enough for a special evening out with your significant other.
Small and intimate, with seating for about two dozen diners, Zona Rosa is packed with charm. Hacienda-style stucco walls and reclaimed wood tables blend seamlessly with vintage modern touches like the glass, jewel-toned light shades. Water served in old tequila bottles and black and white paper straws for the seasonal cocktails are Pinterest-worthy details that complement chef and owner Anna Zamora Pizzo's thoughtfully prepared food.
Fresh corn tortillas and puffy sopes are patted out by hand when you order them; chips are fried on the stove and served warm with a trio of salsas ($4), including a Yucatan pumpkin seed dip that's particularly addictive. The biggest dilemma is deciding between the perfectly composed tacos and the Mexican cazuelas, briming with free-range chicken and Niman Ranch meat enchiladas and topped with homemade mole.
The dish: Guacamole topped with crisp bacon and pistachios ($9)? Yes, please. Try the lightly battered and fried scallop tacos ($16) or the succulent carnitas ($15) topped with fresh cabbage and avocado. Entrees come with a choice of heirloom beans or sautéed potatoes. Get one of each and share.
The details: 1411 The Alameda, San Jose; www.zonarosasj.com
The vibe: Michael Chiarello's California interpretation of Spanish cuisine has garnered national buzz, and it's easy to see why. Located right on Pier 5 with glorious views of the water, Coqueta feels like a lux version of the tapas bars in Barcelona, with its vaulted wood ceilings, jewel-toned curtains and hand-sewn leather chairs. The wine list alone -- seven cavas and six txakoli -- is an education in Spanish geography and culture.
Then there's the food, from precious, "freshly dug" patatas bravas ($8) with lightly smoked salsa to grilled pork and duck meatballs ($12) that are elevated by the addition of a tart cherry-and-tempranillo puree. Tables are hard to score, so make a reservation a few weeks in advance to guarantee your date one of the hottest current culinary experiences in the Bay Area. Did we mention coqueta means 'flirt' in Spanish?
The dish: One? Impossible. Based on our recent visit, start with the sunny side-up egg with shrimp, crispy potato and chorizo dressing ($13), which will leave you craving its fiery flavors for weeks. Follow up with Iberico de Bellota pork shoulder loin ($38) served with a bottle of honey chile glaze. The combination (they smoke the chiles in the sauce before blending it with honey) may be the most beautiful thing to ever happen to pork.
The details: Pier 5, The Embarcadero, San Francisco; coquetasf.com
The vibe: When San Francisco A16 co-owners Shelley Lindgren and Victoria Libin signed a lease in the Rockridge neighborhood of Oakland, they understood the mission: to bring something unique and dynamic to the East Bay.
And Oaklandish it is. The new A16, which opened last June, is much larger than the original, with seating for 48 at tables and another 30 at the chef's counter and bar. It has a glass garage door that opens on College Avenue and a liquor license that allows Lindgren's husband, Greg, co-owner of San Francisco's Rye and Rosewood, to craft cocktails using grappa, amaro and other Italian spirits.
The menu still features those dreamy, wood-fired pizzas of Naples and the saucy meatballs of Campania, but A16 Rockridge also explores the seafood-rich culture of the eastern side of Autostrada 16, the restaurant's namesake, a highway that runs from Naples in Campania east to Canosa in Puglia.
The dish: The impressive menu is seasonal, so it is hard to make recommendations, but a few pizzas tend to stick around, though with updated tweaks, like our favorite, the rachetta ($20), a thin, tennis racket-shaped pie with tomato sauce, prosciutto cotto, basil, fiordi latte, broccoli di ciccio, ricotta and monteporo. They give you special shears to cut the pizza. It's awesome.
The details: 5356 College Ave, Oakland; www.a16rockridge.com.
5. Box and Bells
The vibe: The latest entry in star chef James Syhabout's restaurant crown takes its name from boxing motifs. A pugilistic dog -- a boxer, of course -- adorns the front window and boxing gloves hang along the back wall of this sleekly gritty, uber-cool restaurant. The exec chef came from Commis, Syhabout's Michelin-starred Oakland restaurant. The general manager hails from Hawker Fare, Syhabout's street food extravaganza. And the food comes from local organic farms and some of the nation's most vaunted vendors -- hello, Smithfield ham -- but it's combined in dizzyingly creative and delicious ways. Fried chicken with raw oyster mayo? Sea scallops with corn spaetzle and capers?
Make reservations -- and don't worry about a tie. Order up a craft cocktail, some "nibblings" and small plates and prepare to drop some significant cash. Small plates are always like that, and these, in the $10 to $17 range, add up quickly. Way we figure it, it's a small price to pay for the dose of instant cool you'll acquire just walking in. This is a great place for a first date -- the noise level eliminates any awkward lulls, for one thing -- but if you're planning to propose, you'll have to shout.
The dish: The menu changes constantly, but we were wowed by the scallops ($17) and the Country Ham of the Day ($16). That mundane-sounding dish included piping hot hush puppies, maple butter and paper-thin slices of Smithfield ham that just melted in the mouth.
The details: 5912 College Ave., Oakland; boxandbells.com
The vibe: The great thing about pizza is that it can be dressed up or dressed down, depending on your mood. Sure, you can sit on the couch in your sweats watching "Shark Tank" while eating delivery, but it can also be something special -- like it is at Vesta in Redwood City.
Bubbling, crisp Neapolitan-style pies are cranked out of the wood-burning oven at a blistering pace at this downtown hot spot, where you'll find couples on first dates, double daters and groups of friends lingering over a post work-week catch up. The main dining room is where all the action is, and the gleaming pizza oven is the centerpiece of the high-ceilinged room with mosaic tile floor. It can be incredibly loud, but the back patio offers some respite, as do the sidewalk tables out front.
Pies are listed as either white -- try the sausage and leek topped with a farm fresh egg ($22) -- or red, such as a classic Margherita ($15). A hungry person can easily down one by themselves, but they're also great for sharing. Vesta takes only limited reservations, so expect a wait if you arrive without one.
The dish: Ordering the signature sausage and honey pizza ($19) should be required, and don't overlook the delectable list of appetizers. Initially, diners will wonder why a pizza place bothers serving grilled carrots ($8) and roasted cauliflower ($9), but once they try the veggies prepared with Middle Eastern flair (think cumin, paprika and currants), they'll be hooked.
The details: 2022 Broadway, Redwood City; www.vestarwc.com
7. Tosca Cafe
The vibe: It takes more than mere age to warrant the title of "San Francisco institution." But in the case of the venerable Tosca Cafe, the sobriquet is entirely warranted. The 93-year-old bar was the stuff of legend, its clientele spanning the gamut from dancer Rudolf Nureyev to, er, a dancer of a different sort. As the story goes, the famous Carol Doda sipped White Nuns in the window during breaks from stripping at the Condor Club across the street. For the last three decades, former owner Jeannette Etheredge welcomed stars, celebrities and North Beach habitues to the mural-lined bar, with its red naugahyde seats and stiff cocktails.
So when New York chef April Bloomfield and partner Ken Friedman reopened the Tosca in October, they did an amazing thing. The place looks as old and venerable as ever -- but that's real red leather on the bar stools, beautiful wood paneling on the walls and a restoration lovingly done. And the menu has received a complete overhaul -- the place hadn't served food since the Summer of Love or so. The cocktails are terrific, the food is delish and the place is just special. Besides, Marilyn Monroe is in the men's room.
They do not take reservations and the wait, even on a weeknight, can be an hour or more. So give the maitre'd your cell phone number and go read Beat poetry at City Lights across the street while you wait for a text. (Win extra points with your date by buying that volume of poetry before you head back to enjoy your Winter Citrus and Speck Salad, $13.)
The dish: The menu changes with the seasons, but we're still talking about that citrus-and-speck (smoked pork, similar to prosciutto) salad, the excellent buccatini ($17) and seafood dishes (our cod was $27). And the cannoli ($7) with fennel seed praline is tailor made for feeding each other. That's amore.
The details: 242 Columbus Ave., San Francisco; toscacafesf.com
8. Juhu Beach Club
The vibe: The Bay Area boasts plenty of elegant restaurants -- you know the sort, white linen tablecloths, soft jazz and a dining room hush that's death on a first date. Juhu Beach Club is the opposite. This chic Bay Area-meets-Bollywood riff on Indian street food is the brainchild of Preeti Mistry, the former Google chef from "Top Chef" season six.
The name is a nod to Mumbai's famous Juhu Beach. Splashed by the Arabian Sea, the beach is known for its chaat stands, airborne kites and movie celeb sightings. Here, the walls are painted in hot pink and sunny mango shades; one wall is papered in a colorful Indian print peppered with monkeys. The music is eclectic, and the plates look like the scalloped paper plates of a thousand childhood picnics -- but they're not paper.
It's impossible to feel awkward -- even on a first date -- when you're trading bites of spicy masala fries ($5) and messy, delicious pavs, slider-sized sandwiches ($5 each or three for $13), topped with brightly hued slaws and sauces. It's the quality of the ingredients (sustainable, local, organic), the genius of the flavor combinations and quirky, irresistible vibe that make this place irresistible.
The dish: Try the Chowpatty Chicken pav (grilled green chili chicken with a tangy, vividly yellow slaw) and masala fries with tamarind ketchup. Save room for a Straus soft-serve vanilla sundae ($4) with toppings (75 cents each) such as sea salt-curried peanuts and passion fruit syrup. And two spoons.
The details: 5179 Telegraph Ave., Oakland; www.juhubeachclub.com
9. Liquid Bread Gastropub
The vibe: What happens when frat house meets fine dining? You get Liquid Bread Gastropub, where the painstakingly curated list of beers is paired with an eclectic seasonal menu that you'd expect to find in a much fancier setting with significantly higher prices.
The look is college dorm minimalist with painted cinder block walls adorned by little more than taps, beer fridges and a couple of TVs showing sports, naturally. Meanwhile, chef John Burke is in the kitchen using ingredients like wakame seaweed, smoked tofu and squid ink pasta. There's nary a chicken wing in sight, but diners won't miss the typical bar food once they've sunk their teeth into a succulent pork belly cake seared crisp ($13) or sipped the addictively spicy broth in a bowl of octopus and udon noodles ($17).
Beer connoisseurs will be impressed with selections like the highly rated Evil Twin Double IPA and brews from the newest local darling, Faction, out of Alameda.
This is an ideal date night place for couples who battle over getting gussied up for a nice meal out (no one would bat an eye if someone came in wearing jeans and flip flops), or for a night of bromance with your bestie.
The dish: There's one nod to typical beer fare on the menu, and that's the half-pound burger ($15) slathered with bearnaise and topped with house-made pickles. One bite might change your life. For chocoholics the cardamom brownie topped with stout-infused whipped cream ($7) is a must.
The details: 379 E. Campbell Ave., Campbell; www.liquidbreadcampbell.com
10. Mixed Grain
The vibe: Ever since the owners of Albany's Bowl'd and Berkeley's Spoon opened Mixed Grain last year, it's hard to find a couple in town who hasn't tucked into one of their booths for a bibimbop fix. Read the 150-plus reviews on Yelp and you'll see what we mean: Barbecued beef short ribs that aren't tough and dripping with grease. A generous vegetable to rice ratio. Fresh, hot stew served minutes after you order it. And fresh, smartly-plated banchan refills all night long. It's quick. It's casual. It's the perfect spot for the foodie couple on their way to a party or rom-com who still want to satisfy hunger pangs with high-quality grub.
The dish: Sizzling Works ($14) rice bowl, or dolsot bibimbop, a hot stone bowl brimming with spinach, mushrooms, julienned carrots and bean sprouts with your choice of meat served over rice with a drizzle of sesame oil and an over-easy fried egg on top. Make sure you ask for the mixed grain rice. The combination of wild sweet rice, sweet brown rice, barley and wild red rice is elevated by the heat of the hot stone, which crisps the rice into a delectable, crunchy shell.
The details: 1546 Bonanza St., Walnut Creek; www.mixedgrain.com.
11. Ramen Shop
The vibe: Ramen Shop is the brainchild of three Chez Panisse alums who wanted to transform the Japanese noodle soup experience into something holy and market-driven. They succeeded. Every element of Rockridge's Ramen Shop tells a story of sustainability, from the sardines that are harvested in the waters just outside the Golden Gate and are used to craft their sumptuous broth to the whimsical ceramic ramen bowls designed by local artist Jessica Niello.
They don't take reservations, so be prepared to linger among the hipsters -- the low-lit restaurant buzzes with bodies and loud music -- for at least 30 minutes. But trust us: Once you're sipping one of the farmer's market cocktails and slurping those handmade Japanese noodles swimming in umami broth, you and your date won't even remember the wait.
Just don't leave without trying dessert. From the black sesame ice cream sandwich with brown sugar cookies ($6) to the bourbon, coffee, and chocolate-dipped rice crispies ice cream cup ($6), these are the best Japanese desserts we've ever had.
The dish: Parts of the menu change nightly, but they usually have three types of ramen (one is always veggie-based) to explore . We loved the shio tonkotsu ($16), a cloudy broth made with salt and pork bones topped with a soy-marinated egg, nori, tender pork loin and burned garlic oil. The garlic miso ramen ($16) with ground pork belly, King Richard leeks, shungiku, takana and spicy tonbanjan sauce is also killer.
The details: 5812 College Ave, Oakland; www.ramenshop.com.
12. Bull Valley Roadhouse
The vibe: We are cheating a little bit by including this Port Costa restaurant on a buzziest new restaurants list. It opened in November 2012 -- but our first visit came just after new year's, and we cannot resist anything as winsome as this retro, rustic marvel. Earl Flewellen's Bull Valley Roadhouse mixes fresh, seasonal fare with pre-Prohibition era charm and craft cocktails in a tiny, ramshackle dock town (population 200, barely). The American tavern-style menu, designed by Slanted Door alumni, straddles centuries in the most satisfying way, mixing modern farmers-market fare with a longing glance back.
Just getting here is an adventure. A winding country lane leads one deep into the dark countryside, and just as you think you are hopelessly lost, this Brigadoon-like town unfolds, just a block or two long at the river's edge. There, the Roadhouse awaits with craft cocktails, steamed Prince Edward Island mussels ($16), addictive fried green beans and made-to-share platters of deliciousness. And they just started serving brunch a few months ago, if you're aiming for a daytime date.
The dish: Start with those wildly addictive, crispy green beans with chile salt ($10), while you sip a cocktail. A Hanky Panky ($10), perhaps. Then share the slow-roasted pork stew ($27) with tomatillo, guajillo chiles and lime, served over polenta or the crispy buttermilk fried chicken ($28).
The details: 14 Canyon Lake Drive, Port Costa; www.bullvalleyroadhouse.com