2016’s Best New Restaurants
Here’s our top five list—from comfort food to upscale dining.
Winner: Farmer’s Almanac
Farmer’s Almanac in Danville breaks new ground—honestly.
Chef Tim Humphrey crafts farm-to-table American cuisine with Southern soul at Farmer’s Almanac in Danville.
The feel: After taking this 1903 Queen Anne cottage “down to the studs,” owner Darren Matte reached back to Danville’s agricultural past for inspiration, creating a homestead motif and wraparound patio that keenly reflect chef Tim Humphrey’s honest farm-to-table style. A crystal chandelier–lit entrance separates the rustic-and-cozy bar salon—with tables reserved for walk-ins—from the dining room, where an exposed ceiling, repurposed wood, and powder blue walls create a homey, retro-chic backdrop for the steely exhibition kitchen.
The chef: Humphrey has cooked at multiple Michelin-starred restaurants, briefly ran the kitchen at Google, and most recently served as the executive chef at the upscale 103-room The Lodge at Tiburon. But he is a modest chef who is most at home at Farmer’s Almanac, an intimate, family-friendly restaurant that allows Humphrey to fully express his simple, Southern-tinged roots.
The food: This is soulful American cuisine—gourmet farmstead fare, if you like—with the best dishes born from Humphrey’s childhood and refined over the decades. You can’t get any more personal than “My Mama’s Breakfast Plate,” a Sunday tradition at the Humphreys, or the scallion hush puppies appetizer, inspired by a Southern side dish offered up by his grandpa at family fish fries.
Defining dish: For the fall menu, moonshine pumpkins inspired a velvety soup spiked with brown butter, seasoned with watercress, and garnished with grilled heirloom grapes. A timeless favorite is Humphrey’s apple-brined pork loin served on chewy grits. The dish is accompanied by a Carolina BBQ sauce sweetened with cane syrup harvested by his brother Chris—who rebooted their grandfather’s farm in Florida more than 10 years ago.
What makes it special: Humphrey sources the bulk of his produce from Jason LaBue, a friend and a former chef (they cooked together for eight years), who recently founded Kicking Bull Farms in Sonoma. Farmer’s Almanac’s seasonal menus are planned—and Kicking Bull’s heirloom crops planted—in a true chef-farmer collaboration. Sweet and savory dishes, as well as cocktails, showcase the Humphrey family farm’s cane syrup. The menu’s “Farmer’s Market” omelet (as well as the special salads and skillets) is inspired by local farmers markets, including the Danville Saturday market—just a stone fruit’s throw away from this historic cottage. Farm-to-table is a term that’s cast about casually these days, but at Farmer’s Almanac, it’s serious business.
Contact: 500 Hartz Ave., Danville, (925) 718-5168, almanacdanville.com. Lunch Mon.–Fri., brunch Sat.–Sun., dinner daily.
California-Korean cuisine shines at Pleasanton’s Gan.
Korean flavors from chef Peter Jee Oh Chung’s childhood meet Western techniques on the fusion menu at Gan in Pleasanton.
The feel: Simple and serene as its side street address, Gan’s interior was designed by its owner, Peter Jee Oh Chung. The young chef’s choice of “airy green” matches—and is as soothing as—Chung’s house-made ice cream of perilla leaf, a minty, fresh herb that carries notes of citrus and spice. And just like the honeyed caramel and black sesame that garnish the ice-cream dish, Gan’s decor has a few playful touches of its own, including vivid reds, drum lights, and a faux backlit window meant to convey home sweet home.
The chef: Having never lost his love for the Korean flavors of his childhood, Chung has parlayed his extensive experience at top modern American restaurants into a contemporary interpretation of Mom’s cooking. Positions at San Francisco’s Jardinière, Michael Mina, and the seafood-centric Waterbar (where he was sous chef), as well as a stint at Rockridge’s popular small-plate restaurant À Côté, have enabled Chung to produce a refined Korean-themed menu based on Western culinary technique, and to imbue his dishes with a California-fresh sensibility.
The food: With plates such as smoky Asian-spiced ribs and plum-sauced pork belly, Chung excels at comfort food with a touch of sass. But his light hand with pickling, fermenting, and using Eastern flavorings—such as brown rice vinegar and Korean soy sauce—works equally well with Chung’s delicate fish and vegetarian dishes. The word Gan means seasoning, and Chung understands how to balance all the varied elements within his cooking. His cuisine is stylistically unique, refined with compelling accents.
Defining dish: Chung’s “Wedding Cheeks”—which were first served at his wedding reception—are a beef cut similar to short ribs that turn impossibly tender after a slow braise in stock with ganjang. Chung serves the cheeks with the braising liquid and paired with the best available produce, such as Zuckerman Farms’ marble potatoes and a relish of daikon and celery root.
What makes it special: Chung’s Korean heritage combined with his upscale Western restaurant experience provide a foundation for a stylistically unique cuisine. Chung is not a methodical chef; his recipes are spontaneous and inspired by the season, so his menu stays fresh. This synergy carries over to the five-seat bar, where premium soju (a refined rice liquor) and Asian-accented craft cocktails, such as the cucumber-infused Seoulful and an Old Fashioned Korean with house-made bitters, bring true spirit to the fusion concept.
Contact: 221 Division St., Pleasanton, (925) 523-3630, ganrestaurant.com. Dinner Tues.–Sat., brunch Sat.–Sun.
Winner: Limewood Bar and Restaurant
Berkeley’s Limewood dazzles like a Pacific sunset.
World-class views and modern Mediterranean–American cuisine make Limewood Bar and Restaurant—helmed by chef Joseph Humphrey— Berkeley’s most sophisticated new spot.
The feel: This modern brasserie’s polished decor, with its luxurious aubergine-and-white chairs, Parisian-tile floor, and vintage tin ceiling, is worthy of the iconic Claremont Club and Spa’s majestic setting in the Berkeley hills. An elegant exhibition kitchen and starched service seal Limewood Bar and Restaurant’s achievement as this year’s most sophisticated new East Bay restaurant.
The chef: Joseph Humphrey—who most recently headed up Berkeley’s celebrated neighborhood restaurant The Advocate—has been cooking in the greater Bay Area’s finest restaurants for roughly 19 years, working with pioneering chefs George Morrone and Michael Mina. Humphrey earned Michelin stars for luxury resorts in St. Helena and Sausalito while helming the kitchens at The Restaurant at Meadowood and Cavallo Point.
The food: Humphrey’s modern Mediterranean-American cuisine has a rustic character, relying on heirloom ingredients with bold, fresh flavors. His mastery is most evident in the subtle juxtaposition of diverse elements, utilizing delicate spice blends, bold textures, and both sophisticated and simple techniques, such as light pickling, to cultivate intrigue and create synergy.
Defining dish: Corn chowder arrives creamy white but shines with perfumed liquor from colossal black mussels. Pristine flat parsley sprigs and rings of ruby Fresno chilies bring brightness and spice to the soup’s sweet, smoky, and earthy character—drawn from perfectly poached potato, smoked bacon, and buttery soft onions.
What makes it special: With its panorama of the San Francisco skyline, Limewood’s location marks it as world-class, but its accessibility establishes it as a local gem. Meet a pal for cleverly skewered canapés and a craft cocktail, such as the cucumber-and-ginger-infused Vista, at the posh bar. Rekindle romance in the spacious lounge, with flutes of champagne and raw or fennel-roasted oysters. Choose a sublimely satisfying lunch on the relaxed deck—solo or with a circle of friends—from a menu of grass-fed burgers, fried chicken club sandwiches with fresh mozzarella, and locally crafted brews. Or dine stylishly in the formal dining room—as the sky dims—on dishes such as cured wild king salmon, stuffed lamb chop, and hummingbird cake.
Contact: 41 Tunnel Rd., Berkeley, (510) 549-8585, limewoodrestaurant.com. Lunch and dinner daily.
Winner: Sideboard Neighborhood Kitchen and Coffee Bar
Sideboard in Lafayette offers authentic hospitality.
The second and newest location of Sideboard Neighborhood Kitchen and Coffee Bar, in Lafayette, serves up from-scratch comfort food in a casual setting.
The feel: When Erin Andrews and her husband, Ford, opened the original Danville Sideboard Neighborhood Kitchen and Coffee Bar in 2008, it was rare to see high-quality local fare offered in a waiter-less restaurant. But by the time Sideboard Lafayette opened this spring, the fast-casual concept was a familiar one, and the restaurant was an instant hit. Here, you order at the counter, head to the sideboard for antique mismatched silverware and an old-fashioned milk bottle of icy, fresh-minted water, and then find a spot on the patio, or perhaps a friendly face at one of the many communal tables.
The chef: Erin has worked in restaurants since she was a teen. She attended La Varenne in Paris, was the wholesale manager at The Pasta Shop (now Market Hall Foods) in Rockridge, and served under Alison Negrin, the original chef at Bridges Restaurant and Bar in Danville.
The food: The comfortable fast-casual concept allows the Andrews to invest their time and money in the kitchen, so they can afford artisanal products and organic ingredients, and truly cook from scratch (including baking all their own breakfast pastries and desserts). Erin riffs on American diner fare—the cheddar burger, for instance, is made with Prather Ranch beef and is served on an Acme bun swiped with honey-Dijon aioli. As for drinks—whether it’s pour-over Four Barrel coffees at breakfast, a watermelon mint cooler at lunch, or a glass of wine on tap at dinner—they all hit the same high standard.
Defining dish: Delicately fried chicken comes in a bucket and—if you like—with a shade umbrella and blanket. Stake out a spot on the grassy area opposite the narrow parking lot, and a staff member will bring your entire lunch in a picnic basket. If you prefer your chicken grilled, don’t miss the number 12 salad with Point Reyes Blue Cheese, ripe avocado, and loads of freshly crisped bacon.
What makes it special: The restaurant’s name was inspired by the sideboard of Erin’s grandma, who discovered that if her guests collected their silverware themselves, they tended to mingle and feel more at home. That dynamic creates a gracious spirit at Sideboard Lafayette, but it’s the warm glow one gets from Erin’s gourmet comfort food that seals the deal.
Contact: 3535 Plaza Way, Lafayette, (925) 310-4773, itsonthesideboard.com. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner daily.
Winner: Rooftop Restaurant and Bar
Fun Dining at its Finest
Raise a glass to Rooftop in Walnut Creek.
The feel: Featuring clear views of Mount Diablo, Rooftop Restaurant and Bar is the place to see and be seen in downtown Walnut Creek. Perched on the top level of a stunning new building made of reclaimed brick and Corten steel, Rooftop overlooks “Cadillac Corner”—an intersection that boasts Tiffany and Co. and Neiman Marcus. Show off your style at the three-sided bar, on one of three patios, at the communal lounge, or in “the tower”—a wall-less space suited for fine dining.
The chef: Having earned her chops as the chef de cuisine at The Slanted Door, partner Justine Kelly brings a Vietnamese vibrancy
to Rooftop’s menu, such as Kaffir lime black cod—wrapped in banana leaf—at dinner, and the banh mi sandwich—on an Acme baguette—at lunch.
The food: Kelly’s global menu celebrates the Mediterranean, but she has a particular penchant for Middle Eastern spice. Nibbles such as grilled lamb meatballs and black hummus pair well with the bar’s lively libations. (Check out the bubbly Up and Up and juicy Wedding Punch.) Entrées are bold (think pork shank and rib eye steak), but more wine-friendly. And with partner Jim Telford’s—the owner of Walnut Creek’s Residual Sugar Wine Bar—expanding Rooftop’s wine bottle list from around 30 to 300, that’s a good thing.
Defining dish: Crisp, lightly fried chicken wings with a classic Vietnamese lime and black pepper dipping sauce might be the menu’s simplest dish. But it captures everything Kelly loves and Rooftop celebrates: sophisticated comfort food that’s easy to share and complements craft cocktails.
What makes it special: These days, most serious restaurants draw their energy from the bar; Rooftop simply does it better than anyone else. On balmy days and star-filled nights, when the ceiling retracts, the whole dining room is a heavenly party scene—particularly on weekends when you may indeed need to shout from the Rooftop. Whether you want to drink or not is up to you, but the fun vibe is clearly in the air.
Contact: 1500 Mt. Diablo Blvd., Walnut Creek, (925) 300-3540, rooftopwc.com. Lunch and dinner daily.
In Your Words Food Favorites
As part of our Food Awards, we ask our readers to tell us their favorite restaurant in their hometown and why they love it. Here are a few of their answers.
“Walnut Creek Yacht Club [has] a lot of options if you love fresh fish, great cocktails, [and] excellent service, all served up in a casual and colorful restaurant.” —Cathy Cardas, Walnut Creek
“Artisan Bistro. The quality of the food and flavors are just a notch above other restaurants.” —Grace Inouye, Lafayette
“Sabio on Main: fantastic tapas, great atmosphere, great wine list.” —Jim McDonnell, Pleasanton
“Gianni’s [Italian] Bistro. Gianni and Melanie are gracious hosts. The staff is warm and friendly. The food is always great and authentic.” —Chris Wells, San Ramon
“Esin [Restaurant and Bar] because they have always exceeded our expectations since they opened in San Ramon. Not once in all of the times we have dined there did they disappoint on ambiance, appetizers, meals, desserts, and superior service.” —Art Gardner, Danville
“Zephyr [Bar and Grill], because it has a great menu and a wonderful neighborhood feel.” —Gail Monge, Livermore
“Slow Hand BBQ. Awesome smoked meat and sides!” —Tawana McIntyre, Pleasant Hill
“Naan ‘n’ Curry in Concord—[it’s] always, always packed. Fresh, spicy high quality food without breaking the bank.” —Aaron McHugh, Concord