As 2019 comes to a close, Nosh and Berkeleyside editors and writers looked back on the best meals and most memorable dining experiences we had in the East Bay this year. It’s been so much fun reminiscing, but also quite challenging paring down our choices, as many of us have had so many good bites to eat in 2019 that it can be hard to recall them all.
You’ll notice upon reading our choices that some spots have been called out several times, including Tacos Oscar, Juanita & Maude and Wojia Hunan Cuisine, which if you’ve eaten at any of these restaurants, you probably won’t find too surprising. What we did find uncanny, though, is that two different writers had their best dishes at the Cheese Board and shared memorable meals with sisters on first visits to Chez Panisse café. That’s quite a coincidence.
Now we’ve shared our favorites, we’d love to hear yours, too. Leave a comment with your picks for favorite dishes and most memorable dining experiences you had this year.
Sarah Han, Nosh Editor
Best dish: Summer is my favorite season, mostly because the fruits are so damn good. In August, when I stopped in for dinner at Tacos Oscar (a spot that likely made some of my favorite savory bites of 2019), I found that Port Costa-based Quintessence had set up a temporary sorbet scoop counter in the back dining area. I sampled a few flavors, but the “stone fruit” sorbet really spoke to me. Made simply with yellow peaches and plums, cane sugar and water, it tasted like summer in a cup.
Most memorable dining experience: I’ll never forget the time I met up with Nosh writer Joanna Della Penna for lunch at Fava in North Berkeley. It was in the midst of the power shutoffs in October, and we were giddy to find our lunch plans weren’t spoiled — Fava was not only open, but we made it in time to snag a couple of their coveted (and limited) flatbread sandwiches. We ate at one of the tables out front. While we were happily tucking in, a huge gust of wind blew through, jostling something heavy out of place that came crashing down very close to us with a very loud BOOM. We looked at each other — eyes wide with terror and mouths paused, mid-chew, full of braised lamb and yogurt covered lentils. At that moment, we shared an unspoken understanding that we both thought this could be our last meal on earth. Seconds later, we laughed when we realized it was just a really heavy sandwich board that fell down behind us.
Tracey Taylor, Co-Founder, Berkeleyside
Best dish: I was so disappointed to read on Nosh in September that the Ramen Kitchen in Albany had closed, as I had just recently discovered this spot near my home and dropped by for a family dinner. I ordered the tan-tan mazemen, the first time I’d tried ramen without broth, and thought it was scrumptious. Now I’ll always think of the great neighborhood place I should have discovered earlier!
Most memorable dining experience: I had come to the office on a Saturday, which already put me in a less than stellar mood. Then I delivered boxes of Berkeleyside’s 10-year anniversary magazines in the rain, which didn’t help. I ducked into Way Station Brew and received a warm, friendly welcome. I ordered a delicious grilled cheese sandwich (four cheeses on Firebrand sourdough with caramelized onions) and a cappuccino. All was well with the world again.
Joanna Della Penna, Nosh contributor
Best dish: I’m decades late to the party, but for me, 2019 was the year of the Cheese Board. There was one simple lunch in particular — a fresh baguette, a handful of the collective’s delectable kalamata olives, and four cheeses (crazy-good Roaring Forties Blue, Époisses, Humboldt Fog and a smoked Beecher’s Flagship), chosen thanks to extra-patient guidance from the staffer at the Cheese Board counter. There may have been a still-warm cheese roll or two as well. We brought our salty, creamy bounty home, cut up some fruit, and dug in, and it was heaven.
Most memorable dining experience: It’s pretty cliché to stick to the same North Berkeley block, but 2019 was also the year I crossed the Chez Panisse threshold for the first time. Despite (or maybe because of) the Chronicle’s dismissive review in February, my sister’s spring birthday visit became the occasion to finally demystify the Berkeley destination, or at least the less formal upstairs Chez Panisse Café. As we were seated on the enclosed porch overlooking the famous bunya-bunya tree, I thought, finally, I’m on the other side of one of those cozy windows I’ve seen for years from the street. It was hard not to be charmed by the café’s classic beauty, vibrant mood and service that was detailed and kind. Then the food arrived: The butter lettuce salad was light, fresh and gorgeous; a halibut main had tender, tiny snap peas that stole the show; the plush Flying Disc Ranch dates were as rich and special as advertised. As the meal ended and our little table was warmed by a Berkeley sunset, candlelight and my sister’s cheerful birthday glow, I was sold. I felt lucky to be able to go again in the summer and fall.
Leo Della Penna, Nosh’s 9-year-old reviewer
Best dish: For dessert, I would choose the ice-cream-filled donut at Milkbomb — I had half chocolate chip ice cream and half cookies-and-cream and it wasn’t messy at ALL, it was just awesome. But another one I would pick would be Menchie’s. It’s not ice cream, it’s yogurt, but it’s ICE CREAM yogurt. They call it fro-yo, and I always get one or two of their rotating flavors and their mashed-up Oreo topping and the marshmallow fluff. There’s a chalkboard and a tic-tac-toe game for kids and I keep seeing my friends there. If you want to have a nice time, just go to Menchie’s.
Most memorable dining experience: If we’re talking about actual food-food, I would probably say it was when I was out with my friend and his mom at Barney’s [on Shattuck Avenue] and I had a regular burger and my friend’s mom gave me a little bit of bacon from her salad and it made the PERFECT bacon burger. Also the fries and chocolate milkshake were delicious.
Kevin L. Jones, Nosh contributor
Best dish: Going for sushi at Akemi in Berkeley is how we Joneses treat ourselves. Besides the wide variety of delicious sushi, the big draw is its roasted Brussels sprouts appetizer, vegetables so good my 4-year-old son will eat them all if we let him. Adding to the enjoyment is the delivery — the chefs top the sprouts with bonito flakes that twist and curl when the bowl is piping hot.
Most memorable dining experience: My wife and I rarely go on dates, but when we do, it’s usually at Juanita & Maude in Albany. It’s quaint, diml -lit and romantic as all hell. Also, they serve a lot of little plates that are perfect for sharing, even between a total carnivore like myself and my vegetable-loving wife. On a date there back in November, the mix of fancy cocktails and delicious food we ordered had me swooning, and we were so smitten with each other, it felt like we were back in the first six months of our relationship.
Cirrus Wood, Nosh contributor
Most memorable dining experience: This wasn’t actually something I ate, although I certainly wish I had. It was instead a moment witnessed in somebody else’s meal. It happened this past summer at Oakland’s BBQ’n While Black, watching oysters grilling on the half shell on a grill the size of a pickup bed. Each oyster was the size of the palm of your hand, cupped in a shell that kept them drowned in butter as the cook moved up and down the grill, sousing them liberally.
Lauren Bonney, Nosh contributor
Best dish: The prahok ktiss from Oakland’s Nyum Bai was by far the best thing I ate this year. Sweet, salty, fatty, porky, fishy, coconut-y (and so many more “-y”s), the dip is simply served with seasonal vegetables and goes amazing with rice. This starter is definitely the star of the show. Order it, eat it, love it. Promise.
Lance Knobel and Frances Dinkelspiel, co-founders, Berkeleyside
Best meal/most memorable dining experience: The Berkeleyside holiday dinner at Top Hatters Kitchen and Bar in San Leandro. Really! It was a combination of inventive, tasty food, beautifully plated, in a thoroughly convivial atmosphere with the full Berkeleyside team.
Ben Seto, Nosh contributor
Best dish: For a while, everyone was all about khao mun gai, the popular Thai street food dish of poached chicken rice. But then I discovered the pork version, khao kha moo, and loved the version at Pintoh Thai in Oakland. Tender stewed pork pieces with pickled vegetables and a hard boiled egg over rice. Let the pork reign!
Best dining experience: Might be too easy to choose the elegant Commis in Oakland, but I can’t ignore the five-course Côte de Boeuf prix-fixe dinner I had at Chef James Syhabout’s sister bar next door, CDP. From the smoked trout toast to the featured Côte de Boeuf, every bite was memorable and special, and not at all pretentious like other tasting menus at far pricier spots across the Bay.
Emilie Raguso, Senior Reporter, Berkeleyside
Best dish: Some of the best things I ate this year were the pork adobo at FOB Kitchen in Temescal, the Dungeness crab risotto verde at Mockingbird in downtown Oakland, and the tacos at Tacos Oscar on 40th Street. The pea and anchovy salad at Shakewell on Lakeshore was a surprising delight; the fish was mild and it really was a perfect spring dish. Shakewell has an awesome happy-hour menu (50% off much of the regular menu) if you can get off work on time. Oh, and my recent discovery that TrueBurger sells whole dill pickles — sour and crisp and they are fantastic! — is definitely gonna have me going back for more.
Most memorable dining experience: As for dining experiences, biting into a warm, gooey khachapuri — a Georgian cheese bread topped with an egg — is a moment I won’t forget. À Côté in Rockridge hosted a Georgian food series over the summer, and the offerings were delicious. The katmis satsivi — tender chicken thighs in walnut sauce over creamy Carolina Gold rice — was also delectable. We’re so lucky in the Bay Area to have such a diversity of cuisines to sample. I was excited to try one that was brand new to me.
Colleen Leary, Director, Client Partnerships, Berkeleyside
Best dish: The plum ribs appetizer at Noodle Theory in Rockridge.
Most memorable dining experience: Sugata on Solano. We went this fall and loved the cozy space. We ate at the small bar and had great sushi (best fish to rice ratio I’ve had in a long time). The new owner was behind the bar and he created unique rolls and let us taste different fish. All in all, a good vibe.
Momo Chang, Nosh contributor
Best dish: One of the best dishes I ate was the mapo tofu from Wojia Hunan Cuisine in Albany. It’s such a popular dish and is not difficult to make, but they really take it to the next level. I could eat that with a bowl of rice for days. It’s served in a clay bowl, filled with soft tofu and chili oil. They also can make a vegetarian version of it.
Most memorable dining experience: One of my most memorable dining experiences happened while visiting Standard Fare for a Nosh article. As I chatted with owner Kelsie Kerr, it was fun to see her and her staff in action. Although the restaurant is always bustling, Kelsie remembers a lot of her customers by name, making it both a nice neighborhood restaurant and a place that’s worth checking out for visitors from afar. The food is really fresh and amazing too.
Natalie Orenstein, Reporter, Berkeleyside
Best dish: It is a rare East Bay food item that is as reliably satisfying and useful as Berkeley Bowl onigiri. I crave the tang of the ume or the richness of the salmon that’s packed inside those small rice triangles almost every time I enter the venerable grocery store (the original location, obviously). The bite-to-buck ratio might not be stellar, and there is likely even better onigiri elsewhere in the area (Tamon Tea, perhaps?). But the Berkeley Bowl onigiri have the unparalleled ability to both cost $2 and simultaneously ward off the temptation to indulge much more substantially elsewhere in the store’s prepared foods section. And yes, I have mastered the art of removing the thin plastic wrapper without tearing any of the seaweed.
Most memorable dining experience: A friend who lived in China has taken to organizing fun group dinners in the back banquet room at Wojia Hunan Cuisine, a fairly new Albany restaurant. The menu is extensive, but it turns out 10 people can cover a lot of chili-seasoned ground. Some hit dishes: these unbelievable, savory glutinous rice balls (filled with sesame paste), the sautéed lotus root, and the truly spicy boiled fish with pickled cabbage and chili soup.
Alix Wall, Nosh contributor
Best dish: My husband and I celebrated our anniversary at Mago, a new upscale neighborhood place on Piedmont Avenue this summer. We loved the vibe; it was the kind of place I’d be a regular at if I were the type to hang out regularly in restaurants. While we loved nearly every dish, the dessert stands out in my mind. A perfect dessert, for me, should not be too sweet and should have several contrasting textures and flavors. This one accomplished that beautifully. If I remember correctly, it was a corn pot de crème, which was creamy and slightly sweet, delicious in its own right. What took it to the next level, though, were the toppings: lime granita, crumbled shortbread and a blueberry compote.
Most memorable dining experience: My favorite dining experience this year happened at the Slow Food East Bay kickoff for its dinners celebrating immigrant food traditions. Organizer Willow Blish has put together a wonderful series doing just that. At this time of heightened anti-immigrant sentiment in our country, I couldn’t help but feel like it was somehow an act of resistance to come together with chefs from such an array of countries — Iran, Senegal, India, Israel, Mexico, Chile and Korea — and taste their dishes all on one plate. While the flavors got a bit muddled, that was the point. As the daughter and granddaughter of immigrants myself, this dinner was a reinforcement of what truly makes America great. As Blish put it that night, “You can eat the way you want the world to look. By using our powers as diners, we can make a political statement.” Amen.
Kathryn Bowen, Nosh contributor
Best dish: The best thing I ate in 2019 was chef James Syhabout’s slow poached egg yolk with smoked dates, alliums and malt at Commis in Oakland. I’d read that Syhabout can’t take the dish off the menu because diners keep requesting it. And now I know why — it is heaven! I can’t say that it made the best financial sense to blow one of my last law-firm paychecks on a two-Michelin-starred meal, but Commis was, all told, absolutely worth it.
Most memorable dining experience: My favorite 2019 dining experience was a May pop-up dinner by Nokni, hosted at Homestead in Oakland. The food was honest and adventurous, we had fantastic table-mates, and Homestead co-owner Fred Sassen gave a touching address to introduce Nokni’s chefs, Julya Shin and Steve Joo. It was everything you’d want from dining out: to be well fed and welcomed in community.
Risa Nye, Nosh contributor
Best dish/most memorable dining experience: This year involved a lot of searching for comfort food, and nothing fills that need like chicken and waffles. This startling presentation, served at Aunt Mary’s Café in Temescal, is one of my favorites.
Deonna Anderson, Nosh contributor
Best dish/most memorable dining experience: After I attended chef Eric Pascual’s traditional Filipino family-style Kamayan pop-up in August, I could not stop thinking about the roasted salmon belly. Pascual described the belly as the most tender part of the fish and I agree with that assessment. His rendering of the dish was marinated in ginger, garlic, citrus, soy sauce and was such a delight to eat.
Moriah Van Vleet, Nosh contributor
Best dish: The injeolmi bingsu (Korean shaved ice) at Berkeley Social Club. The cool mountain of delicately sweet, milky snow was dusted with toasted rice powder and served with various toppings that created a symphony of textures, from earthy red bean to crisp corn flakes to chewy mochi. I’m hooked!
Most memorable dining experience: Birthday dinner at Hanazen in Orinda. The chef’s beautiful, delicious creations — some of which he’d been preparing for days ahead —were delivered to our table by his welcoming wife. As platter after platter arrived and our bellies filled, she shared her incredible knowledge of sushi and sake. Not your average sushi experience, there were many rules (soy sauce forbidden from certain pieces, house-made sauces required for others, wasabi regulated by the chef). But the structure only confirmed that we were taking part in their carefully crafted art and passion. How fortunate I felt to be there, and what a birthday gift!
Supriya Yelimeli, Nosh contributor
Best dish: But soft, what light through yonder window breaks? It is the east, and Cheese Board is the sun. This year, a corn and cilantro slice from Cheese Board flew with me to New York to be hand-delivered to an awaiting sister. It’s the best thing I’ve eaten all year (and probably the last few years) and in one Brooklyn sibling’s view, “Cheese Board is best in whole world.” My mom compares it to an akki roti, a specialty from the South Indian state of Karnataka. It has crunch, decadent oiliness and holds its own when paired with the co-op’s tangy cilantro salsa. I would travel to the ends of the Earth (or on I-880 North during rush hour) for this heavenly piece of pie.
Most memorable dining experience: I went to Chez Panisse for the first time this August for the aforementioned sibling’s going away party of four. It took some acrobatics by a crafty friend with a credit card concierge (that exists?) and we settled in at the café upstairs surrounded by the hubbub and mythology of this special place. The entrées weren’t super memorable, but the staff sweetly drew “NYC” in chocolate syrup for our dessert brownie. They also created a fabulous goblet of tangerine slices and dates that made me feel like one of the king lemurs from the animated movie “Madagascar.” It’s not every day you’re made to feel like a fancy lemur, and I appreciate Chez Panisse for that.
Doug Ng, Designer and Developer, Berkeleyside
Best dish: When Pollara Pizzeria first opened in the fall, I had an amazing fig and mascarpone pizza. It also had a little bit of honey on top. It was so good, I went back two more times. Alas, those toppings ended with fig season.
Most memorable dining experience: After having a chaotic couple of days and needing some time to relax, I drove around on a Tuesday night looking for a quiet place to eat. I ended up at Juanita & Maude in Albany, hoping they had room. Yes! They did. I sat at a table on the back patio, where I had my alone time — just me and my Twitter feed.
Cydney Devine-Jones, Berkeleyside intern
Best dish: Brazil Café’s tri-top beef sandwich had so many different textures and flavors that sang in harmony. The meat was juicy and cooked perfectly. The garlic and pineapple was a good combination that balanced the sandwich. Each bite was like unlocking a new level on Candy Crush. If I had to rate the sandwich, it would be a 5 out of 5.