It’s no secret that the San Francisco Bay Area is a mecca for foodies from all over the world. The City by the Bay has one of the highest concentrations of Michelin stars anywhere in the world. Throw in the French Laundry and some of the other restaurants up in Wine Country and the accolades grow. But down in the southern part of the Bay Area in San Jose and Silicon Valley, a relatively new crop of restaurants is getting major attention, too.
Put differently, if you like food and drinks, San Jose is worth a look.
I’ve been exploring this region for years and have established a handful of favorites over the years. With this in mind, here, in no particular order, are my picks for the five best culinary destinations in San Jose.
Think of Birk’s Restaurant as a classic steakhouse—even though it’s only been around since 1989. In addition to steak, the place is renowned for its raw bar, its lunchtime paella, and its wine list, which has been celebrated by Wine Spectator magazine for its breadth and depth. It’s a favorite among San Francisco 49ers fans looking to have a nice meal after football games at the new Levi’s Stadium. When I dine at Birk’s, I usually start with olive oil poached shrimp, move on to a chop house salad, and end with the veal rib chop, which is served with hearts of palm, lobster meat, mint hollandaise, caramelized onion, and herbed gnocchi.
As its name suggests, this casual restaurant near San Jose State University specializes in variations on the theme of noodles. The menu is simple: You pick rice, ramen, or yam, spinach, and green tea noodles; you chose up to three toppings (chicken, filet mignon, brisket, egg, mushroom, or veggies); then you decide on broth that ranges from Mongolian, tonkotsu, miso, or veggie. If you’re feeling particularly adventuresome, you can create a noodle dish with no broth at all. Most dishes cost less than US$15.
The Continental Bar
OK, OK, so the Continental isn’t actually a restaurant—it’s just a bar. But it’s a really cool bar in a really cool part of town (the SoFA neighborhood), and it has become one of my go-to spots (especially on warm days when I can sit on the patio outside). The place sits in a brick building that dates back to 1917 and is right next to the California Theater, one of the most iconic old buildings in downtown San Jose. Perhaps the only odd fact about the Continental is that the place doesn’t actually have a menu—you tell servers what kind of booze you like and they make you craft cocktails that fit your preferred flavor profile. Yes, the approach is unusual. But they’ve never served me a Manhattan I didn’t like.
If you’re on a diet, do not go to Stumpy’s. Instead, hit this Willow Glen hot-dog-and-burger joint when you feel you can truly splurge. Burgers are tasty and creative—my personal fave is the Refuge, comprised of a beef patty, braised short rib, New York sharp white cheddar, chipotle, sauerkraut, lettuce, pickles, and a special “sinister” sauce. Hot dogs are almost too tasty to be true—I enjoyed the Chignon, which is a dog wrapped in two pieces of bacon served with grilled onions, pico de gallo, mayo, avocado, tomatillo salsa, and queso fresco. Stumpy’s prides itself on using local meats and other ingredients as frequently as possible. Of course the place serves fries (and tots!) and milkshakes, too.
Dry Creek Grill
Casual meets classy at this old-school Willow Glen eatery, which has a decor that’s dark and tufted, but a menu that is sophisticated and down-to-earth. My go-to item at Dry Creek Grill is always the slow-cooked barbecue; the BBQ menu features chicken, brisket, pulled pork, and ribs. If you like hamburgers, chew on this: Burgers here always use meat ground in-house. Cocktails are yummy, too. Much like other upscale restaurants in the area, DCG prides itself on sourcing as many ingredients as possible from surrounding purveyors. The result is food that’s always fresh and local.
Finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention three great restaurants in Los Gatos, which isn’t in San Jose proper but is a thriving and upscale community to the north and west. No. 1 on the list here is Manresa, a Mediterranean-inspired restaurant that received a third Michelin star in October. This restaurant from Chef David Kinch was named by Forbes magazine as the best restaurant in America in 2012, and has been one of the best in the Bay Area ever since. (Manresa Bread, an adjacent bakery that supplies bread and pastries for the restaurant but also sells to the public, opened in early 2016.)
Two other notables in Los Gatos: The Lexington House and Oak & Rye. Both are pretty casual spots, both serve pizzas and Northern California cuisine, and both offer eclectic menus of craft cocktails, beer, and wine. Not coincidentally, both also happen to be fantastic places to spend a night with friends.
What are your favorite foodie cities and why?