Special Feature: Products Sally Recommends
Best Restaurants in Marin County, CA
Judging food and restaurants is always a subjective experience. For example, I personally don’t like scallops, but can appreciate it when everyone I know tells me that such-and-such restaurant serves the best ones they have ever eaten.
I approached the creation of this list in much the same way. As a food writer and columnist - I know what I like, but I also asked the foodies, chefs and restaurant owners in the county which establishments they thought should be on this list.
So here you have it, from the high brow to the sweet and simple a roundup of the top fifty favorite places to eat in Marin County. As time goes on, I plan to add to this list until it grows to 100. So, if there is someplace you think I should check out - please email. Until then bon appetite!
Amici's East Coast Pizzeria
1242 4th Street (at C Street)
Located in the heart of San Rafael, this local hangout serves great thin crust pizza baked in a traditional brick oven. If you are already settled in for the night, they offer delivery right to your door. In addition to the pizza, their cold broccoli plate with olive oil and lemon or mixed green house salad with homemade vinaigrette is excellent. A good value for the money and a great choice for families.
From the outside Avatar’s restaurant looks like your average local lunch place. Stepping inside, nothing much changes style wise – it’s clean and unassuming with lovely photographs of India by local photographers Craig Kolb and Judith Bang Kolb lining the walls. But as soon as you have a plate of owner and chef Ashok’s fusion blend of Indian, California and Mexican cuisine, you are no longer in the realm of the ordinary. Ashok calls the food Marindian and says his customers call it ethnic confusion. Whatever the name, it’s worth a visit just to sample such unusual items as pumpkin enchilada with sweet chutney. The service is always warm, friendly and accommodating and the food never disappoints.
Book Passage Coffee House
51 Tamal Vista
Attached to one of the last remaining independent bookstores in Marin, the café is always occupied with local writers talking and typing on their laptops. The lunch fare is simple (tuna salad, chicken Caesar, turkey sandwiches, homemade soup) but fresh and reasonably priced. Open daily; they have casual indoor and outdoor seating. Check the web site for the myriad of author events and classes that are offered almost every night of the week.
15 Shoreline Highway
Owned and operated by Real Restaurants, the group that brought Bay Area foodies Fog City Diner, Tra Vigne and Bix, the Buckeye sports an upscale tavern type setting. Much of the food is cooked in a wood-burning smoker and they make a mean martini. A great choice for a fun evening out or a special ladies lunch, try the marinated skirt steak with caramelized onions and French fries for lunch or the barbequed baby back ribs with cole slaw and maple-mashed yams for dinner. For desert - what else but the s’more pie. Open seven days a week.
2000 Paradise Drive
With all the tables at this intimate eatery offering a view of the Golden Gate Bridge, it has remained a romantic favorite of Marin couples for years. The food is California contemporary with a French flair. Try the shellfish bisque, rack of venison or lamb noissette with truffle potato gratin. On the polar opposite side of the menu is the vegetarian tasting, which includes such treasures as truffle celery root soup, baby fennel micro celery salad and gnocchi with chestnuts & brussel sprouts.
2200 4th Street
Even if the sound of raw food makes you skeptical, give this place a try. The staff are chipper and cards at the table invite you to reflect on your internal state while enjoying a vegetarian, wheat free, dairy free key lime pie. The bottom line – the fare is tasty and there is a wide variety to suit any palate. All the dishes are named by positive affirmation so expect to order items with such names as - I Am Grace, a frosty coconut smoothie made with coconut milk, almond butter, dates and vanilla. It’s out of this world. For a main dish check out one of the café’s live pizzas (such as I Am Passionate) made with buckwheat and sunflower seed flatbread and topped with cashew ricotta cheese.
Tucked away inside an office complex of chiropractors, this small style Southern Mexican restaurant has had a loyal following for years. They have a list of enchiladas, burritos and flautas. Check out the Vallarta enchilada filled with fried plantains & covered with homemade mole and the chile relleno.
335 San Anselmo Avenue
Comforts is both a causal sit down café and an upscale deli rolled into one. They serve breakfast and lunch seven days a week, but no dinner. Well-known among the locals for their upscale take out- the Chinese chicken salad is famous throughout the county - Saturday and Sunday brunch is crowded but worth the wait to taste the pecan-crusted cinnamon challah French toast.
Cucina Restaurant & Wine Bar
510 San Anselmo Avenue
Noisy, busy and always humming with energy, owner Jack Krietzman’s bustling eatery serves Southern Italian food with flair. Try the unusual shredded zucchini carpaccio with pecorino and almonds or the pomegranate, pistachio and proscuitto salad. The nice thing about Cucina is that even thought it is successful, it has retained its small family feel. Complimentary bruschetta is served and owner Jack often comes out of the kitchen to meet and greet.
200 Shoreline Highway
Conveniently located on Highway One, just before the Stinson Beach turn off, the Dipsea serves one of the best home-style breakfasts in Marin. Always a wait for a table, they have counter service available. The Café itself was named for the seven mile Dipsea trail which begins in downtown Mill Valley, goes up 672 wooden steps, winds up and over Mt. Tam, and ends at Stinson beach. Besides the usual eggs, bacon and pancakes, the house specialties include cheese blintzes, homemade gravlax platter and huevos rancheros with chorizo and jalapenos.
Easy Street Café
882 Sir Francis Drake Blvd
Red Hill Shopping Center
Located in the Safeway shopping center, this is the place to go with kids in tow. They serve an abundance of fresh and large salads, burgers, soup and other lunchtime fare. With a focus on fresh, Easy Street cuts thier own French fries and vegetables, makes thier own soups daily and uses only canola oil (no cholesterol) and no lard. Open seven days a week 6:00 a.m. - 9:00 p.m.
El Paseo House of Chops
17 Throckmorton Avenue
The original El Paseo restaurant opened in 1948. The restaurant has operated continuously since that date. In 2010 Tyler Florence and Sammy Hagar partnered to take over the restaurant. They planned, designed and oversaw a complete restoration of the storied interior and exterior spaces and have brought a local institution back to its former glory. Open nightly dinner only.
464 Magnolia Ave.
Located in historic downtown Larkspur this quaint cafè is an all day hangout for locals. They feature Italian style pastries, cakes and sandwiches along with strong espresso drinks. All the food is tasty, but the real star is the bakery case of little Italian cookies. With dozens to choose from, they make a great snack for eating on premises or taking to go.
63 Broadway Blvd.
While this may not be technically a restaurant, it is undoubtedly the best homemade, organic ice cream in Marin. Locals will drive way out of their way just to get a scoop of the lavender vanilla, chai Spice, or brownies 'n cream. For the dairy sensitive they offer soy ice cream and sorbets. Not only will you enjoy the ice-cream, but you will feel good about yourself as well since all spoons used are bio-degradable.
198 Sir Francis Drake Blvd
The decor is minimalist and even the photos hanging on the walls are artily out of focus. But the menu (a California-French style) features local ingredients in such tantalizing dishes as carrot flan, three-meat meatloaf and braised pork belly. Their early Prix-Fixe menu is a great deal at $21.95 and is offered Tuesday through Friday - 5:30 to 6:15 pm and Sunday - 4:45 to 6:15 pm.
152 Shoreline Highway
Frantoio is the only restaurant in the U.S. with an in house state of the art olive oil production facility. One of the most fun things about eating at Frantoio is seeing the huge on-site olive oil press churning away. Located behind a glass wall at the back of the restaurant, it produces olive oil used for cooking in the restaurant and bottled for sale. The menu is Italian with plenty of anitpasti, pasta and pizza to go around. Try the pan roasted seabass in a fresh horseradish crust or the potato and spinach gnocchi in a creamy goat cheese sauce with aged balsamic vinegar. Two patios, full bar; open lunch and dinner 7 days a week.
590 East Blithedale
The first thing you notice when you walk into this small Italian eatery is the smell of roasted chicken made with citrus, herbs and onions. Along with the chicken, they serve melt in your mouth potatoes and buttery chard. You can sit and eat in a relaxed manner or order to go. Be warned – most nights - the pick up line extends out the door.
5 Main Street
Featuring regional Mexican cuisine, the restaurant sits right on the Bay. It has expansive views of the water and a colorful interior decorated by brightly colored paper cutouts hanging from the ceiling. There is an outdoor patio (with heat lamps) that is perfect for dining al fresco on a nice day or summer evening. The food almost always has a twist from traditional Mexican. Try the chili rellenos - stuffed with chicken and raisins and then topped with creamy walnut sauce and pomegranate seeds or the roasted duck with pumpkin seed sauce. Corn tortillas are served when you sit down with a variety of salsas, including a spicy mole sauce that is to die for.
Half Day Cafe
848 College Avenue
Located across from the College of Marin, this place is always busy and does not take reservations. It is, however, worth the wait for a homemade scone (blueberry and lemon) and a big steaming bowl of café latte or cappuccino. The rest of the food is easy California fare i.e. eggs, bacon, French toast for breakfast; salad and sandwiches for lunch. Two additional upsides – they are kid friendly and have an additional pretty outdoor garden style seating area.
Harmony Chinese Restaurant and Dim Sum
800 Redwood Hwy (in the Strawberry Village Shopping Center)
Just opened in 2007, Harmony has fast become a local favorite. Norman Louie, Harmony’s owner and manager, was director of operations at Yank Sing in the city for fourteen years. He wanted to open a Chinese restaurant in Marin that would feature fresh, local ingredients. It took four years from the time he had the idea until the day Harmony opened its doors. It was worth the wait. This restaurant has elegant décor and a happy band of accomplished chefs wielding ginger-infused pork siu mai, fragrant lotus-leaf wraps (lo mai gai) and melt-in-your-mouth egg custard tarts (dan tat) for dessert.
901 A Street
Don’t even think of coming to this jam packed Italian eatery without trying the calamari fritta with cayenne-garlic & basil aioli. It’s but one of the many hearty appetizers that will wet your appetite for the meal ahead. A truly all-around menu including gnocchi, pasta, seafood, chicken and lamb – all done in traditional Italian style. Order a glass of wine, sit back and enjoy your salmone alla scaloppini, ravioli di formaggio or pollo Marsal.
223 Corte Madera Town Center
One of Marin's most successful and popular restaurants serves cuisine in the tradition of an Italian trattoria. Early mornings bring rustic, crisp crusted bread hot from the oven accompanied by the scent of fresh brewed espresso. For lunch and dinner they have a full menu of pasta, roasted meats and a special menu of regional cuisine, which changes each month.
120 Sir Francis Drake Blvd.
Executive Chef/Owner Heidi Krahling's (who still works in the kitchen most days) runs this upscale Mediterranean restaurant. She developed her love affair of the Mediterranean under the tutelage of Joyce Goldstein while a chef at Square One. When it came time to strike out on her own she honored her late father (Italo Insalata) by naming the restaurant after him. The dining room is light; bright and spacious with full bar service. There is also a seriously upscale take-out section. Try the Moroccan lamb tagine, Syrian chicken fattoush or middle-eastern inspired vegetarian platter with lemony lentils, acorn squash, curried spinach, Turkish yogurt and couscous.
783 Anderson Drive
It’s easy to drive right by this tiny gem of a restaurant hidden off the side of the road, next to the Office Depot. However, if you make the effort to do so, you will be rewarded with fresh fish cooked in an unusual fashion and beautifully presented. Try the cioppioni, linguini pesto with scallops or any of the specials. Be sure and save room for the tiramisu.
In business for over 30 years, this is family friendly and family style Southern Italian food at its best. They serve all the usual suspects such as homemade ravioli and gnocchi, veal scaloppini, linguine with clam sauce and traditional pizza. The décor is nothing fancy, but the casual, relaxed atmosphere and consistently good food is what attracts the locals. Dress casual. Closed for lunch. Open Tuesday through Sunday for dinner 4:00 – 11:00 P.M.
507 Magnolia Avenue
Known for their simple French brasserie fare, this spacious restaurant can accommodate up to 220 dinners. The inside dinning room has high ceilings, warm wood accents and a collection of large antique French advertising posters that add greatly to the feel of the place. Outside seating on the patio is also available. The menu changes with the seasons but the French classics are always in style. Try the onion soup, salade niçoise and coq au vin.
The pommes frites – served in a paper cone – are a must.
Lotus Cuisine of India
704 Fourth Street
Both a Pacific Sun Best of Marin and Zagat Survey honoree, this friendly restaurant reflects the warmth and charm of it’s owner Paul Sroa. With its pink tablecloths and Indian art adorning the walls – all collected by Mr. Sroa - the restaurant is a pleasant place to eat lunch or dinner. Featuring North Indian cuisine the lunch buffet is abundantly stocked (16-20 items) and a delicious deal at $7.95 per person. For dinner you can’t go wrong with any one of the tandoori or curry dishes. Ample vegetarian choices are available.
1850 Redwood Highway
The sign on the door reads “This is a good place for a diet, this is a bad place for a diet.” And than about sums it up. One of the only New York style delis in Marin, this is the place to go if you have a hankering for a cream soda, corned beef sandwich or potato pancakes with sour cream and applesauce. The portions are beyond huge (gigantic would be more descriptive) and variety is plentiful. Always keeping up with the latest trends, they have a large selection of low carb meals (and deserts) as well.
Mountain Home Inn
810 Panoramic Highway
Billed as the romantic getaway high above San Francisco Bay this small inn and restaurant has views galore and good food. From a great breakfast of buttermilk hotcakes with chicken apple sausage and Vermont maple syrup to the sample American artisan cheese tasting at lunch and finally the three course dinner – you can’t miss satisfying both your appetite and desire for atmosphere in this unique restaurant up on the mountain. Breakfast and brunch served on weekends; lunch Monday - Friday; dinner nightly; Closed Mondays November - April.
10,000 Sir Francis Drake Blvd.
Rated one of the top Bay Area restaurants by the San Francisco Chronicle; this romantic country inn is located minutes from the Point Reyes National Seashore. The restaurant has simple interior (white walls, white tablecloths, wood floors) but serves fresh seafood and cheese from local sources. A good deal of the restaurant's produce comes from their own organic garden. Try the warm lobster salad or pan roasted Sonoma pheasant with creamy fresh black truffle risotto.
726 San Anselmo Avenue
This small and unassuming restaurant has won the Pacific Sun newspaper’s Best of Marin award six times. Owned and operated by Peggy and Tom Thongnopneua for the past 19 years, Orchid Thai serves traditional Thai food. You could make a meal of their extensive menu of appetizers alone. Try the peak gai yad sai - chicken wings stuffed with crabmeat, ground chicken, silver noodles, mushrooms, and pepper, deep fried; served with sweet and sour sauce.
Panama Hotel & Restaurant
4 Bayview Street
Small, intimate and charming, this bed and breakfast has a tropical garden patio that is perfect for outdoor dining during the warm weather months. Inside a little over a dozen tables play host to the hotels home-style blend of Italian, Mexican and California cuisines. On Wednesday nights they offer a three-course blue plate special in addition to the regular fare. On Tuesday & Thursday nights live jazz can be heard from 7 to 10 pm. Open breakfast, lunch, dinner & Sunday brunch.
1625 Sir Frances Drake Blvd.
Featuring authentic Mexican cuisine including fresh, local seafood and meat. They have an open-flame mesquite grill and an in-house tortilla grill. Their sizzling fajitas and table made guacamole are not to be missed. Open Monday through Thursday, 4:00 p.m. to closing and Friday, Saturday and Sunday 12:00 p.m. until closing.
10 Pacific Way (at Highway 1)
Offering prime rib, Yorkshire pudding, beef Wellington and shepherd’s pie, this small 16th century English pub style restaurant comes complete with dartboards and a cozy, wood-paneled bar. The inn features seven guest rooms that include a traditional English breakfast. If you feel full after a heavy lunch or dinner, you can walk a few short blocks to the beach for an after meal stroll. Lunch and dinner served Tuesday – Sunday.
320 Magnolia Avenue
Best known (and loved) by the locals for their Neapolitan style pizza, the menu here is a bit limited but still satisfying. They offer a nice selection of salads and soups and have a full bar with a large wine list, microbrewed beers and hand crafted sake. Don’t miss the local Straus dairy soft serve ice cream – the vanilla with extra virgin olive oil and sea salt is an unusual treat.
777 Bridgeway (at Bay)
Located in the heart of downtown Sausalito, this classic Northern Italian trattoria uses local ingredients and their own organic herbs and vegetables. Managing partner Larry Mindel has opened over 30 Italian restaurants - including Il Fornio in Corte Madera. He is the first American and the first person of non-Italian descent to receive the Caterina de Medici Medal, recognizing excellence in the preservation of Italian heritage outside of Italy. His love of Italy shows in the food offered at Poggio. The menu changes daily at both lunch and dinner.
Robata Grill and Sushi
591 Redwood Highway, Shelter Point
In Japanese, Robata means "by the fireside," and refers to the centuries-old country style cooking of northern Japanese fishermen. Evenings in coastal villages found fishermen cooking their catch over an open fire, then sharing among themselves by passing food on oars from boat to boat. This tradition continues at the restaurant where appetizer-size portions (meant for sharing) allow dinners to sample many of the Robata favorites. They also have an extensive sushi and sashimi menu.
Sol Food Puerto Rican Cuisine
732 4th Street
Featuring authentic Puerto Rican criolla cooking, this is a casual and friendly place in downtown San Rafael. Painted tropical gecko bright green on the outside of the building the inside consists mostly of long tables where you sit with other people and enjoy your meal. The menu features palate pleasers such as roasted pork sandwiches and plantanos (plantains) done four different ways! If you like coconut, don’t miss the creamy coconut pudding (wheat free) with mango sauce.
1819 Larkspur Landing Circle
Located in the same shopping center as the E&O Trading Company, this is a small but very popular Japanese restaurant. There is the usual fare to choose from (tempura, yakitori) but the sushi is what the locals talk about. Conveniently located across the street from the Courtyard By Marriott and Larkspur Landing Movie Cinemas, there is always a crowd, so plan on a short wait before you are seated.
Recipients of the elusive and exclusive Michelin Star, an often named player in lists of top Bay Area restaurants and a Zagat Survey regular, many locals consider Sushi Ran the best Japanese restaurant in Marin. The only down side to all this acclaim- be prepared to wait – since there is always a line at this hip and happening Sausalito restaurant. In addition to the sushi try the teriyaki, yakitori chicken; or black bento lunch boxes of chicken, seafood or sashimi. For the sushi die hards, try going on the sushi cruise around the San Francisco Bay. Open for lunch Monday-Friday and dinner seven nights a week.
31 Tamalpais Avenue (at San Anselmo Ave.)
This casual lunch and dinner spot offers Mexican food with a Yucatan twist. Well known by the locals for their Black Gold Salsa, the food is as colorful and interesting as the sunshine yellow walls and plastic pink tablecloths sporting red, yellow and green fruit prints. The Yucatan grilled corn on the cob, griddled Plantains and Chicken Molé and fish tacos, are a must. No hard liquor is served but the handmade sangria and agave margaritas offer a perfect compliment to the hearty food.
The Tavern at Lark Creek
234 Magnolia Avenue
The Tavern at Lark Creek has been drawing national attention since opening in 1989. Restaurateur Bradley Ogden - one of the pioneers who helped redefine American cooking – has an ideal setting for his American cuisine. Nestled among the redwoods, in a former private home, the restaurant is one of the most romantic and charming in Marin. In the summertime food is also served in the garden beside the gently flowing creek. The food is rich with flavor and variety. Try the famous Bradley’s Caesar salad, pan roasted loin of venison or confit leg of rabbit.
Three Degrees Restaurant and Bar
1651 Tiburon Boulevard
Adjacent to the Lodge at Tiburon, Three Degrees Restaurant serves American cuisine in a casually elegant atmosphere. There is an outdoor fireplace for year-round al fresco dining. Open for breakfast, lunch and dinner the menu focuses on seasonal cooking with ingredients that are primarily sourced from local, small-scale vendors and organic farmers. Try the grilled fennel crusted lamb loin or Dungeness crab risotto.
Ward Street Café
25 Ward Street
It’s easy to miss this little gem of a café. Tucked down a side street off of Magnolia Avenue (Larkspur’s main drag) it is only half a block from the prestigious and well know Left Bank. Specializing in little plates that are meant to be shared, the food is rich and satisfying. The hoisen-honey glazed spareribs are some of the best in California, let alone Marin. Reservations are recommended.
225 Alameda del Prado
An unlikely spot for a popular restaurant, Wild Fox is located next to the Best Western and right off the 101 freeway. Its lodge like interior with high-beamed ceilings and outdoor stone fireplace make for a pleasant dining atmosphere. The best fare on the menu is comfort food. Try the Yankee pot roast, Mom’s meatloaf, sour cream whipped potatoes or maple bourbon bbq baby back ribs. They also have a full bar offering the usual gin, scotch and vodka drinks but great cocktails as well. Check out the lemon woo woo (absolut citron, peach schnapps, lemonade, cranberry) or the key lime pie martini (vanilla vodka, midori, butterscotch schnapps, whipped cream).
799 College Avenue
Bacon and eggs, thick pancakes (or waffles) with syrup and butter, and fresh squeezed orange juice is the name of the game here. If it’s an old fashioned breakfast (or lunch) you’re looking for – Willie’s is the place. The portions are huge and the atmosphere casual and relaxed. Perfect for families as well as urban couples searching for an unpretentious and reasonably priced meal in Marin. Open seven days a week 7:30 a.m. to 3:00 p.m.
286 Magnolia Avenue
Yankee Pier is the brainchild of celebrity chef Bradley Ogden, who’s elegant Lark Creek Inn is right next door. With a New England coastal theme, this fun, but noisy (the tables are jam packed together) restaurant is a great casual dining experience. If you are in the mood to indulge, try the beer battered shrimp & chips or the crispy Dungeness crab cakes. If your eating on the lighter side go with the steamed Manila clams and a Yankee salad made with Fuji apple, sweet & spicy walnuts, chopped radicchio and blue cheese. If raw is what you crave, order a half dozen oysters or fresh ceviche and call it a night. Service is first come, first served. Open for lunch and dinner.
Karen Leland is president of Sterling Consulting Group (www.scgtraining.com) and author of Watercooler Wisdom: How Smart People Prosper in the Face of Conflict, Pressure and Change. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org