Forget the cardboard box & that weird mutant orange powder in the pouch from our youth (whatever it really was!) and let’s get serious. There’s something special about breaking into a real baked cheese crust to find noodles swimming in even more cheese. For real deal delectable twists on this culinary mainstay — including a gluten-free  option for the food allergic — look no further than our own top picks on where to find the most delectable and creative comfort food for your fam.

San Francisco

Blue Plate
Tucked into the Mission at Valencia Street, this is a casual neighborhood spot where friends and neighbors can enjoy family meals with a choice of dining inside or out seated in the charming backyard garden. The mac & cheese here is served bubbling hot in a terra cotta cazuela. Chef Cory Obenour’s Macaroni and “Drunken” Goat Cheese recipe for Blue Plate is so spot-on that it hasn’t changed in the 13 years it’s been on the menu!

3218 Mission Street
San Francisco, Ca
415-282-6777
Online: blueplatesf.com

Mission Cheese
With a name like this, you already know they’re serious about their mac & cheese! Part cheese shoppe and part restaurant, owner Sara Dvorak loves this delicacy, so leave it to her to come up with the most balanced flavor profiles possible. Your little gourmands will devour the comfort food here. It’s baked to order with buttery Della Fattoria bread crumbs and served in a small cast iron – so careful of the heat when it first hits your table.

Insider Tip: Be certain to get there early in the day, because this dish sells out.

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736 Valencia Street
San Francisco, Ca
415-553-8667
Online: missioncheese.net

North Bay

Nick’s Cove
Nestled into West Marin, it’s definitely a hidden gem of a restaurant. Nick’s is well worth the long drive for their epic out-of-this-world Dungeness Crab Mac & Cheese. The scenic road trip ends with a crustacean celebration of sweet local hunks of fresh crab tossed lovingly into gooey mac n’ you-know-what for the ultimate decadent take on the homey favorite. This is the stuff legends are made of, and families travel from a heckuva lot farther for this beloved classic, so thank your lucky stars you live in the Bay Area!

Insider Tip: Nick reminds you to gas up (and empty little bladders) before you head out! It’s 30 minutes to the nearest filling station.

23240 Highway 1
Marshall, Ca
866-63-NICKS
Online: nickscove.com

Wild Fox Mesquite Fried Chicken
Oh boy: Alfredo Mac & Cheese. This contemporary, droolworthy take on the classic will make you swoon with its creamy goodness. The restaurant’s ambiance is very fun and rustic, and the outside eating space has a gorgeous stone fireplace. Because it’s spacious and large, Wild Fox is a completely family-friendly place and excellent for large birthday or celebration gatherings. Plus, on Sundays, they offer bottomless Mimosas to thirsty moms and dads to wash down the perfectly al dente pasta here.

225 Alameda Del Prado
Novato, Ca
415-883-9125
Online: wildfoxrestaurant.com

Peninsula

Bistro Elan
Macaroni “Gratin” is the name of the game here. Chef-owner Ambjorn Lindskog’s version is well known around the South Bay as being sublimely “extra cheesy,” which is great news to us. With room for only 20 seats indoors, the restaurant spills out onto the sidewalk, but the outdoor dining on Birch Street is pleasant, the street is quiet, and heat lamps provide toasty warmth for your family.

2363 Birch Street
Palo Alto, Ca
650-327-0284
Online: bistroelan.com

Peninsula Creamery Dairy Store & Grill
We’re still dreaming of this delightful version with crunchy, giant croutons baked onto the top. Back in the day, Palo Alto locals purchased their fresh milk, ice cream, and dairy from the Peninsula Creamery, which also offered home delivery. Operating nearly 60 trucks at its peak, this company was known for reliable and friendly service. For many years, the Peninsula Creamery was also the sole supplier of dairy and ice cream products for Stanford University, as well as the local high schools. There’s tons of rich, local history here, and a long-standing track record of making young people happy with their food.

900 High Street
Palo Alto, Ca
650-323-3175
Online: peninsulacreamery.com

East Bay

Homeroom
If you take your mac seriously, then load everybody up into the car and head over to Homeroom in Oakland, a restaurant that actually specializes in the dish! Here, they’re  fond of one very familiar, traditional version: those big ol, ridged elbow noodles just dripping with aged cheddar and a little pecorino. But their biggest seller is actually their “Gilroy Mac.” They make it with just the right amount of roasted garlic butter and combine it with incredibly rich gouda and pecorino so it doesn’t overpower small palates.  If you’re a mac and cheese addict, you will find true love here. Not surprisingly, there are gluten-free macaroni options too, some of the menu mainstays. So celiac sufferers can safely dig in with gusto!

Insider Tip: Try the “Trailer Mac,” old-fashioned cheddar mac with sliced all-beef hot dogs AND potato chips crumbled on top.

400 40th Street
Oakland, Ca
510-597-0400
Online: homeroom510.com

What’s your choice spot for mac and cheese in the Bay? Tell us below!

— Mireille Schwartz

In descending order, photos courtesy of  Lehigh Valley (Flickr), Q Restaurant website, Rooey 202 (Flickr), Wootang01 (Flickr).