Best Alfresco Dining
Set amid the palm and oak trees at Novato’s Hamilton Field, this family-friendly restaurant gets high marks for crisp salads, small plates (try the crab cakes), and refreshing rosés that epitomize a light summer meal. The communal-style tables under the broad canopy are great for escaping the summer heat of northern Marin.
With four locations countywide, including the mother ship at Marin Country Mart, this bakery first became famous for outstanding flatbread crackers, croissants, and baguettes. The sandwiches, such as rare roast beef with cambozola, come with your choice of bread, and the Marin mainstay Asian chicken salad is dressed with just the right amount of sesame and peanut to please the most discriminating palate.
The famous bustling scene at the original Perry’s in San Francisco magically crossed the Golden Gate Bridge in 2015 and planted itself among Larkspur’s enormous redwoods. Voters love the wide bar where the TV is always on and the good drinks are well-priced at happy hour.
Pig in a Pickle
Our readers are ahead of the curve, picking this barbecue joint at Corte Madera Town Center months before Michelin awarded Pig in a Pickle a coveted Bib Gourmand. The brisket and baby back ribs get plenty of attention, but it is the fresh veggies and range of sauces to splash on the meats that please Texans, Californians, and everyone in between.
The Whisk + Skillet
Kudos for this Mill Valley eatery’s all-day breakfast menu, which includes a popular California omelet (with avocado, of course) and the crab omelet when that’s in season. Equally important are all-day lunch options like dino kale with citrus vinaigrette and the potato cake salad with smoked salmon, known to convert even the carb-averse.
Iron Springs Pub & Brewery
Sure, it’s green-certified, and the GiveBack Tuesdays program has channeled hundreds of thousands of donated dollars to Marin nonprofits since 2004, but this Fairfax brewery’s calling card is beer. From the original red ale Epiphany to Kent Lake Kölsch, they make it all, winning countless awards along the way.
What? A brewery that does brunch? Must be Marin. Yes, the ingredients are local and the bottomless mimosas are fun, but it’s the fried chicken with scratch biscuits, kids’ breakfast bento box, and scarf-able wood-fired pizzas that make this San Rafael beer-maker a daytime dining standout.
The Napa original descended on Marin and instantly changed the burger scene, bringing those garlic fries and the hamburger (special sauce and toasted egg bun) to the Bon Air Center in Greenbrae. Seafood lovers rejoice over the ahi burger, but it could be the cookies-and-cream shake that pushed Gott’s into the winners’ circle.
An extensive dim sum menu, including classic siu mai stuffed with scallops and shrimp, Peking duck with tea buns, and plenty of veggie and gluten-free choices, makes Mill Valley’s Harmony the North Bay’s go-to for Cantonese. But the Strawberry Village spot is just as popular for old-school favorites like kung pao chicken and glass noodle vegetarian clay pot.
Best Coffee Shop
Red Whale Coffee Bar
In a low-slung office complex near Mitchell Boulevard, the San Rafael brick-and-mortar of the Civic Center farmers market stand draws its own passionate following with ethically sourced coffees, stellar espresso drinks, and a hang-worthy lounge with pinball.
The lively Larkspur bar is buzzy with people stopping by just to ogle the crowd and the roaring wood-fired ovens from which pizzas, puffed from the heat and oozing with melted cheese, emerge. Everything is insanely fresh and farm-to-table (duh!), and the seasonally changing avocado hummus also sets hearts afire. Yep, the avos are from Cali, too.
Best Farmers Market
Sunday Civic Center Farmers Market
The sheer scale of the weekly Marin Civic Center event — some 200 local farmers, specialty food purveyors, and artists — attests to the breadth and quality of Marin’s foodshed. But the economic benefits to the community, when you buy from vendors at this and other markets managed by the Agricultural Institute of Marin, are boundless.
Best Frozen Yogurt/Icecream
Swirl Frozen Yogurt
Organic, low-fat, no fat, full-fat, vegan, tart — the list of yogurts is big and the list of toppings bigger (30-plus) at this petite Miller Avenue shop. Bonus points for being entirely self-serve, including samples, giving fans of the cold stuff extra incentive to stop in.
Best Grocery Store
Good Earth Natural Foods
Committed to offering the highest-quality natural foods, this independent grocery’s two locations, in Mill Valley and Fairfax, are a celebration of organic activism. The vegetable and meat choices are as plentiful as the bulk bins, and the 99 percent organic salad, breakfast, and hot bars offer ample customizable meal ideas, plus award-winning gluten-free vegan pizza by the slice.
Lotus Cuisine of India
Three dozen curries and tasty tandoori are just part of the appeal of this longtime favorite on the eastern edge of downtown San Rafael. There’s also Southern Indian thali and, for under $12 a person, the all-you-can-eat lunch buffet.
Once again awarded a Bib Gourmand from Michelin and a Marin IJ Readers’ Choice winner in 2018, Sausalito’s Poggio earns raves for its devotion to community and excellent service and cuisine. The seasonally inspired family-style Tuesday Night Suppers are yet another reason locals stay true.
Best Kids’ Menu
The official kids’ menu at this Corte Madera burger place includes veggie skewers, PB&J, grilled cheese, and mini-burgers with cheese. But bigger kids like the customization baked into the format here — just like adults, they want their Impossible Burger with vegan cheese on a gluten-free bun, too.
Best Mexican/ Latin
Copita Tequileria y Comida
Tequila varietals (white, rested, and aged) from over 40 distillers attract fans of the blue agave; chowhounds come for the beautifully prepared corn in all its forms. The freshly prepared masa is evident in the tortillas, tamales, and chips and amplifies any taco filling, from oyster to carne asada. The ceviches remind you that Sausalito is seafaring at heart.
Best New Restaurant
Open since last October in downtown Kentfield, Guesthouse has already built a reputation for craft cocktails in the bustling bar (try the Slingshot with bourbon and Campari) but the well-executed California cuisine by way of the chef’s Italian training and Chesapeake Delta heritage has won over the well-heeled of central Marin and beyond.
Creekside Pizza & Taproom
Signature pizzas like the Poppy with smoked gouda, castelvetrano olives, and lemon zest get plenty of oohs and aahs, as does the beer (including a gluten-free option) and cider pulled from the 40 taps. Veg-heads love the big salads and the vegan cheese pie at this San Anselmo spot, which ventures beyond pizza with sandwiches and small and shareable plates.
Best Place to Bring a Group
The multiroom space with seating indoors and out seems designed for bocce players and music-lovers alike. Comfy cushions around the fire? Check. The cool breeze off the water? Check. Great wine and food? Check. It’s all here in San Rafael.
The bread is made on-site and said to have magical qualities. It better, as it’s the only holder for the overstuffed wonders served here. Fans return over and over to this San Rafael shop for their faves, ordered by number, then swoon over the huge Sandos piled with meat, cheese, and enough shredded lettuce to ooze out the sides and onto your lap.
Fish set a new standard when it opened in 2004 with counter service and inside-outside picnic tables on a Sausalito dock: the sustainable- seafood menu raised local awareness of the plight of wild salmon. Today, the chill vibe and well-sourced favorites (chowder, pasta con vongole, fish, and chips) equally appeal to visitors. And now credit and debit cards are welcome.
The Larkspur fave gets as many kudos for front-of-house service as for the kitchen’s consistently superior California cuisine. From servers and bussers to bartenders and hosts, the experience is professional, executed with precision and care.
The smoker out back produces exceptional wings and brisket, but the leather banquettes and recessed lighting call for steak. At this legendary Mill Valley landmark, a bacon-wrapped petit filet mignon comes with a red wine sauce, and the Brandt rib eye has an herbed garlic butter sauce so decadent you’ll want to take a bath in it.
Regularly dubbed one of the top Japanese restaurants in the United States, the Sausalito eatery has set the standard for impeccably sourced seasonal ingredients, innovative and classic sushi, and Pacific cuisine for more than 33 years.
Best Takeout Dining
Mofongo or shrimp, mariquitas or pollo al horno, the Puerto Rican specialties at Sol Food’s two Marin locations definitely travel well. The food arrives in good shape and tastes just as delicious at home as it does on-site.
Thep Lela Thai Restaurant
The lemon drop alone is worth a visit to the bar, and the tom ka soup has the optimal amount of tamarind to balance the creamy coconut milk. And the mango-beet fresh rolls and yum Yai salad never come off the menu, as their skillfully blended Thai and California flavors exemplify what makes this Mill Valley restaurant such a favorite.
Cafe del Soul
Absolutely everything is made in-house at this bastion of organic, GMO-free, vegan, and vegetarian fare in Mill Valley and San Rafael. The quinoa bowl trend may have started here (top yours with tofu or chicken) and the wraps, salads, and smoothies practically sing of health and well-being.
The big flavors of Burmese-Asian fusion ring true at this place on the Corte Madera– Larkspur border. The meatless tea leaf salad is a must-try, as is the bao “tacos” veggie option. And the vegetarian curry samosas are so popular they often sell out before the dinner rush is over.
Of course, you come for this San Rafael restaurant’s namesake bowl of hearty soup with clear broth, beef, noodles, and vegetables. But don’t overlook the pork chops with broken steamed rice and fried eggs or the lemongrass beef.