Huffpost San Francisco
THE BLOG

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Zagat Headshot

8 Restaurant Game-Changers in the Bay Area

Posted: Updated:
Print
SHFT
SHFT

Culinary trends come and go (remember vertical food?), but every once in a while, a chef or a restaurant comes along and truly changes the face of dining forever. Sometimes it's a technique, other times it's elevating a style of cuisine or merely coming up with a different way of doing business. In their own way, these eight restaurants (and the talent behind them) have been Bay Area game changers.

[Also see: Game-Changing Restaurants in 6 U.S. Cities]

Chez Panisse

Alice Waters didn't set out to start a revolution. When the former Montessori teacher and Francophile opened up her Craftsman bungalow in 1971, she just wanted to offer a convivial place to break bread like the places she admired in Europe. Only later did her dedication to fostering relationships with local growers, ranchers and food artisans crystallize into a new paradigm for eating. It seems old hat, almost cliché now, but any time a restaurant name-checks their tomato farmer or line-caught shrimp fishmonger, you can thank Waters. Her nightly prix fixe dinner may seem simple compared to some modern-day pyrotechnics, but this legendary kitchen changed the way our country eats and continues to spawn a new generation of chefs committed to her principles.

1517 Shattuck Avenue; 510-548-5525

[Also see: SF Fall Dining Guide: A Preview of Must-Try New Openings]

The French Laundry

Prior to Thomas Keller purchasing The French Laundry in 1994, Zagat surveyors used to refer to this quaint stone building restaurant in Yountville as a "mellow" place with an average cost of $29. But Keller's whimsical presentations and fanatical dedication to perfection quickly made it a game changer not only in the Bay Area but also across the country. His Yountville kitchen and subsequent NYC follow-up (Per Se) is like the West Point/Harvard of the culinary world, equal parts boot camp and ivory tower for the nation's top chefs.

6640 Washington Street; 707-944-2380

[Also see: Where to Get Your New England Seafood Fix in SF and the Bay Area]

The Slanted Door

Unlike many of the classically trained chefs of his generation, Charles Phan's success is based entirely on hard work, pluck and the ability to be at the right place at the right time. Back when he opened the original Slanted Door in 1995, the Mission's Valencia Street was no Restaurant Row, and no one in their right mind would consider charging upscale prices for humble Asian street food. But Phan's groundbreaking restaurant, with its über-mod design, high-quality sourced ingredients and edgy vibe (plus an impromptu visit from President Clinton), irrevocably brought Vietnamese food -- and Asian food in general -- into the mainstream, and despite relocating several times, it remains one of the city's toughest tables.

1 Ferry Building #3, ‎Ferry Building Marketplace; 415-861-8032

[Also see: Contest! Vote and Win Dinner in the Bay Area]

Delfina

Back in 1998, when Craig Stoll opened his tiny neighborhood trattoria in the Mission, 18th Street was considered more ghetto than gourmet ghetto. But Stoll's fresh approach to regional Italian cuisine -- infusing it with seasonal Northern California ingredients and presenting it a hip, approachable, yet still knowledgeable way -- turned the city's commonly accepted notion of a stuffy Italian restaurant on its head and ushered in a new paradigm of service that has since been replicated throughout the city, including at its own offshoots, Pizzeria Delfina and Locanda.

3621 18th Street; 415-552-4055

[Also see: The 5 Best Chinese Restaurants in the Bay Area]

Gary Danko

Gary Danko racked up plenty of accolades during his tenure at the Ritz Carlton, but the magic really happened when he struck out on his own in 1999. Other temples of gastronomy offer top-notch food, unfailing service and lots of bells and whistles, but the introduction of a flexible prix fixe tasting structure -- in which guests could decide how much and what they wanted to eat -- was a revolutionary idea, and that freedom of choice and level of affordability arguably made his eponymous restaurant the darling among consumers that it is today.

800 N. Point Street; 415-749-2060

[Also see: Destination Diners: 9 Classic Spots From Around the U.S.]

Coi

While the rest of the world has become swept up by molecular gastronomy, revolutionized by places like the former elBulli in Spain and Alinea in Chicago, San Francisco diners have been slow to embrace these modern advancements in dining. But Daniel Patterson has quietly done his part since 2006, making inroads on a customer base who is more familiar with seeing a roasted beet in a goat cheese salad than reassembled as a blossoming flower presented on rose-scented granita with yogurt "snow." It's taken almost six years for the local dining community to embrace Patterson's thought-provoking multicourse tasting menus filled with sleights of hand and pyrotechnics, but his North Beach restaurant has paved the way for other progressive culinarians such as Dominque Crenn at Atelier Crenn, Christopher Kostow at Meadowood and Jason Fox at Commonwealth.

373 Broadway; 415-393-9000

[Also see: 10 Iconic Summer Foods From Around the U.S.]

Ubuntu

Not since Deborah Madison opened Greens in 1979 has a restaurant done more to reenvision our notion of vegetarian cuisine. Sadly, the vegetable-celebrating Napa eatery has since closed, but during its impressive five-year stint, starting with founding talent Jeremy Fox (an unabashedly non-vegetarian himself) and followed by Aaron London and other talented cooks who spent time in that kitchen, it pushed the envelope on what could be done with vegetable matter.

Now closed

[Also see: Taste Test: Trying the Body Sushi at Cheetah's Charlie Sheen Room]

Mission Chinese Food

The guys behind the Mission Street Food pop-up always seem to have their finger on the culinary zeitgeist, but when Danny Bowien and business partner Anthony Myint decided to open a so-called "American Oriental Food" restaurant within a real Chinese restaurant, no one had any idea that it would be a hit, let alone go on to inspire a critically acclaimed offshoot in New York City. Sure, it had all the requisite elements of a hipster restaurant -- divey decor, cheap chow, Miller High Life and hot-as-hell variations on your neighborhood takeout. But Bowien's plucky resolve to recreate incendiary Sichuan food as we know it worked, and now folks on both coasts are lining up for his kung pao pastrami. It's also the poster child for charitable endeavors, donating 75 cents of each dish sold to a local food bank.

2234 Mission Street; 415-863-2800

[Also see: Destination Burgers: 10 Patties Worth a Trip]