What 2019’s Restaurant Openings Can Tell Us

The year's biggest food trends focused on underrepresented cuisines, new takes on California cuisine, a shift away from traditional fine dining, and vegan food galore.

Each year brings new food trends, some of which I hope will die as quickly as possible (ahem, activated charcoal in food) and others that I hope will continue to grow and evolve. This year marked a big growth in representation for underrepresented cuisines, fresh takes on so-called “California” cuisine, and a big shift away from fine dining toward counter service. It’s also a better time than ever to incorporate more plant-based foods into your diet — and these are all trends I hope will continue to grow and evolve in 2020.

Opening a restaurant is a risky investment, and in the past, restaurateurs (understandably) tended to focus on cuisines that were already widely known. Raben Lama, originally from Nepal, dreamed of opening a Himalayan restaurant, but without a big enough local Nepalese and Tibetan community, Lama worried that he wouldn’t be able to draw in enough customers. But with a growing number of diners looking to sample unfamiliar cuisines, Lama’s dream finally came true when he opened Zomsa in El Cerrito in May. Try the sukuti bento box, which includes house-smoked grass-fed wild bison with housemade pickles, crispy rice flakes, and crunchy dried soybeans. Or try the jhol momos, which are stuffed with ground bison and served in a creamy cashew sauce with the slightest hint of Sichuan peppercorn.

Persian food is also a rare find in the East Bay, but thankfully, this year marked the opening of two new Persian restaurants. Daryoush Persian Cuisine in downtown Berkeley offers a full menu of kabobs, ghormeh sabzi (herb stew with lamb and kidney beans), and khoresht fesenjoon (pomegranate and walnut stew with meatballs), plus all kinds of fragrant rice dishes.

Meanwhile, Komaaj also opened its first brick-and-mortar location at Cafenated Coffee Co. in North Berkeley. There, chef Hanif Sadr takes Northern Iranian dishes rarely seen in any restaurant in the United States and translates them for the fast-casual cafe. Some favorites are the rice bowl with pomegranate-glazed smoked trout, herbed smoked rice, goat cheese, a poached egg, and veggies, along with the namesake komaaj cake made with rice flour and honey.

But 2019 also brought a wave of new restaurants that refuse to be pigeonholed into any single cuisine. One of my favorites was Top Hatters Kitchen, a hip yet elegant-feeling restaurant where chef DanVy Vu draws from Vietnamese, Italian, and Mexican cuisines to create her own brand of California cuisine. Chopped clams with Vietnamese herbs are a standout, as are the oxtail grits with citrus gremolata. For dessert, the buttermilk panna cotta with citrus granita and tallow shortbread is a must-try, as is the Vietnamese egg coffee.

This year continued to mark a shift away from traditional fine dining, perhaps best exemplified by two counter-service restaurants headed by former Chez Panisse chefs: FAVA and The Lede. At FAVA in North Berkeley, Jeremy Scheiblauer and Sylvia Osborne-Calierno took over the tiny former Juice Bar Collective space, serving up their signature housemade flatbread sandwiches topped with stewed lamb and an almost outrageous amount of fresh herbs. The food is best taken to go, unless you’re lucky enough to snag one of the outdoor tables. At The Lede in Old Oakland, Cal Peternell serves his signature Cal-Italian fare in a building that doubles as a coworking space for journalists during the day. Seasonal veggie fritters, tinned sardines, and a rotating selection of pastas are perfect for enjoying alone or with friends, along with an Italian-inspired cocktail, a Californian or Italian wine, or a local beer on tap.

This year, more and more diners turned toward plant-based diets for ethical, health, and environmental reasons. And it seems like being vegan in the East Bay is just getting better and better. At Gay4U, the reincarnation of the now-shuttered Hella Vegan Eats, Sofi Espice serves up vegan fried chicken and waffle sandwiches, veggie burgers, breakfast burritos, and pepita salads. Meanwhile, over in the former Kwik-Way building, Toriano Gordon draws long lines daily for his vegan barbecue and soul food at Vegan Mob. If reducing your meat and dairy intake is in your plans for 2020, Gordon’s smackaroni and cheese and vegan brisket have you covered.


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