2008 was a transformative year. We were newly married, new to the Bay Area and new to the work we were taking on. Little did we know that we had landed in an oasis of culinary delights that greet new and native alike with warmth and generosity.

In major cities, new restaurants open all the time, but what is noteworthy about Oakland is the pace and quality of these new offerings.  My husband and I were preparing dinner recently and he bet me that he could name at least two dozen new restaurants that have opened in the last five years.  I was skeptical, but almost needless to say, 60 restaurants later, I owed him a free dinner.

Admittedly, our experience is mostly limited to north Oakland, and I acknowledge that there are lots of great places popping up all over the city, some in their second or third iteration. Also, this most recent excitement is building off a solid foundation – Mama’s Royale, Arizmendi, Bake Sale Betty, Everett & Jones, Shan Dong, Enssaro and the list goes on and on.

The new digs are places with character, comfort and attention to detail that radiate a unique Oakland experience. We have made somewhat of a pastime visiting new places, and enjoy the challenge of finding just the right atmosphere, cuisine and price point for our guests and friends. To honor this homegrown hospitality, we’ve developed a four-salutation rating dependent on the experience you seek and your dining partners.

She’s that old friend that can comfort you with a big HUGreliable, consistent, full-body warmers for when you’ve been away from home for too long. Our favorites in this category: Burma Superstar, Kamdesh, Stag’s Lunchette and FuseBox. Take Burma Superstar with its sticky sweet coconut rice as a bed for garlicky wok-tossed broccoli, heart-warming samusa soup, and of course the vibrant, earthy tea leaf salad. They add up to a bear hug of delight.

Sometimes you’re looking for a spirited exchange, that pal that will get you pumped up with a rousing HIGH FIVE—buzzy places with high energy, eclectic fare filled with power-packed flavors. See MUA, Ramen Shop and Juhu Beach Club for delivering this high-impact salute. Typically mac and cheese is so comforting that it can easily induce a food coma, but the cheese-less version at MUA is paired with great music, electric artwork, and great service that is something not to sleep on.

A KISS on the cheek, with romance, the mood is easy and suave: Hopscotch, Duende and Encuentro are a few gems in this category. In the case of Duende—a lovely double kiss from Espana—an attention to moody and vibrant colors and shapes throughout the space, and of course lovely paella, captures the heart.

A new chum extends a TWO-HANDED SHAKE, a fairly traditional, welcoming greeting. Each bite is an opportunity to connect, but well beyond the transactional. Our favorites here are B-Dama, Marrow, Southie, and Portal. The traditional messy lunch fare of patty melts, pastrami sandwiches and french fries are paired with a clean crisp white-walled dining space to make Marrow a locavore’s go-to for a meaty, or not-so-meaty, lunch.

Which ones have you tried recently? What’s your take: a bear hug, a limp handshake or a wet smooch? Check back for reviews and recommendations–like the perfect places to take your picky cousin who is hard of hearing on a Monday night!

Photo by protographer23, released under a CC-BY-NC-SA license: http://www.flickr.com/photos/protographer23/4940897776/.

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