Appetite: 2012's top new restaurants brought surprise tastes, culinary depth
APPETITE The past year saw a number of openings I hope will be around for years to come — here is my list, in order, of my favorites. As ever, my goal is to include more affordable spots alongside midrange or upscale openings, considering range and uniqueness. It being December, I cannot strictly cover the calendar year so, with each choice open at least two months, the opening date range goes back to October 2011 for a full year.
The one California restaurant nominated for Best New Restaurant in the US at this year's James Beard Awards, AQ is my top selection for "the whole package." While I find the food at the next two restaurants listed below equally inspiring, AQ combines food from talented young chef Mark Liberman, reinvented in delightfully surprising ways (think flavors of a pastrami sandwich turned on its head as shaved lamb heart "pastrami" with zucchini bread and house Thousand Island dressing), alongside an inventive cocktail list and accomplished bar staff. I'm still dreaming of this summer's Maeklong Market Cocktail with a base of peanut-infused mekhong — a sugar cane, molasses, and rice-based Thai spirit — creamy with coconut milk, lime and kaffir lime leaves. As if this weren't enough, the wine list shines and decor is the crowning touch in a two-level space with sexy downstairs lounge for private parties, plus greenery, glassware, and a bar top that changes with the season. When I'm asked (constantly) where to go by locals and visitors, AQ easily fits the bill for delicious, forward-thinking cuisine with warm service: a destination for both food and drink, with thoughtful attention to the environs.
1085 Mission, SF. (415) 341-9000, www.aq-sf.com 
Since Bon Appetit named State Bird Provisions best new restaurant in America this year, none of us can get a reservation in the small, modest space with pegboard and stone walls (like dining in a funky family garage). What makes State Bird so special, besides efficient, engaging service and husband-wife team Stuart Brioza and Nicole Krasinski's genuine welcome (they often greet diners themselves as they pass by the kitchen in the entrance), is that it's something truly different. Affordable, unique, and imaginative plates flowing out dim sum-style on carts and trays, ever playful and satisfying — a prime example of what makes SF's dining scene so exciting right now.
1529 Fillmore, SF. (415) 795-1272, www.statebirdsf.com 
From another husband-wife duo, Evan and Sarah Rich's Rich Table could easily be number one for food alongside State Bird and AQ. All three restaurants boast an uncommon vision in their cooking — Rich Table's is one of an upscale nature in comfort food garb. Presentation can be exquisite, but the dishes gratify and assuage rather than feel fussy. Getting past the (worthy) din about those sardine-laced potato chips to start, pastas are unexpectedly one of the restaurant's highlights, a duck lasagne layered with braised duck, light béchamel, and tart Santa Rosa plums, easily standing out as one of the best dishes of the year. Though short and sweet, the 4-5 cocktails on offer (now being updated by brand new bar manager Jason "Buffalo" LoGrasso from Cotogna) are clean, simple-yet-vivid stars in their own right.
199 Gough, SF. (415) 355-9085, www.richtablesf.com 
A neighborhood diner and soda fountain, Ice Cream Bar deserves accolades for bringing us the kind of soda fountain menu unmatched in the country, yet sure to be copied. Recipes and practices date back to the 1800s with modern sensibility, showcased in drinks like the Bonne Vie No. 2, a citrus-garden delight of basil leaves, basil ice cream, and pink grapefruit, its sour-fresh qualities glorified with citric acid. There are boozy fountain drinks (like a perfect Angostura Phosphate), ice cream (the tart cherry remains my favorite), and darn good sandwiches (egg salad and tuna) on house brioche, with the soda fountain manned by gifted, friendly soda jerks who live and breathe the history of the craft.
815 Cole, SF. (415) 742-4932, www.theicecreambarsf.com 
With the food world in Scandinavian mode the last few years (the cuisine to take over where the El Bulli world of Spain ruled for so long), it's a shame we haven't had much Scandinavian food to speak of here, particularly of the nouveau wave à la Fäviken or Noma. Pläj (pronounced "play") is gourmet-traditional Scandinavian fare with modern sensibilities from chef-owner Roberth Sundell, a Stockholm native. In the mellow Inn at the Opera, it's a respite of a dinner with sincere service, shining particularly bright with seafood in the menu's Fjord section. Herring trios, Swedish meatballs, Norwegian salmon belly gravlax and rounds of aquavit... I've been waiting for this one and hope it opens the door for more.
333 Fulton, SF. (415) 294-8925, www.plajrestaurant.com 
Don't just call it a bakery. Craftsman & Wolves is a heightened sort of cafe where baked goods push boundaries and desserts are works of art. William Werner's artistic eats, alongside sandwiches and salads, Sightglass Coffee, Naivetea, and dreamy drinking caramel made with salted butter, ensure this is an extraordinary addition to the SF food scene, standing apart from other cafes. Skylights, brick and clean lines make for a modern cafe setting, while items like the Rebel Within, an herb, cheese, sausage-studded muffin with a sous vide egg hidden inside, are already cult classics.
746 Valencia, SF. (415) 913-7713, www.craftsman-wolves.com 
This sushi duo isn't perfect, nor will either be the best sushi meal of your life. But in their infancy, they both represent the ideal neighborhood sushi outposts: friendly, laid back, almost hip, with spanking fresh fish and consistently interesting maki, nigiri, sashimi, tasting spoons (at Saru), and sizzling mango seabass (at Elephant). With a glass of sake, try firm-yet-silky squid in yuzu juice at Saru or bananas draped beautifully over Elephant's Boom Box roll with scallop, avocado, and cucumber. Those lucky souls who live near either restaurant have themselves exemplary neighborhood sushi bars at which to unwind.
Saru: 3856 24th St., SF. (415) 440-4510
Elephant: 1916 Hyde, SF. (415) 440-1905, www.elephantsushi.com 
Mission Bowling Club (MBC) is significant: until now no bowling alley served food this good. Hipster, even upscale for a bowling alley, the open, industrial space, large front patio, and downstairs and upstairs dining rooms (the latter oversees the action) add up to a striking setting for Anthony Myint — he of Mission Chinese Food and Mission St. Food, no less — to unleash his beloved Mission Burger, a rich, granulated patty, lathered in caper aioli. Entrees like blackened salmon on a potato latke marked by salmon roe, cucumber, and horseradish are listed alongside a juicy sausage corn dog dipped in habanero crema. Bowling never tasted this sublime.
3176 17th St., SF. (415) 863-2695, www.missionbowlingclub.com 
Despite being open only three days a week for lunch, with just-added Saturday night dinner service (reserve ahead!), FuseBOX is my favorite East Bay addition this year because of its unique approach to Asian cuisine. Such limited hours in a remote West Oakland block makes it a meal you have to work to get to, but the fusion of Korean and izakaya-style Japanese from Sunhui and Ellen Sebastian Chang is a welcoming, tiny haven (with large front patio) for creative Asian fare often in bite-size format allowing ample tasting. There are rotating robata bites or kimchee from bok choy to kale, interesting panchan/banchan (mini-dishes often accompanying a Korean meal), hamachi tartare topped with lime caviar, Tokyo po boys, and an unforgettable bacon mochi. And who else offers kimchee and coffee service with Korean beignets?
2311A Magnolia, Oakl., (510) 444-3100, www.fuseboxoakland.com 
Gioia Pizzeria (2240 Polk, SF. (415) 359-0971, www.gioiapizzeria.com ) for bringing Berkeley's best NY pizza to SF; CatHead's BBQ (1665 Folsom, SF. (415) 861-4242, www.catheadbbq.com ) for some of the better BBQ in our city ("real deal" Southern BBQ being difficult to come by outside of the South); Abbott's Cellar (742 Valencia, SF. (415) 626-8700, www.abbotscellar.com ) for one of the best beer menus anywhere and elevated food to accompany it in a sleek-rustic dining room; Orexi (243 West Portal, SF. (415) 664-6739, www.orexisf.com ) for daring to bring satisfying Greek food to our Greek-deficient dining scene; St. Vincent (1270 Valencia, SF. (415) 285-1200, www.stvincentsf.com ) for a wine and beer geek's dream menu partnered with forward-thinking interpretations of regional American dishes; Machka (584 Washington, SF. (415) 391-8228, www.machkasf.com ) for a chic take on Turkish food.
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