It’s already been a tough year for restaurants and bars - and then counties in the East Bay recently announced they were shutting down outdoor dining. But if 2020 has taught us anything, it’s that local establishments are resilient and resourceful - they’ve been pivoting, popping up, collaborating, and banding together to support their communities since the shutdown first hit back in March.
Supporting these spots is more important than ever, which is why we’ve brought back The Hit List - our guide to the best new food and drink experiences in Oakland, Berkeley, and beyond. We track new openings across the area, and then visit as many as we can. While the Hit List is by no means an exhaustive list of every good new spot, one thing you can always rely on is that we’ll only include places that we have checked out.
Our goal is for this list to be as diverse as the East Bay itself - inclusive of a wide range of cuisines, price points, neighborhoods, chefs and owners of all backgrounds, and the multifaceted communities within the industry. If you think we missed a great new place, we want to hear about it. Shoot us an email at email@example.com.
And if you’re interested in The Best Things We Ate This Week, well, we’ve got that, too.
“If there’s one thing that gets me out of my sweats and out the door, it’s the promise of seasoned, thinly-sliced meat swaddled in bread. So when I heard gyro wraps were on the menu at Twins Halal Bakery in West Oakland, I rolled up to the small takeout window and got one for myself. Inside the lovingly tin-foiled soft pita was lamb, lettuce, and tomatoes, slathered in a garlicky yogurt sauce. Those pitas are the reason this family-run Afghan place is one of my favorite new restaurants of the year. If you like the idea of unboxing perfect vegetable bolanis, meat-filled mantus, qabuli palows, and crispy waffles fries at your table like you’re some sort of influencer, something tells me you’re going to feel the same way.” - Lani Conway, SF Editor
“Perhaps one of the best things that happened to me during this godforsaken year was Masabaga opening up five minutes from my apartment. Their deep-fried toro burger, made with a cut of yellowfin tuna that’s breaded and deep-fried until flaky, juicy, and tender, is the star of the show at this new takeout-only sandwich spot in Oakland. The golden-brown piece of fish is topped with a tangy yuzu kosho aioli and a mix of pickled onions, mint, and greens, all layered in between a soft roll. It’s undoubtedly the best sandwich I’ve had all year, which is why I insisted on having one on my birthday (also because their massive, airy black sesame tapioca crackers make regular appearances in my dreams).” - Julia Chen, SF Editorial Assistant
“The second I wake up, I seriously contemplate skipping my morning meetings so I can drive over to Daughter’s Diner in Uptown Oakland for a Beast Mode bagel sandwich, which comes with incredible house-made sausage, arugula, pickled onions, and brie on a fresh Boichik bagel. Shortly after, like clockwork, my mind wanders to the princess pancakes. If it were pancake week on The Great British Bake Off, I’d bet money that this bright purple masterpiece would receive a Paul Hollywood handshake thanks to its sweet raspberry jam layers, melty almond marzipan, and dusting of powdered sugar. I’d eat these pancakes any time of the day - which, luckily, I can, because the whole menu is served until 9pm.” - JC
“El Garage, the quesabirria pop-up, opened their first brick and mortar in Richmond. And when I found out, I immediately wanted to hop on I-80 for the reddish tacos stuffed with beef. But I had to go through a specific pre-ordering process (which I ended up writing an entire explainer on) - order on this day, at this time, and pick up on this date. As someone who hates pre-plannining her personal schedule, the undertaking felt cumbersome. But I went through it and have never questioned the process again, especially now that ordering like this is so ubiquitous. The tacos were perfect - stuffed with tender beer and oozing with cheese. I loved opening each one to meticulously add onions and cilantro. Then there was the spicy, meaty consomé I dipped each taco in before experiencing the satisfying crunch in every bite.” - LC
“Anyone who knows me knows I f*cking love garlic. The smell of it wafting through the air is a permanent fixture in my kitchen, and I have, on multiple occasions, considered getting a bulb tattooed on my left rib. So it’s no surprise that I’m a huge fan of the garlic toum from Shawarmaji, a new Jordan-style shawarma spot in Uptown Oakland that got its start last year as a pop-up. The thick, pungent toum is made with canola oil, lemon juice, and what tastes like an Olympic pool-sized amount of garlic. Toum aside, their chicken shawarma wrap - which is thinner and longer (like, forearm-length long) than most wraps you’d find in the Bay - is also fantastic. It’s made with leg meat marinated in yogurt and spices, which is then slow-roasted on a vertical spit until juicy and crispy on the outside. Then it’s wrapped up in a tortilla with toum, cucumber pickles, and fries if you want (you do), and griddled on both sides until golden-brown. This wrap has been the only thing on my mind since I ate it.” - JC
“Cali Alley is a takeout window in West Berkeley from a team who runs a local catering company. They focus on dishes that hit the Lenny Kravitz-in-an-oversized-scarf level of comfort, like mac ’n cheese, tofu rice bowls, and barbacoa plates. But their sandwiches are what make me feel like someone dropped a 90-pound blanket fresh out of the dryer on me and quelled my anxieties with a gentle whisper: “Hush, everything will be OK.” Take their basketball-size fried chicken sandwich. It’s one of the best fried chicken sandwiches with a crispy buttermilk chicken breast, sweet marinated peppers, and fried shallots. And the Cali Alley Burger - a juicy, ground brisket and short rib patty with garlic aioli and all the fixings - keeps me coming back whenever I need something better than therapy.” - LC
“Every weekend after Horn Barbecue’s grand opening, I drove by and saw lines stretching down and around the block - some people even brought lawn chairs for the wait. The sight caused me to have a stress dream in which I waited three hours for brisket and got attacked by a squirrel. But I digress. When I finally braved the line (no squirrels in sight, thank god), I had high expectations. And after trying the brisket, spareribs, beef ribs, hot links - all cut to order - and pulled pork, I can definitively say that Matt Horn’s barbecue is the best I’ve had in the Bay. The gigantic beef rib was more tender than an episode of Full Bloom. And the pulled pork, which I smothered in their sweet, tangy barbecue sauce, was unbelievably juicy and smoky. In terms of sides, you can’t really go wrong, but the mac and cheese and coleslaw are something special. If you don’t want to wait in the line, Horn is now taking pre-orders for meat by the pound (there’s a three-pound minimum for brisket, so it can get pricey). If you want smaller portions, you can still walk up and order.” - JC
“This winter has felt darker and colder than usual, so I’m extra appreciative of places like Cocobreeze. The new Trinidadian restaurant on High Street in Oakland run by Annabelle Goodridge and her daughter is a literal bright spot: The first time I rolled up to it one December evening, tinsel garlands and icicle lights decorated the boxy building, which was topped with huge blow-up Santas and cone Christmas trees. Warm, heart-tugging joy was also infused into every dish I ordered - pholourie (fried split pea dough and turmeric) with a side of chunky tamarind dip, a thick chicken roti stuffed with chickpeas and potatoes, and an herby, life-changing jerk chicken that slowly built heat on the tongue. You can bet you’ll find me here even after the holiday decorations come down.” - LC
“This year, a lot of chefs have started takeout and delivery operations out of their homes (something we’re calling at-home pop-ups). And one at-home pop-up I can’t stop thinking about is Bicycle Pies in Oakland. When I picked up my box of savory and sweet hand pies, they were still warm and fresh out of the oven. I hustled home and unboxed them with the same level of excitement I had when I bought myself a hand-crocheted cloud hat (DM me for details). I got four, including a chicken pot pie, brown butter apple, and one with persimmon, ginger, and candied pecans. But my favorite was the roasted kabocha squash, turnip, garlic, and bacon, which was folded into a golden-brown, flaky pastry, and tasted like a hug and the very essence of autumn. If you live in the East Bay, owner Michael Barrett will even deliver the pies to you on the titular bicycle, something I’ll definitely take him up on next time.” - JC
“Pomella, the new-ish Israeli restaurant on Oakland’s Piedmont Avenue, opened just weeks after the shelter-in-place order in March. The cold mezzes, beet salads, and chicken tagines hold up well in transit, and are perfect whenever I need quick, fresh - and tasty - brain food to get me through another Day In Pandemic Chaos. Owner Mica Tamor - who was behind the now-closed fast-casual spot Ba-Bite - also makes the creamiest hummus ever. The dishes are priced slightly higher for delivery, so order by phone and pick up in-person (Pomella’s located in the back of the building it shares with Doña Tomás).” - LC
“I did a little happy dance around my room when I placed my first online order at Lion Dance Cafe, a vegan Singaporean spot in Downtown Oakland - because every other time I remembered to check the pre-order site, they were always already sold out. And I carried this giddy energy with me through the end of the week, when I finally picked up my bowl of laksa, A.S.S. cookies (almond, sesame, and shallot, of course), and the definitive star of the show: the shaobing sandwich. What goes in the sandwiches changes weekly, but the one I got was stuffed with thick slices of hoisin-braised tofu, garlic charred cabbage, fermented chilies, mint, and cilantro - and packed with tons of flavor and texture. But what really makes the sandwich special is the shaobing: a nutty, sesame-covered flatbread with a chewy inside and a golden-brown exterior. I almost shed a tear when I ate the last bite and realized I had no more left. But I’ve already set an indefinitely recurring “ORDER LDC” alarm for every Wednesday at noon (when pre-orders open).” - JC
“One thing I miss about pre-COVID days is spending hours in a cafe, reading, and feeling like a college student prepping for an 11am class. Which is why the first time I stepped inside the Downtown Berkeley breakfast and lunch spot, nostalgia hit me. The aroma of fresh pulled espresso and buttery pastries filled the air. Beautiful house plants lined the window sills. And the menu has the comforting morsels I would have enjoyed in between sips of my double capp: bagels, hashes, soups, and sandwiches. Thankfully, there’s takeout. My first trip there I grabbed a latte and a tomato tartine with balsamic caviar and whipped feta on a savory pao de queijo-like waffle. And when I got home I recreated the coffee shop feels with this video. Though pretending isn’t the same as hanging out at a new Downtown Berkeley hotspot, enjoying their great coffee and delicious food in my kitchen is a welcomed alternative.” - LC
“It’s no secret that I love Smish Smash, a new smashburger pop-up that’s currently operating out of Neptune’s in Alameda. They make some of the best burgers I’ve had in recent memory, with crispy, caramelized beef patties smashed super thin and sandwiched between soft potato rolls. Smish Smash also drops creative weekly specials on their Instagram - like an uni burger topped with yuzukosho and ponzu aioli, or the pho-inspired Dac Biet with jalapeño and bean sprouts. If you spun around ten times and threw a dart at the menu it would always land on something great - but when in doubt, get the Signature with two beef patties, house sauce, cheese, pickles, and grilled onions. If the specials are Andre 3000, the Signature is Big Boi - less flashy, but equally brilliant. Note that Smish Smash recently started taking same-day pre-orders, and has hit pause on walk-up orders for now.” - JC
“There are a lot of tough decisions I’ve made lately: Wear the black or cream turtleneck? Wash my hair after a week or let it ride for an extra three days? Thankfully, choosing which perfectly fried mini donut to get from Donut Savant in Oakland’s Allendale isn’t one of them. That’s because all the donuts, from the cinnamon rolls and apple fritters to vanilla-glazed bars are unbelievably priced - the mini donuts are 50 cents to $1. So, get one of each and don’t think twice. One decision that may trip you up - which of the delicious donut-croissant hybrids (which they technically call ‘cron’ts’) to get. If you’re unsure, salted maple all the way.” - LC