This year, our eating schedule rivaled that of an abnormally hungry blue whale. Plenty of new spots opened over the past 12 months, so we consumed everything in sight and shocked a few servers with the size of our orders, all in the name of narrowing down our list of the best new restaurants in the city.
We also battled through the Great Restaurant Reservation Game Of 2021. Some spots were so hard to get into we had to disrupt our sleep cycles and book 9:30pm dinners. But ultimately, these 12 spots, from an incredible Detroit-style pizza place to a casual Chinese restaurant making the best xiao long bao in the city, made it all worth it. Read on for San Francisco’s Best New Restaurants of 2021.
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Our first time at Ernest, we got the $95 tasting menu, which was less of a dinner and more of an out-of-body experience. The meal kicked off with an ikura-topped beef tartare, and continued with a huge platter of oysters and scallop sashimi, tender duck confit croquettes, and a decadent sea urchin carbonara. By the time the chocolate-drenched hazelnut and vanilla soft serve hit the table, we knew: Ernest is simply one of the absolute best restaurants in the city. We went back to the Mission spot several times to try more of the menu, best described as “whatever’s in season right now,” and didn’t find a single miss. We now go to Ernest for birthdays and anniversaries, or whenever we’re in the mood to walk up to the bar on a random weekday, order some natural wine and pork tonkatsu, and have ourselves a night.
Abacá in Fisherman’s Wharf takes familiar Filipino flavors and makes them totally new. The light squash fritters are topped with more fresh herbs than you’ll find at a farmers market, the smoked chicken palabok is amped up with quail eggs and crispy rice noodles, and the cioppino-like seafood chowder is made with coconut broth. Don’t be surprised if your mouth is hanging open like a satisfied Labrador retriever at the end of the meal. Abacá is the first-ever Filipino fine dining restaurant in San Francisco, and it lives up to the hype.
Routier debuted in fall 2020 with a standout $39 prix-fixe takeout menu and some incredible potato pavé. With the return of dine-in to the city this year, the French Californian restaurant in Pacific Heights quickly became one we return to more often than the last known DM from our ex. But Routier’s charm doesn’t just come from the exquisite food, including the chicken liver mousse you’ll eat up like a hungry hyena, the crispy squid swimming in a tangy butter sauce, or the tender pork shoulder confit. This place is informal and inviting, like the truck stop routières in France that inspired it. Which is why this destination restaurant disguised as a casual neighborhood spot is one we visit for everything from blowout meals to chill hangs over wine after the worst week ever.
Eating at Lily is like finding a $50 bill on the ground and then winning big with a Scratcher later in the day—a thrilling experience. That’s because the upscale Vietnamese restaurant packs a fireworks explosion of sweet, salty, and spicy flavors in every bite. Your meal might start with duck confit rolls dipped in a sharp mustard sauce, followed by a colorful shaking beef salad full of toasted garlic, flower-shaped radishes, and buttery avocado chunks. And when the whole-fried red snapper on a bed of kimchi and pineapple chow fun arrives, you’ll realize this is one of your favorite meals, ever. It doesn’t hurt that everything, down to the flamingo pink smoothie with bursts of Pop Rock-like candy, deserves to be blown up on the cover of a magazine.
At Chao Pescao, every meal is big, bright, and festive—like a family dinner party but with way better food and zero arguments about who broke the TV remote last year. And at some point, a salsa throwback like “Yo No Sé Mañana” will probably blast through the speakers and command you to dance in your seat. This Cuban/Colombian restaurant knows how to make sure you have a great time, all the time, and that’s exactly why we love it. Seat dancing aside, we also head to this vibrant Civic Center spot to eat perfectly fried empanadas, tostones, comforting ajiaco, and plates of lechon cubano with heaps of rice and beans you’ll still be thinking about halfway through your third sync up meeting the next day.
Ask 10 people in San Francisco what their favorite dumpling spot in the city is, and you’ll probably get 10 different answers. Ask us, and we’ll tell you it’s Dumpling Home. Since fall 2020, the casual Chinese restaurant has been churning out big, juicy dumplings that belong at the very top of an Olympic podium. You’ll know it too, as soon as you take the lid off a bamboo steamer to reveal green-tinted vegetable dumplings that look like sleeping baby hedgehogs, or xiao long bao with wrappers so thin you’ll see the soup right through them. Another reason we love this spot? The appetizers and sides are in a class of their own, including the garlicky cucumber salad that will ruin all other cucumber salads for you, and the chicken wings with a sweet and spicy glaze that will inspire you to lick off the plate. Another plus: no dish is over $20, which is why we order with the fervor of a pack of stoned teenagers.
When we heard that the Flour + Water folks had opened another pasta spot in the Mission, we had high hopes. Unsurprisingly, the more casual sister restaurant does not disappoint. Every pasta on the menu is done to textbook perfection—think tagliatelle bolognese with a meaty sauce, and agnolotti dal plin so plump we’d use one as a pillow. A night here also means sipping on a glass of wine in the beautiful covered courtyard next to a trickling fountain and lots of leafy plants, and feeling like you’ve escaped the outside world—or, at the very least, the VR simulation that is 2021. You’ll also quickly realize that you have a new go-to spot for date nights, birthdays, mid-week catch-ups, and everything in between.
After six years in the Mission, Californios relocated to the old Bar Agricole space in SoMa and opened in the spring. So we were looking forward to getting reacquainted with the second iteration of the Mexican fine dining spot. And no surprise here: Californios is still one of the most extravagant meals in town. When you step into the cavernous space with the all-black walls, you’ll feel like you’re at a chic art gallery about to experience a full-blown production. It’ll start with tiny bites, like a masa tart topped with rich sturgeon mousse and caviar and a chicharrón buried in truffle shavings, and head into an entire course dedicated to some of the best tacos we’ve ever had. It ends with a trio of bonbons, a buñuelo you’ll dream about for weeks, and chocolate cotton candy. At $267 per person, dinner here isn’t casual—but it’s not supposed to be. Californios is back in a big way, and here when you want to blow serious cash on an unforgettable meal.
We ate enough Detroit-style pizza over the last year to feed a young hippo. But the one that keeps pulling us back is at Joyride Pizza. What makes this counter-service spot in Yerba Buena Gardens somewhere we’d cross town on a unicycle for is that no crust is ever left behind, and every pie is the perfect ratio of crust to sauce to toppings. The first time you eat here, you too will fall in love with the airy focaccia crust with caramelized cheese the color of autumn leaves. And you’ll want to bottle up their tomato sauce infused with basil and oregano. What really takes Joyride’s encyclopedia-sized pizzas to the next level are the toppings that feel like a farmers market exploded all over the menu, from the juicy chunks of pineapple to the shaved brussels sprouts. And even though you’ll probably be back for quick lunches and dinners before a movie at the Metreon, we suggest you throw restraint out the window and order everything the first time around.
San Francisco is crawling with more seasonal menus than French bulldogs named Coco. But one seasonal menu that stands out from the rest is at Marlena, a Bernal Heights restaurant that we’ll never run out of excuses to go to. The fantastic four-course menu ($65) could easily fly at any big-deal fine dining restaurant—think deconstructed pasta with aged duck ragu, or pork collar doused in mustard seed jus and cauliflower foam—but Marlena isn’t stuffy or ridiculously expensive. After our first visit, we already felt like regulars. And with a menu that completely changes every few weeks, booking a standing reservation is tempting, especially because no two meals here are ever the same. But the one constant is that every dish is carefully thought out, with an attention to detail that never fails to impress.
There aren’t many places in San Francisco where we can dress up like we’re about to walk a red carpet, sit down to some Beijing dumplings and crispy-skinned duck, and stare out at a panoramic view of Coit Tower—unless we make a reservation at Empress by Boon. Whenever we go to the Cantonese restaurant, we can do all of these things—and have a luxurious meal while we’re at it. A special night at this Chinatown spot starts the moment you exit the elevator on the 6th floor. You’ll instantly feel like you’ve crossed the red velvet ropes to the VIP section of an exclusive club, especially after you’re seated in a curved teal booth behind a towering wooden pergola. The $78 prix-fixe menu will also make you feel like a royal, with delicate sea prawn rolls, short rib smoked with jasmine for a subtle sweetness, and zucchini prawn dumplings topped with black truffle. A meal at Empress by Boon always adds up to a memorable night, and one that’s unlike any other you’ll have in the city.
As soon as we finished our first course—a miniature creamy potato “croquette” wrapped in a smooth potato chip and topped with uni and smoked pepper relish—we knew Nisei was something special. Unlike other Japanese fine dining restaurants focusing on omakase or A5 wagyu, this Russian Hill spot goes all in on a 12-course tasting menu based on seasonality and washoku (Japanese home cooking). But this fine-dining spot has earned a place on a Best New Restaurants list because they’ve done the seemingly impossible: make dishes that look deceptively simple taste bold and new. From the button-sized dorayaki filled with banana to the pear and ginger kakigōri that feels like eating a spoonful of snowflakes, Nisei is a spot you should experience at least once.