San Francisco prides itself on its Mexican food, so when chef Gabriela Cámara moved from Mexico City to open Cala in 2015, it was both a show of confidence and a nod of respect. The celebrated chef behind Mexico City’s legendary Contramar, Cámara opened her first American restaurant in a warehouse-like former sound studio just off the main commercial thoroughfare in Hayes Valley. The restaurant’s abundant greenery—creeping kangaroo vines and a statuesque fiddle-leaf fig tree—makes guests feel as if they are dining on a patio somewhere decidedly more tropical than San Francisco. Cámara’s food uses ingredients familiar to Mexican food devotees, but she prepares them in unexpected ways, to extraordinary results. She serves a whole fire-roasted sweet potato, for example, with a stack of warm, house-made tortillas and a scoop of salsa negra—an extra-rich mole infused with bone marrow. Pro tip: Do not miss the trout tostadas with chipotle, avocado, and fried leeks. One order probably won’t be enough, so put in for two as soon as you sit down.
Chef David Barzelay wants to invite you to a dinner party. As with most successful social engagements, the host graciously introduces himself at the door, promptly offers guests a glass of punch, and encourages them to mingle with the 39 other lucky souls who were able to nab a spot at this nightly foodie fete. Lazy Bear is another player in the “don’t call it a restaurant” game: instead of taking reservations, 40 tickets are up for grabs for each event (there are two per night), and diners are treated more like party guests in a home than customers. But what makes Barzelay’s concept so innovative—and enjoyable—is the laid-back vibe. Two long communal tables fill the dining room, and as at the wedding of old friends, guests get up between courses to chat with each other or peek into the surrounding open kitchen. It’s an appropriate graduation for a chef who developed a cult following with his roving underground pop-ups. And beyond the conviviality, there’s the food, which is the real life of the party—and the reason Lazy Bear nabbed a Michelin star in 2016. There’s no menu, and Barzelay himself describes the inventive dishes—such as dry-aged squab with blueberries, chanterelle mushrooms, and sumac—to diners.
If you’ve never tried Spam, the canned cooked meat product, Liholiho Yacht Club is the place to finally take the plunge. Ask your server for the Spam musubi, slices of grilled Spam set atop a ball of sticky rice and wrapped in nori. Chef Ravi Kapur’s dishes are a playful mash-up of fresh California cuisine and the culinary traditions of his native Hawaii. To experience the full range of what the restaurant offers, order the Ohana table tasting menu, which features such favorites as duck liver toast with jalapeño and pickled pineapple alongside continent-hopping dishes like Cornish game hen katsu, with Japanese curry and daikon kimchi. And don’t forget the international language of cocktails—Liholiho’s bar program has made ordering all those fun island-themed concoctions a delicious proposition. One sip of the Pineapple Dance, made with plantation pineapple rum, Cynar, and freshly squeezed pineapple and lemon juices, and you may be inspired to do a little hula in your bar stool.
In China, the most exclusive way to enjoy a meal isn’t at an upscale restaurant. Shifan tsui, which translates to “private chateau cuisine,” is the practice of inviting small groups of guests to enjoy elaborate meals prepared by personal chefs. This is the concept behind Eight Tables, the distinctive dining experience located—both literally and metaphorically—at the very top of China Live, the ambitious culinary and cultural destination by restaurant mogul George Chen. While anyone can wander into China Live, access to Eight Tables is spectacularly guarded. Guests are met at a metal gate on Vallejo Street then whisked away (occasionally by rickshaw) to a private elevator that opens to a room set with eight tables. Waiters wear three-piece Ralph Lauren suits and blue Hermes ties, and the procession of the meal’s 10 courses is only matched in pomp and circumstance by the mad-scientist cocktails from the bar. The gin-based Lily Pond features “forest water,” made by juicing sour grasses into cucumber water. It is served in a delicate white bowl with a single nasturtium floating on top. The tasting menu changes regularly, but such decadent ingredients as caviar, lobster, and foie gras are regular fixtures.
As far as culinary origin stories go, it’s hard to beat Aaron London’s. As a rebellious teenager in Sonoma, he taught himself to cook in his family’s home kitchen. Flash forward a decade and he’s at the helm of his own pioneering restaurant—one that was named the best in the country in 2015 by Bon Appétit. Fruits and vegetables take center stage at Al’s Place, but London’s approach expands on the California cuisine of previous generations. Instead of preparing ingredients simply to stand on their own, London takes them through their paces. The fries, for example, take four days to prepare, while the season’s freshest offerings show up in unexpected ways: peach mayonnaise accompanies perfectly tender asparagus spears. But while London is known for being meticulous, the vibe of the dining room is laid back. Staff dress casually in a style befitting the neighborhood (plenty of kitchen-appropriate clogs and sleeves of tattoos) and are friendly, knowledgeable, and free of pretension. Pro tip: Show up early and join the loyalists and super fans who wait in two lines—one for those with reservations, one for walk-in guests—and then find out for yourself what a four-day fry tastes like.
In 2002, pastry chef Elisabeth Prueitt and her husband, bread baker Chad Robertson, opened Tartine Bakery in San Francisco’s Mission District. Ever since, crowds of locals and tourists have lined up outside the artisanal bakery for country bread, morning buns, and croque monsieurs. In 2016, the couple expanded by opening Tartine Manufactory—a coffee shop, bakery, restaurant, and bar rolled into one—in a light-filled corner of the massive Heath Ceramics building. The Los Angeles–based design studio Commune collaborated with San Francisco architect Charles Hemminger to build out the 5,000-square-foot space, and the aesthetic is equal parts modern Scandinavian, rustic Japanese, and sunny Californian. All day long, the casual Manufactory turns out ingredient-first dishes: for breakfast, coddled eggs served with trout roe, horseradish, za’atar, and grilled bread; for dinner, California halibut crudo with kiwi, leeks, puffed rice, mint, and cilantro. The wine list includes a mix of local producers plus notable varietals from France, Italy, and Germany. The food presentation is as attractive and innovative as the space, and Prueitt and Robertson see the restaurant as a natural extension of their close collaborations with local farmers, artists, other chefs, and winemakers.
Husband-and-wife team Stuart Brioza and Nicole Krasinski first gained recognition for State Bird Provisions, a game-changing, dim-sum-meets-California-cuisine restaurant that was supposed to be a temporary stand-in while they worked to open their larger space a few doors down. The couple picked up a prestigious James Beard Award for that effort. So if State Bird was their warm-up, it’s no surprise that their follow-up act, The Progress, has been a wild success. The space wows at first sight with its barrel ceiling and curved walls wrapped in simple wood slats. The Progress is three years old but has something new to offer on each visit, from the food (grilled Monterey abalone served with a butter flavored with ramps, yuzu, and seaweed) to the rotating works by local artists on the walls. Brioza and Krasinski recently changed the format from a prix fixe menu of family-style dishes to an à la carte experience, which is better for the casual, lively atmosphere. Plus, now you don’t have to share your pork and kimchi ravioli.
In Partnership with Afar.