Here’s a departure: At the end of most years, napaman gives readers a comprehensive list of new restaurants sampled in the previous 12 months, which have shown great promise.
This year, I thought it more meaningful to offer a list of area restaurants where you’re most likely to find me on oft-repeated visits; for what better proof is there in the legitimacy of a review than a critic who choses to dine on his own dime at a venue over and over?
So, for 2016, here’s napaman’s list of personal favorite Bay-area restaurants – where you’ll find me, and where you’re likely to enjoy one of your best meals in 2017.
As they say in the old grocery ads: Clip & Save!
In Napa Valley, in alphabetical order
Bistro Don Giovanni
Since moving to Napa Valley 20 years ago, I have dined here often. Giovanni and his capable lieutenant Neno and their dedicated team of cooks and servers make dining here a real treat.
I have dined at Bistro Don Giovanni more than 400 times and always walk away with a broad smile; the room, the food, the service, all work together to provide diners a sensational experience.
The Caesar salad rivals the one made at Mustards Grill as “the best in Napa Valley,” and I love the tasty beet and haricots verts salad, tossed with Roquefort; pastas are well prepared and, compared to other restaurants in the Bay-area, everything here is extremely fairly priced.
Bistro Don Giovanni, 4110 Howard Lane, Napa. 707-224-3300.
Brasswood Bar + Kitchen
Walk into Brasswood and there’s a sense of deja vu; just about the whole cast is from Tra Vigne, the now defunct, and once former favorite restaurant, in St. Helena. The menu is eerily familiar, too, featuring all the Best Food Hits from Tra Vigne’s heyday.
Relax, you’re not having a psychotic moment, and that pot you smoked in 1968 hasn’t returned to give you hallucinations.
There IS a similarity between what you find here and what we knew and loved at Tra Vigne, which closed for good last December.
The chef, the hosts, the bartenders, the waiters and bussers from Tra Vigne were hired en masse by Cairdean Estates, to run the winery’s on-site restaurant, now called Brasswood Bar + Kitchen, north of St. Helena by a few miles.
In fact, the restaurant has been so successful, that Cairdean opted to rebrand itself and its wine as Brasswood.
Remember those phenomenal cocktails made by Eileen Regan at Tra Vigne? She now shakes her heart out nightly at Brasswood.
Remember those warm and effusive hugs you got at the door by host and GM Jennifer Bohr? Now you’ll get them from her at Brasswood.
And remember all those lovely dishes on the menu at Tra Vigne, which made you salivate? Now you head to Brasswood to have them, prepared by David Nunos, who cooked at Tra Vigne for 15 years. Even the famous a la minute, hand-made mozzarella, originated by Nash Cognetti at Tra Vigne (in the photo above), is on the menu.
Brasswood, 3111 St Helena Hwy, north of St. Helena. 707-302-5101.
This is one of those restaurants at which I have a difficult time deciding what I am going to have for dinner – because EVERYTHING ON THE MENU IS PHENOMENAL!
As I have many American favorites here, my advice is to scan the menu and simply order numerous dishes for your table and share.
Among favorite appetizers: lobster rolls wrapped in rice paper, crispy calamari, and who can say NO to Market’s ceviche, Caesar salad, or extravagant chopped salad?
I often order the pepper-crusted steak appetizer, served with a huge mound of truffled, shoestring fries, as a main course.
For dessert, there is no option: Resistance is futile. You MUST order the fabled butterscotch pudding, which I have often opined is the single best dessert in Napa Valley.
Yes, Cindy’s Mile High Lemon Meringue Pie at Mustards Grill is a Best Dessert rival. But Market’s butterscotch pudding has stood the test of time and is still my Favorite Dessert in Napa Valley.
Market, 1347 Main St., St. Helena. 707-963-3799.
For more than 30 years, Cindy Pawlcyn has turned out consistently great fare here.
In many respects, Cindy is the arch-creator of California grill cookery, having brought to market a sensibility for fresh, seasonal ingredients, prepared in the quintessential California style – grilled.
As good as the fare has been here for 30 years – it has never been better than right now. And I should know because I have dined here more than 450 times.
At lunch, I recommend everyone try the calamari slaw appetizer, followed by the pulled pork sandwich.
At dinner, Cindy’s hanger steak defines this dish and has become my personal benchmark for “hanger steak,” whenever I see it on another menu. And it’s NEVER as good as Mustards Grill’s hanger steak. NOT EVER.
Mustards Grill, 7399 St. Helena Highway, just north of Yountville. (707) 944-2424.
Chef Richard Reddington continues to knock it out of the park in this intimate, contemporary, Yountville shrine to good taste.
While all the pastas are phenomenal, the fettuccine Bolognese is better than ANY version of this dish I ever ate in in Emilia-Romagna, Italy. Ever.
The pizzas are among my favorites in the Bay-area. I’m crazy for the arugula-prosciutto pie.
And if you order a protein like chicken, salmon, steak, or pork, be sure to order the flash-fried fingerling potatoes -- proof that potatoes are actually a food group unto themselves... and you need to eat a full serving daily to maintain proper health!
The wine list is smart, as is the staff serving the wines. Put yourself into passive gear and ask your server, or sommelier on duty, to recommend a wine to complement your food selections.
Fun, flavor, fabulous. That’s Redd Wood. Oh, and did I mention that Byron and his bartender teammates turn out powerful, pleasurable cocktails? Ask for the “Jim White Manhattan” and see what you get.
Redd Wood, 6755 Washington St. 707-299-5030.
Goose & Gander (aka G&G)
About once a week, I get a craving for a big, juicy, burger and the one served at G&G is, without question, the best burger in Napa Valley.
In fact, I have yet to find one that I like as much in any of the San Francisco restaurants where the hoopla is all about their burger.
Yes, Mustards Grill makes a great burger, as do Bistro Don Giovanni, in Napa, and Market, in St. Helena. But the chuck champ is still the burger served at G&G.
The cocktails here are worthy of a detour, too. We love everything they concoct, but our favorites are always the Manhattans and Martinis.
They revitalized the menu here nicely this year; the salads, mains, and desserts have been tweaked and have never been better since we became regulars. Nice work, Goose & Ganderistas!
Goose & Gander, 1245 Spring St., St. Helena. 707-967-8779.
In San Francisco, in alphabetical order
A16 is back in the game, serving better food than ever, and wowing patrons with exceptional pizza and pastas, authentically nuanced with flavors from Campania (southern Italy). And service is exceptional, too.
Owner Shelley Lindgren has appointed Izzy Berdougo, a recent hire from Cotogna, as Director of Operations, which is a very smart move.
The kitchen is turning out stellar pizzas; there are days I wake up dreaming about them and drive to San Francisco to fulfill the fantasy.
Waiter Omar Caruso once suggested that we order the sublime Margherita pizza and shroud it with a near-infinite number of thin slices of prosciutto. Ever since, this has become our signature, go-to pizza here. It’s served with scissors – to cut the pie into as many slices as a diner might wish.
The world may be round, but some of the best things in it are flat. And I include A16’s pizza on this list.
I love Shelley’s southern Italian-based wine list, too. Years ago, it was named by the Wall Street Journal as one of the three top restaurant wine lists IN THE WHOLE COUNTRY!
Put yourself in the care of your server and ask him, or her, to suggest a wine to complement the dishes you’ve ordered. There’s a good chance that you will not recognize the brands, labels, or grapes pressed, of many of the wines on Shelley’s long, long, impressive wine list. Explore!
A16, 2355 Chestnut St., San Francisco. 415-771-2216
Chef/owner Michael Chiarello, who has had many Italian successes, has created my favorite, fun Spanish restaurant in San Francisco. The tapas here are sensational; the bar is superb, cocktails rock.
I noted last year that the selection of small dishes is overwhelming. One favorite, which I order every visit, is the truffled-honey, smoked salmon – in fact, we rarely stop at one order for our table.
Wine director Massi Giovannoni has assembled a superb selection of Spanish wines; service is keen and wait staff can ably assist you choose wines which will complement your selection of tapas dishes.
The room is a hoot, the food is superb.
Coqueta, Pier 5, The Embarcadero, San Francisco. 415-704-8866.
If I wanted to rent out a dining room for a celebratory evening in San Francisco, Cotogna would be my choice; this, small, intimate, cozy – and tasty! -- Italian restaurant has it all. GREAT cocktails, GREAT pizzas, GREAT pastas. Because I live nearby when I am in the city, this is my go-to restaurant for the homecoming feel, for the food, service, cocktails and for the imaginative wine list.
The bar is stupendous, tended by several of the most accomplished bartenders in a city that is brimming with talented mixologists.
The servers at Cotogna, the bussers, the cooks, everyone here, has been trained to perfection by Chef Michael Tusk and his detail-driven partner and wife, Lindsay.
Together they orchestrate authentic Italian, perfectly prepared, food; they initiate an ever-changing menu, which is seasonally brilliant; individual dishes launch on the palate with amazing texture and finish with rich flavor. All through the chew there is culinary magic at work. Thank you chef, and thank you Lindsay, for this mealtime magic.
Cotogna, 490 Pacific Ave., San Francisco. 415-775-8508
Craig and Annie Stoll have been operating one of the classic, must-go-to Italian restaurants in San Francisco for nearly 20 years. It is easy to forget our old favorites as we tend to seek out new, trendy dining experiences, but you would be wrong to overlook Delfina.
I not only have a soft spot in my heart for what Craig has engendered in his restaurant – I think the food is as good today as it has ever been.
Craig’s classic appetizer, grilled Monterey calamari with a warm white bean salad, is still probably the single best appetizer in San Francisco.
And to prove that simple is best, that dishes made with fewer ingredients can be superior to those prepared with too many, Craig has devised the simplest – but tastiest! – pasta dish ... ta da!.... spaghetti tossed with ripe plum tomatoes, garlic, extra-virgin olive oil and a bit of pepperoncini for edge. I don’t think we’ve ever been to Delfina when someone at the table wasn’t required to order this dish to share!
Until Craig took his profiteroles and chocolate sauce off the dessert menu, he had, unquestionably, the best version of this dish made in the state, and quite possibly the universe.
But Craig told me that he got bored serving the same dish, night after night, and, in truth, what were profiteroles doing on an Italian menu anyway?
Nevertheless, I encourage Craig to put these back on the menu and if it takes 120,000 signatures, as California voter propositions require, then maybe, just maybe, we’ll have to get politically active and start collecting signatures to bring the profiteroles back!
How good is Delfina? I’ve lost track of the number of special occasions and birthdays we’ve celebrated here; my son-in-law even proposed marriage to my daughter at Delfina. He’d called, asking me for a favorite restaurant in San Francisco at the time... I said Delfina... and the deed was done!
Delfina, 3621 18th Street, San Francisco. 415-552-4055.
Like magicians pulling silk scarves out of a hat, Michael and Lindsay Tusk have invented the perfect counterpoint to their casual Cotogna (reviewed above); they have given us Quince, the best fine-dining room in San Francisco. Maybe in all of California. And while we’re about it, maybe in America.
I am so over-the-top happy that Michelin finally got smart and bestowed a third star on Quince this year. I’ve been kvetching for years that Quince was more deserving of three stars than many 3-star restaurants already on Michelin’s list.
In short: Quince is my favorite, multiple-course, prix-fixe, dining room in America. I have eaten at many 3-star Michelin restaurants including French Laundry, in Napa Valley, Le Bernardin, in New York, and Benu in San Francisco but they come up stuffy, or precious, or both.
My best-ever, multi-course, fine-dining experiences, based on return visits, have been at Quince, where one is made to feel welcome, where servers pick up on your energy and emotional flow, where wines, paired to complement a tasting menu, dazzle your senses.
Come to think of it, Michael and Lindsay Tusk aren't just "like magicians," they ARE magicians; I think of them as the Penn & Teller of fine-dining AND casual-dining because whichever restaurant of theirs you exit, Cotogna or Quince, which are contiguous, you are filled with the same sense of wonderment, awe and joy as you are after a Penn & Teller performance... you walk out slapping your forehead, asking yourself, “How the hell did they just do that...?”
Quince, 470 Pacific Ave., San Francisco 415-775-8500
One of my new ob-sessions this year is a casual, fun, family-style restaurant called Sessions.
It is on the edge of the Presidio and the only fault I find here is that my appetite is never large enough to try everything on the menu at any one sitting, but everything sounds so good that you aim for that high bar.
Speaking of bars, note how good the one at Sessions is. Cocktails, like lunch and dinner dishes, are fun, well prepared and memorable.
Sessions is the creation of chef/owner Michael Bilger and GM/owner Evin Gelleri, pictured above. The pair formerly owned a restaurant in the financial district. Lucky are we that they gave up that effort and opened Sessions, which is airy, bright, attractive, oh, and yes, busy. Book a table early and often.
At lunch, I love the grilled mahi mahi tacos (two in an order), served with cumin slaw and fries. And even though fries come with this dish, don’t even think of dining here without ordering a freestanding side of the house French fries.
For burger obsession: Sessions’ is large and flavorful; order it with cheese and bacon to impact the taste and mouthfeel.
The cocktail menu, which is original, fun and extremely appealing, was concocted by bartender Peter Ziegler who is in charge of the spirit program. What’s not to love about Peter’s Mos Eisley Mule, fueled with mezcal and tequila, named after the spaceport bar in Star Wars?
Sessions features two-dozen craft brews on tap; I had one of the best American IPAs that I have ever had, Galaxy Juice, produced by Fieldwork Brewing Co., in Berkeley. Don’t look for it now because the only keg allocated to Sessions is long gone, but DO ask your bartender, or waiter, for something different than run-of-the-swill suds and you’ll be thrilled with their choice.
Of particular note: the Sunday, beer-brined, then fried Mary's half-chicken includes the restaurant’s take on a classic American side dish -- Cheddar-ale mac & cheese. Only served Sunday. I’ll see ya there. Trust me, it’s worth the schlep to San Francisco.
Sessions, 1 Letterman Drive, Bldg D, San Francisco. 415-655-9413
This small restaurant, a sublime destination for Asian fusion cookery, is one of my top favorite restaurants in America, let alone the Bay-area. The Smithsonian should create an American Restaurant Hall of Fame, just for the purpose of making The House its first inductee!
I have dined so many times, and for so many years, at The House that owners Larry and Angela Tse have become good friends.
The single best sandwich I ate this year was, like last year, the Ahi Tuna BLT, served at lunch.
I have had this sandwich more than three-dozen times and the experience always makes me vocalize the same line:
“This is the best sandwich that I have had this whole year.”
Dinners at The House are filled with tasty surprises; there are sensational noodle dishes, superb fish-based specials.
It turns out that I am not alone in my praise for The House. Zagat readers just rated this destination of deliciousness as the 10th best restaurant in San Francisco.
Here’s what all those irascible, quotation-mark-wielding diners had to say:
Some of the city's “top” Asian-fusion fare can ... be found in North Beach at this “small” but “mighty good” “eclectic” stalwart that “continues to impress” with its “phenomenal” “high-caliber” dishes (“especially the melt-in-your-mouth sea bass”), presented along with an “amazing” sake and wine list by an “accommodating” team; the “cramped, noisy” setting is “maybe not the best romantic date-night choice”, but fans attest it offers some of the best “food and value” in the city.
Without using annoying quotation marks, I will underscore that I’ve been saying the same thing for two decades! It’s about time the Zagaterites caught up! Or maybe they’ve just been taking a cue from napaman.
The House, 1230 Grant (at Columbus). 415-986-8612.
Belotti is run by the eponymous chef/owner Michele Belotti (pictured above), who has cooked in some of the best restaurants in Piedmont, Italy, and who makes ALL of the pasta served here.
Michele prepares, or finishes, dishes on a six-burner stove in a kitchen that is not larger than what you’d find in a studio apartment.
In November, to celebrate the oncoming winter season, a group of 16 food fans (mostly) from Napa Valley, descended on Belotti for a 4-hour lunch during which Michele prepared 12 different pastas, many platters of salumi, and a meal-ending, game-changing, brasato (a five-hour braised flat iron steak, served with divine polenta, napped with a mushroom-enhanced, Nebbiolo reduction). You want tongue-clacking memorable? Any one of the dishes served during our lunch would achieve this grade.
Trust me, in food circles, we’re all buzzing -- Michele Belotti is THE chef to watch in the Bay-area –- no one is making home-made pasta as copious, or as delicious.
Michele’s pappardelle, agnolotti, tagliatelle, and casoncelli are in a league of their own. I swooned over his vitello tonnato, which is as good as, or possibly better than, any version of this dish I have ever had in Italy.
At Belotti, close your eyes. Open your mouth. You could easily be in Piedmont. And I’m not talking about the Piedmont in the nearby Berkeley hills.
Bravo, Michele, you have made a gustatory difference in our community.
Belotti, 5403 College Ave., Oakland. 510-788-7890
In Walnut Creek
One of my favorite wine shops in America, and its adjacent Italian restaurant, are both called Prima. They are located on Main Street in what we lovingly refer to as Walnutty Creek.
Since 2005, Prima’s partner-owners are John Rittmaster (top shot above), who looks after the wine shop and executive chef Peter Chastain (second photo), who runs the kitchen next door.
Call them Batman and Robin (though I doubt either of them looks great in tights...)... they are out to fight mediocrity in wine and food and, to my thinking, they have succeeded beyond anyone’s wildest dreams.
The wine events, which John organizes, and the dinners built around them by Peter, are so compelling, and the food and wines so good, that we often drive 85 round-trip miles from Napa Valley to attend. THAT’s how good they are.
You need to get on Prima’s mailing list to learn about the monthly dinners, the wine tasting events and a series of visiting winemaker dinners.
I have never ordered a la carte off the menu at Prima but instead have been privy to Peter’s dishes, paired to complement selected wines, and these dinners are memorably good and fairly priced for what you get in terms of food, flavor and wines, all of which you will brag about having consumed at the office water-cooler the next day.
Thank you, John, Peter, and your capable crew who support your efforts; you have brought joy to Walnut Creek and beyond and, as Batman and Robin, you have likely reduced the crime rate locally... because who’s got time to conduct nefarious deeds in Gotham when there are so many great dinners and events to attend at Prima, which just naturally keeps the riffraff off the streets!?
Prima, 1522 North Main St., Walnut Creek. 925-945-1800