We’ve noshed and sipped our way through the Bay Area’s best restaurants, from swanky high-end restaurants to the most casual cafes. Now we’re ready to roll out our restaurant critics and food writers’ highly subjective list of the top 50 restaurants across the East and South Bays. Consider it not so much a ranking as a guide for all cravings and occasions, from a memorable quick lunch to a date-worthy experience.
We released the first batch — Nos. 41-50 — on Monday. Today, we’re diving into the next batch. Let’s get started — because whether you’re craving Bacalhau, brisket or Cochinita Pibil, you won’t want to dally.
A guide to the abbreviations:
$: A typical entree is $15 or less
$$$$: More than $100
Slice House by Tony Gemignani, Walnut Creek: When you want pizza with world-class cachet
Walnut Creek’s worst-kept secret is a 900-square-foot, counter-service pizza place on the heaviest traffic corner of town. The magnificently hand-crafted pies — a library of styles, from New York and Sicilian to Detroit and Neapolitan — are the work of Fremont-raised Tony Gemignani, a 13-time World Pizza Champion who’s been spinning dough in the Bay Area since he was 17. Gemignani has received many accolades over the years, but 2022 is the pinnacle: He was named pizza maker of the year, and his San Francisco pizzeria, Tony’s Pizza Napoletana, No. 10 in the world by a panel of Naples-based experts. Stateside, Gemignani made the cover of Pizza Today magazine, an honor he calls bigger than a James Beard Award.
The tiny Walnut Creek pizzeria — the first to bring multiple pie styles to the East Bay when it opened in 2016 — is particularly important to Gemignani. Not only is it the busiest Slice House outside of San Francisco, but with the mini empire moving toward a franchise model, it is the only one Gemignani and his partners own.
“It’s in my backyard,” Gemignani says. “And the young staff reminds me of my first jobs.”
Those staff members, who whip up pizzas by the slice as well as whole pies, are champs in their own right. Pizzaiolos work practically back-to-back with cashiers in a cramped space, where the vibe is somehow always chill, even on weekends. In addition to two dozen pizzas available in multiple styles, Slice House offers an array of salads, subs, meatballs ($1 on Mondays) and pastas.
Don’t miss: There are no bad choices here, only delicious ones, especially if you order the Wise Guy, Purple Potato, Pigman, Tomato Pie or Gemignani’s gold-medal winning Cal Italia, made with gorgonzola, prosciutto and figs.
Details: 1500 Mt. Diablo Blvd., Walnut Creek. Also at 135 Parrott St. in San Leandro and 1000C El Camino Real in Belmont; https://slicehouse.com; $
Petiscos, San Jose: When you want to give Portuguese cuisine a whirl
Not sure if bacalhau should be your next culinary obsession?
Start with a small plate. Or two or three. That’s the specialty at downtown San Jose’s Petiscos.
Restaurateurs Carlos and Fernanda Carreira and their chefs, David Costa and Jessica Carreira, first elevated Portuguese cuisine to Michelin level, garnering a star for their Adega restaurant in the city’s Little Portugal neighborhood. Then they launched their affordable, approachable concept, Petiscos — the name means small plates, the Portuguese equivalent of Spanish tapas.
The choices here for shareable plates of traditional favorites are many. The delectable Shrimp in Garlic Sauce is a must, as are the showy and delicious Flaming Chourico and the addictive Tempura Green Beans. It’s tough to decide among the Duck Rice, Asparagus Rice or Mushroom Rice, but you need one of those for the table. Other Petiscos fans swear by the Chicken Gizzards or the tender cubes of Beef Tongue. And Bacalhau, Portugal’s popular codfish, is served in casserole and codfish cake versions.
Not into sharing? The Francesinha sandwich is an OMG creation loaded with steak, ham and chourico, covered with cheese and then topped with a fried egg and gravy.
Don’t miss: If you enjoyed dessert at Petiscos, head over to the family’s East Santa Clara Street bakery-cafe, Pastelaria Adega, for pastéis de nata custards and other sweets.
Details: 399 S. First St., San Jose; http://petiscosadega.com; $-$$
Horn BBQ, Oakland: When you want prize-winning ‘cue with plenty of soul
Oakland pitmaster Matt Horn needs no introduction. His West Coast-style barbecue, a blend of Cali and Central Texas brisket, pulled pork and more, has made national headlines for years. And Horn BBQ, his counter-service restaurant in West Oakland, is on the Michelin Bib Gourmand list and was a 2022 James Beard finalist for best new restaurant. Like many restaurants, Horn BBQ has struggled during the pandemic; at press time, Horn was reportedly dealing with several financial issues, including delayed wages.
Inside the eatery, lines move fast, thanks to a streamlined counter system. Arrive early if you want to snag a seat inside — the positive juju from the old Brown Sugar Kitchen is still here — where framed photos of Horn and his family, including his beloved smoker, Lucille, line the walls. You’ll find her out back, along with a parklet of dark-gray picnic tables with life affirming quotes (“Take the stones people throw at you and use them to build monuments”) scrawled on the fence.
You can get both the smoky-crusted brisket and juicy pulled pork by the pound or tucked in a sandwich, in addition to links, smoked chicken and a medley of sides, including mac and cheese, Horn’s personal favorite. And if Horn’s story of grit, determination and hard work doesn’t pluck at your heart strings, this will: The self-made chef is going to teach kids the history, craft and art of barbecue for free. The Academy of Smoke, geared toward budding pit masters ages 8 to 12, launches in the spring.
Don’t miss: Brisket, obviously, pulled pork, beef ribs, collard greens, pit beans and to finish, banana pudding.
Details: 2534 Mandela Parkway, Oakland; www.hornbarbecue.com; $-$$
Wojia Hunan Cuisine, Albany: When you crave hot-and-sour Chinese excellence
Some folks might balk at paying $18 for a basket of fried rice balls. But they’ve probably never tried Wojia’s, which are wildly addictive, glutinous rice orbs typically seen in Chinese dessert soup. Here, they’re turned savory with liquidy black-sesame filling and heaps of sliced jalapenos and red chiles. Just be sure to have a glass of water nearby for the ever-building heat.
Heat is what this popular Hunanese spot is about. It’s not so much a punch-you-in-the-mouth shock, but an exhilarating harmony of sour-hot spiciness typical to the cuisine and its use of fresh, dried, fermented and who-knows-what-else chiles. Diners will be rewarded by ordering any of the odder cuts of meat on the menu, from spicy ox aorta to glassy slices of beef tendon shining with chile oil. The soup of Laoshan sliced flounder (which can be upgraded with a live fish) offers silky meat and a broth fragrant from pickled vegetables and even more chiles. If you want to impress your table, look to the menu’s “Five Wows” section for the Chairman Mao Stew Pork Hock, a huge, tender hunk with a bone sticking straight up like a caveman’s club.
Don’t miss: Those fried glutinous rice balls are especially memorable, as are the sauteed eggplant with string beans and Laoshan boiled sliced flounder.
Details: 917 San Pablo Ave., Albany; hunancuisineonline.com; $$
Asa North, Los Altos, and Asa South, Los Gatos: When you’re curious about Wayback Wednesday
Andrew Welch’s two popular Asa restaurants, the original in Los Altos and the newer one in Los Gatos, are paying tribute to yet another restaurant and its signature cuisine.
That would be Casa de Cobre, the Mexican restaurant specializing in Michoacan fare that Welch operated in Saratoga for some years with executive chef Marcelino Hernandez. Customers were clamoring for a taste of Casa, so the pair brought back the recipes in 2020 for what they called Wayback Wednesday – and the tradition continues.
Treasured family recipes dominate. Hernandez’s abuela’s recipe for spiced, braised beef shoulder created a rich entree on Entomatado night. An old Casa favorite, Cochinita Pibil, slow-cooked pork shoulder, makes frequent appearances. The pork is slow-cooked in layers of banana leaves with ancho chile and white wine, then served with guajillo salsa and pickled local vegetables.
And then there are the traditional best bets on Asa’s pan-Mediterranean menu: the decadent Exotic Mushroom Pasta and the warming Bowl of Soul, a seafood standout. During the winter months, the fabulous Dungeness Crab Pasta, with tomato, cream, garlic, a touch of spice and an anisette flambe, is a must for crustacean lovers.
Don’t miss: The moist Carrot Cake, studded with golden raisins and walnuts, topped with a whiskey-cream cheese frosting and then gilded with a little caramel sauce, is the way to end the meal.
Details: 242 State St., Los Altos, and 57 Saratoga-Los Gatos Road, Los Gatos; www.asalosaltos.com; $$$
Star Chaat, Dublin: When only legit Punjabi and Gujarati vegetarian will do
Tucked at the back of Dublin’s Hacienda Crossings shopping center, Star Chaat is a sit-down, white-tablecloth Indian restaurant without the white tablecloth prices, that gives the beloved Chaat Bhavan some stiff competition. The restaurant, which has cheery orange walls, an attentive wait staff and paper liners covering those tablecloths, specializes in both vegetarian Punjabi and Gujarati cuisines. It’s a standout for so many reasons, from the mouthwatering appetizers and silky curries to the extensive bread program.
Monthly specials pay homage to the season or the occasional fusion dish, like masala pasta or paneer tikka tacos. But the best dishes, the ones you will crave and go back for, are traditional, made from scratch and brimming with complex flavors and textures. Bombay vada pav, spiced potatoes dipped in gram flour batter and fried, is served on a pillowy soft roll, with a top-and-bottom smear of flaming-red, peanut-laced chutney and a side of dry garlic chutney. A crispy chaat basket offers a half dozen delicate, whole wheat cups filled with fresh vegetables, moong sprouts and potatoes, all topped with yogurt, chutneys, even pomegranate seeds. Vegetable biryani can be simple and greasy, but not here, where the basmati rice dish is assertively spiced, layered with vegetables and served alongside raita dotted with just-softened boondi. There is so much to discover at Star Chaat — housemade cottage cheese, tawa-fried parantha sprinkled with carom seeds. Just go.
Don’t miss: You’ll want that crispy chaat basket all to yourself. Also great: the bhel-sev thali, mix-veggie biryani, usal pav and ragada patties.
Details: 4930 Dublin Blvd., #800, Dublin; https://starchaatcuisine.com; $
Pomella, Oakland: When you want casual Mediterranean done with confidence
There’s something fun and whimsical about Pomella, the California-Israeli eatery from chef Mica Talmor. Perhaps it’s the patio with its Crayola-orange furniture and gabled sunroofs perfect for picnicking. Or maybe it’s the customization: Dozens of dishes can be mixed, matched, slipped into wraps or salads, and doused with a rainbow of sauces, from tzatziki to harissa to fermented mango. And the deli cases beg you to bring something home – grape leaves, fruit crisps, chocolate pots de crème.
Fans of Talmor’s previous restaurant, Ba-Bite, will recognize the concept of healthy, fresh mezze plates, a spread meant to be shared. Her hummus is as good as ever, tangy and silky-smooth from the chickpeas cooked in alkaline water. Pomegranate eggplant, served with yogurt and tahini, has lovely charred skin and a sweet, campfire aroma, while roasted beets delight with their topping of crunchy walnuts and ras el hanout. Larger plates include chicken tagine with couscous and preserved lemon, and springy lamb kefta with your choice of rice (go for the majadra jazzed up with lentils and a snowfall of caramelized onion).
Don’t miss: Just thinking about these – the hummus, the pomegranate eggplant, beet salad, mango amba and spicy-green schug sauces – is making us salivate. Don’t forget the rugelach.
Details: 3770 Piedmont Ave., Oakland; pomellaoakland.com, $
Sushi Sam’s Edomata, San Mateo: For top-notch omakase at a great price
Downtown San Mateo is a hotbed of Asian cuisine, and this longtime Japanese restaurant has one of the city’s most devoted followings. Don’t let the nondescript exterior fool you. Sushi Sam’s Edomata is the real deal and counts Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan among its regulars. At the bustling bar, where Japanese is the primary language spoken (far beyond the jovial “kanpai”), bandana-wearing itamaes bend over the freshest cuts straight from Tokyo, transforming them with modern techniques into nigiri, sashimi and hand-roll heaven.
The menu changes daily, so go for the omakase, a chef’s assortment of nigiri that comes with a seasonal housemade dessert — the pastry program has its own Instagram — and will run you around $60, depending on market price. A rub of puckery yuzu balances the sweetness of blue shrimp, while a shower of minced garlic and green onion elevates buttery bonito. And you may never have heard of mountain pepper, but once you taste its spicy, herbaceous notes on kanpachi, it will become your favorite pairing. The restaurant is small, and lines can get long, so make sure to call starting at 2:30 p.m. to make a reservation for that evening. Keep trying, if the line is busy. You’ll get through, and it’s totally worth it.
Don’t miss: Omakase, of course, and fig goat cheesecake, green tea tiramisu and toro. Can’t choose? Go with the daily specials.
Details: 218 E. Third Ave., San Mateo; www.sushisams.com; $$-$$$
Mela Bistro, Oakland: When you want delicious Ethiopian without all the butter
Kitfo, that Ethiopian specialty of steak tartar mixed with clarified butter, is delicious, but its rich decadence can make a stomach go a bit wonky. Not so at Mela, a self-dubbed “modern Ethiopian” restaurant with food as bright and colorful as its artful interior. Here, the asa kitfo is made with sushi-grade tuna and blended with chile and pops of false cardamom; it’s totally irresistible, with a luxuriance that comes not from ghee but house-clarified olive oil.
Adiam Tsegaye prepares all her food with the same reverence toward health and deliciousness. The vegetable platter mimics a painter’s palette with crunchy purple cabbage spiked with ginger, potatoes blushing from beets and collard greens that retain a gardeny chew. It’s all vegan, as is a second version of kitfo made with chopped portobello mushrooms. Meanwhile, the tibs are made with grass-fed lamb and beef and lightly sauteed with spices that’ll have your belly feeling warm and happy.
A glass of Mela’s housemade, fizzy honey wine makes a fine accompaniment – as does the gimlet with roasted red pepper. Italy’s imprint on Ethiopia is evident in a fetching array of desserts from tiramisu to chocolate cake made with tejj, the same grain in the restaurant’s springy injera.
Don’t miss: Sample your way through the menu, but make sure you try the asa kitfo (raw ahi with herb-infused olive oil), vegetarian platter and shiro wot – and the tej (honey wine).
Details: 35 Grand Ave., Oakland; melabistro.com; $$
Lita, Walnut Creek: When you want Miami glitz with that Caribbean escape
Combine Caribbean influences with the know-how of a veteran East Bay restaurant family, and you can understand why diners are drawn to Lita, a fine dining restaurant in downtown Walnut Creek. By channeling Miami, Ghaben Partners (Broderick Roadhouse, Batch & Brine) provides an escapist vibe we don’t see much in these parts, at a time when we all need it. And Lita, which is frequented as much for the stunning interiors and Latin jazz playlist, as it is for the food and cocktail programs, is definitely a vibe. The illuminated marble bar and custom infinity mirror are camera catnip, complemented by lush plants and just enough gold to be stylish, not gaudy.
Starters, shareables and entrees, like ancho chile coffee short ribs or a jerk maitake mushroom rice bowl, pay homage to Caribbean-Latino dishes but otherwise do their own thing. Lita won’t replace your favorite Cuban hole-in-the-wall. But it is an experience, nibbling salt cod fritters and sipping a clarified milk rum punch at the poshest bar east of the Caldecott, where globe-trotting bartenders will chat you up about their exploits in Miami, Mexico and beyond.
Don’t miss: The cocktails are stunners, and the slash and burn whole fish, double mojo verde skirt steak and those short ribs are extravagantly delicious. Finish with that chocolate passion cake.
Details: 1602 Bonanza St., Walnut Creek; www.litawalnutcreek.com; $$-$$$