Mural near the theaters and an alley called "Main Street" that feature several new restaurants and eateries.

Mural near the theater gives a small town vibe. It’s right in an alley called “Main Street” that feature several new restaurants and eateries.

Where was I? On Tuesday night, I joined a few food bloggers who were invited by the city of San Mateo to check out some of the city’s dining scene as part of the city’s promotion of it being named the “Best Small Town for Food” by guidebook publisher Rand McNally.

Why I went? I’ve always been amazed by San Mateo’s dining scene. I know it’s the destination in the Bay Area for some of the best Japanese ramen, but it also has a variety of restaurants (several new) that draw quite the crowds on weekends, and some weeknights, on the busy B Street in the heart of town.

The Stops: We visited four restaurants that provided a nice range of style and cuisine (although I did note that there wasn’t an Asian restaurant, that will have to be the next tour). Here’s a rundown of where we went and my quick impressions of the food:

  1. Mortar and Pestle: This is actually a bar with small bites, and from the same people behind Curry Up Now, which is right next door toward the front. (Enter Mortar and Pestle from the alley-like Main Street.) The food is Indian (think naan and tikka masala) that even spills over to the cocktails, such as the Bangalore Old Fashioned with Old Port Indian and Plantation Barbados Rum. A really urban vibe with friendly bartenders and tasty drinks. People go crazy for the “sexy fries,” which is a play on poutine but with Indian flavors for the toppings.
  2. Osteria Coppa: This Italian restaurant just two doors down from Mortar and Pestle is churning out dishes from Chef Chanan Kamen, who worked at Quince in San Francisco. The restaurant recently built a pergola over its outdoor patio so people can really enjoy an Italian dinner in the warm Peninsula nights. We tried some wine and a luscious plate of veal pork agnolotti with pork sugo sauce. It’s everything you would expect and want from an Italian restaurant.
  3. 31st Union: This casual and relatively young restaurant has a true California style with the wood interiors making you feel like you’re eating in the middle of a Redwood forest. The menu from chef Paul Burzlaff plays on comfort food but with twists such as beef tongue sliders. First time restauranteur David Hunsaker wanted a place where friends could gather and enjoy a meal. Judging by the crowds on a Tuesday night, I think he succeeded in creating just that.
  4. Three Restaurant & Bar: Our last stop was at longtime San Mateo restaurant Three, which in its earlier years was known as Astaria. A large and lovely space, I found a lot of the dishes (and the cocktails) a bit on the sweet side.

My POV: San Mateo offers up the “Main Street” small-town vibe, but some of its restaurants are offering up world-class food. And a big plus is parking is only 50 cents an hour, which coming from Oakland and San Francisco is a huge plus. It’s also free after 6 p.m., but with so many people discovering the dining scene, it can get pretty hectic finding parking for dinner. Still, San Mateo is worth checking out if you haven’t been there lately.

For more deets: Learn more about the San Mateo food scene at the city’s newly launched www.sanmateobestfood.com.

Mortar & Pestle is a bar from the same people behind Curry Up Now.

Mortar & Pestle is a bar from the same people behind Curry Up Now.

Indian bar bites include holy moly fried ravioli with tikka masala (top) and "sexy fries." Cocktails are nicely balanced.

Indian bar bites include holy moly fried ravioli with tikka masala (top) and “sexy fries.” Cocktails are nicely balanced.

The bar at Mortar and Pestle

The bar at Mortar and Pestle

We dined outdoors under the new pergola at Osteria Coppa. Chef and Partner Lewis Rossman gave us a brief history of the modern Italian restaurant.

We dined outdoors under the new pergola at Osteria Coppa. Chef and Partner Lewis Rossman gave us a brief history of the modern Italian restaurant.

Veal and pork agnolotti with pork sugo

Veal and pork agnolotti with pork sugo

31st Union offers small plates that highlight comfort food, such as the duck confit tacos.

31st Union offers small plates that highlight comfort food, such as the duck confit tacos.

An unusual plate of square-like gnocchi from 31st Union.

An unusual plate of square-like gnocchi from 31st Union.

Chef Paul Burzlaff of 31st Union talks about his dishes, such as the beef tongue sliders (top left) and risotto (bottom right).

Chef Paul Burzlaff of 31st Union talks about his dishes, such as the beef tongue sliders (top left) and risotto (bottom right).

Stopped to shoot these interesting street art where an artist knitted covers for old parking meters.

Stopped to shoot these interesting street art where an artist knitted covers for old parking meters.

Mushroom "Stogies" from Three Restaurant made of phyllo dough with sesame ashes.

Mushroom “Stogies” from Three Restaurant made of phyllo dough with sesame ashes.

At Three Restaurant, we tried cocktails like the strawberry-basil infused espolon and a tasting of their short ribs with creamed corn.

At Three Restaurant, we tried cocktails like the strawberry-basil infused espolon and a tasting of their short ribs with creamed corn.

Pork belly bacon with maple chipotle glaze

Pork belly bacon with maple chipotle glaze

More drinks and food from Three, including a jalapeno and Skyy vodka cocktail dubbed the "Hally Berry" and unagi-glazed salmon.

More drinks and food from Three, including a jalapeno and Skyy vodka cocktail dubbed the “Hally Berry” and unagi-glazed salmon.

Ended our night with this delicious plate of sweets from Three, including a light home-made "HoHo" and a meringue tartlet.

Ended our night with this delicious plate of sweets from Three, including a light home-made “HoHo” and a meringue tartlet.

7 Responses to Discovering the Best Small Town for Food: San Mateo

  1. Patrick Wang says:

    I can also recommend Vault 164 http://www.yelp.com/biz/vault-164-san-mateo

  2. Brenda Ton says:

    I used to work in San Mateo, so the downtown area eventually got tiresome for me and I couldn’t stand the traffic/parking issues. 31st Union is one of my favorites down there. But there is only one place that is worth the trek for me to visit – Sushi Sam’s! It’s one of the freshest places that I’ve had sushi. Delicious and reasonably priced. Love these photos, Ben! Great recap of the tour – and awesome the city selected you!

  3. Carolyn Jung says:

    I’ve been to a couple of those places, and especially enjoy Ostera Coppa and 31st Union. The parking meter knitted covers are too cute. It looks like a scene out of Portland. 😉

  4. foodhoe says:

    Interesting tour, I tend to overlook all the non-asian spots when I’m over there and focus on the ramen! The desserts from Three look excellent.