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Where To Eat Now: 2013

Critic Josh Sens plows his way through the Bay Area's newest, hottest restaurants and delivers his annual buffet of estimable eats.

The Kronnerburger provides the ultimate burger-stravaganza. Photo: Eva Kolenko
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Bar Tartine Sandwich Shop's smørrebrød, or open-faced sandwiches. Photo: Eric Wolfinger
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Lunch at Bar Tartine Sandwich Shop. Photo: Eric Wolfinger
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At Coqueta, a San Francisco waterfront view comes with pintxos. Photo: Eva Kolenko
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A platter of charcuterie at Coqueta Photo: Eva Kolenko
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Scallops with romesco and leeks and octopus with fingerling potatoes at Bravas in Healdsburg Photo: Eva Kolenko
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Deep Dish Frank Nitti at Capo's. Photo: Eva Kolenko
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Julie, the wife of owner Tony Gemignani. Photo: Eva Kolenko
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Fresh salmon at Sir and Star in Marin. Photo: James Baigrie
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Duck lasagna with Santa Rosa plums at Rich Table in Hayes Valley. Photo: Alanna Hale
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The bourbon-infused bar at Charles Phan's Hard Water. Photo: Eva Kolenko
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Devil Tofu at Roku. Photo: Eva Kolenko
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Friends gathering for sake, beer, and izakaya-style snacks. Photo: Eva Kolenko
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Wine bar and restaurant 20 Spot is located in an old record shop in the Mission. Photo: Eva Kolenko
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Owner Bodhi Freedom pours wine for customers. Photo: Eva Kolenko
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A midcentury table makes for cozy communal dining. Photo: Eva Kolenko
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Shelley Lindgren of A16 waits on her Rockridge patrons. Photo: Eva Kolenko
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Unlike the San Francisco location, this A16 serves cocktails. Photo: Eva Kolenko
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Orange wine and a plate of albacore with peppers and green olives. Photo: Eva Kolenko
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It's been a year of border-bending on the culinary front, and by that I don’t mean a return to fusion. I’m talking about the blurry between highbrow and lowbrow cooking, a porous divide that local chefs have long been crossing, though never more so than of late. I could point to art-house pizzas and gourmet burgers, to name two Cinderellas whose evening at the ball shows little sign of ending. But that’s only the start. I’m also talking refined ramen, and curry made without the slightest hurry, and sandwiches that shatter your assumptions of how good a quickie lunch can be.

The past 12 months have erased the line between haute and humble. Our best new culinary outposts are bars that act like bistros (and the other way around). They are destination restaurants in stripped-down settings. They are neighborhood hangouts with menus that blow your worldly traveler’s mind. “No one does the middle better than us,” a veteran of the restaurant industry informed me when I asked him what sets our dining scene apart. But calling it the middle makes it sound so middling. Instead, consider it the sweet spot in between.

Here now, my 39 favorite new arrivals of the past 12 months.

Sandwiches Get Soulful
In the roughly 250 years since the Earl of you-know-where ordered his valet to bring him meat between two slabs of bread, the sandwich has been fine-tuned to near perfection. It’s hard, anyway, to see how it could be improved at this year’s top lunch spots. I’m thinking, in particular, of the French dip at Belcampo Meat Co. (2405 Larkspur Landing Cir., at Lincoln Village Cir., Larkspur, 415-448-5810), the butcher shop and restaurant in Larkspur from Anya Fernald, a former Slow Foodnik who gets her beautiful beef from Belcampo’s own farm and slaughterhouse in Shasta. And the mountainous Reuben at Marrow (325 19th St., near Harrison St., Oakland, 510-251-1111) in Oakland, where onetime food-trucker Jon Kosorek makes the best of his snug space and the most of his ingredients with his whole animal approach.

But when I ponder the sandwich as Platonic ideal, what I picture, above all, is pretty much anything at Bar Tartine Sandwich Shop (561 Valencia St., near 16th St., 415-487-1600). The daytime operation, in a freshly annexed space beside the Valencia Street bistro, elevates casual lunch beyond all expectations. A smoked–goat cheese melt with chard, onion, mushrooms, and a cooling drizzle of tahini; a lamb meatball sub with gruyère, pepper relish, and paprika—you can’t miss. The food is comforting but convention-breaking, and the care involved—everything house-baked, house-smoked, house-brined—reminds you that great cooking is talent plus time. There may have been better inventions than what you get here, but none that I can think of between sliced bread.

Burgers Keep on Flipping
Is a burger a sandwich? It fits Webster’s definition, but read between the lines—it stands for something more. Smartly packaged (Smashburger in the North Bay, 7320 Redwood Blvd., Ste. B, near Grant Ave., Novato , 415-408-6560) or served with a supposedly exotic char (Umami Burger in Cow Hollow, 2184 Union St., at Fillmore St., 415-440-8626), it’s a measure of your openness to clever marketing. Grass-fed, it signifies your good taste and everyman ethics, as at Victory Burger (1099 Alcatraz Ave., at San Pablo Ave., Oakland, 510-653-8322) in Oakland, where the Five Dot Ranch beef is for the eco-minded and the hooks on the wall are for their fixed-gear bikes. Around these parts, the burger has become like a tattooed hostess: something a restaurant just has to have. It’s definitely a worthy draw at the Corner Store (5 Masonic Ave., at Geary Blvd., 415-359-1800), the spiffed-up soda fountain in NoPa, where Salt House vet Nick Adams crowns his with aged cheddar, aioli, and bacon jam. And it’s the best reason to scrabble for parking around Rickybobby (400 Haight St., at Webster St.) in the Lower Haight, where the burger is a hefty blend of beef and bacon ground together.

Forced to choose my favorites, I’d point to the burger at Oakland’s Hopscotch (1915 San Pablo Ave., at 19th St., Oakland, 510-788-6217), where former Yoshi’s sous chef Kyle Itani sets it apart by topping it with beef tongue and sesame aioli, or to Chris Kronner’s version, the Kronnerburger—which first came to my attention when the chef was at Bar Tartine. His burger gained a cult following there and is now the centerpiece of a shabby but chic restaurant called, yes, KronnerBurger (2379 Mission St., near 20th St., 415-656-9871), in a side room at Bruno’s, the iconic Mission district bar. Nicely charred on the outside (dare I suggest that it out-umamis Umami?) but blood-red in the middle and perched on Acme pain de mie, it’s served with grilled onions, pickles, and cheddar mayo. A side of roasted marrow is listed as optional, but don’t take that literally. For the city’s finest burger at its best, the marrow is pretty much required.

Page two: Tapas take off (again), pizza gets deep, and dining defies definition.