Let’s Do Lunch
Diablo’s ultimate guide to lunching in the East Bay.
Tired of the same old, same old? From bibimbap and sesame noodle salad to lobster chowder and a $15 burger, here are our best bets to satisfy all your midday food cravings. Scroll down; it’s time for lunch!
We put the ol’ three-martini lunch to the test.
The livers of those ad execs in Mad Men must be made of steel, I conclude, as I stare down at my third martini. I also may have slurred it to my boyfriend, my designated driver, since by this point I’m feeling pretty tipsy. I’m at the Brass Door in San Ramon, trying to see whether the three-martini lunch, a popular fixture in the ’50s and ’60s, is still feasible. The Brass Door is the ideal location for attempting the midday feat since not much has changed since it opened in 1955.
My first gin martini only takes 15 minutes and a Caesar salad to finish. But my enthusiasm wanes as lunch stretches into an hour. I force myself to down what remains of my second drink, as I hack away at my steak. Things have taken a turn for the worse: Drinking is now a chore, and I have to give myself a pep talk before bringing the third glass to my mouth. I struggle through to the last drop and sign the $50 tab. The three-martini lunch ain’t cheap.
Back at work, I wonder if a cloud of gin vapors follows me around like Pig-Pen’s dirt cloud in Peanuts. I squint to read the tiny text that marches like ants across my computer screen. I feel a headache creeping up the back of my skull, as I struggle to shove a folder into my file cabinet. I need a secretary or a nap—or both. In the days of long, leisurely lunches spent buttering up potential clients, three-martini lunches may have made sense. Now, they’re best left for drinkers with free time on their hands and no deadlines to hit. Can I have my Advil now?
2154 San Ramon Valley Blvd., San Ramon, (925) 837-2501, brassdoor.com.
Eateries to expand your culinary horizons.
Miss Ollie’s | Oakland
Named after the grandmother of Barbados-raised chef-owner Sarah Kirnon, Miss Ollie’s offers Caribbean fare rarely seen on the West Coast: stewed oxtail, salt fish and ackee fruit, fish blaff stew, and “doubles” (flat fried bread filled with curried chickpeas). Kirnon elevates each dish without losing its soul—all while keeping the vibe cool and the prices low.
901 Washington St., (510) 285-6188, missolliesoakland.com.
Thai Street Food
Baan Lanna | Livermore
Lanna Thai has built a devoted fan base with chef-owner Prakin Gamble’s fiery brand of southern Thai food: The chile–heavy curries and noodles will clear your sinuses. Recently, Gamble debuted Baan Lanna next door, serving up more home style Thai street food, such as kao mun gai tod, deep-fried chicken on garlic chicken broth–infused rice.
2270 Las Positas Rd., (925) 443-1101, lannathailivermore.com.
Mixed Grain | Walnut Creek
With sister restaurants in Dublin and Oakland, this new Walnut Creek eatery is already known for its überauthentic, comforting Korean fare. Whether offering the bibimbap served crackling in a red-hot stone bowl; spicy, fire-engine red tofu stew; or the myriad pickled and fermented banchan sides, Mixed Grain serves up a true feast for the senses.
1546 Bonanza St., (925) 938-5959, mixedgrain.com.
These 10 sandwich favorites draw lines out the door.
Chicken Salad Sandwich
A Sweet Affair
Cream cheese and cashews? Yup. That’s the magic in this house-roasted chicken salad, avocado, sprouts, and lettuce sandwich on made-from-scratch bread.
190 Hartz Ave., Ste. 150, Danville, (925) 837-1911; 1815 Ygnacio Valley Rd., Ste. F, Walnut Creek, (925) 944-1910, sweetaffairbakery.com.
The Ariana Sandwich
Brass Bear Deli
Fresh turkey, Havarti, avocado, and pesto aioli on rosemary focaccia bread, named for the owner’s granddaughter.
190-E Alamo Plaza, Alamo, (925) 820-4698; 1506 N. Main St., Walnut Creek, (925) 954-7485, brassbeardeli.com.
Pollo e Pancetta
Served in the café of this deli-café, the pollo is a weekly special that features roasted chicken, Havarti, Molinari pan-cetta, and house-made roasted red pepper mayo on sourdough or Italian.
682 Hartz Ave., Danville, (925) 837-8301, domenicosdeli.com.
Piled on sliced nine-grain wheat bread, this turkey, avocado, and sprouts sandwich comes together with Erik’s “secret goo” (a smoky, spicy mayo).
Dublin, Pleasanton, and San Ramon, eriksdelicafe.com.
The turkey at President Clinton’s favorite East Bay deli is roasted fresh on-site, every day, then cradled into artisan rolls.
Two Walnut Creek locations: 2064 Treat Blvd., (925) 938-2888; 1105 S. California Blvd., (925) 939-3838, genovadeli.net.
Chicken Salad Sandwich
Chicken salad is often heavy on mayo, but at Gimanelli’s, it’s light and flavorful, studded with honey, almonds, and red peppers, and tucked in a roll or pita.
915 Main St., Pleasanton, (925) 846-0835, gimanelli.com.
Famous Ball Tip Steak Sandwich
Kinder’s award-winning barbecue sauce is what makes this thinly sliced, marinated ball tip meat sandwich.
Multiple East Bay locations, kindersbbq.com.
The Matt Cain
The trio of meats (turkey, roast beef, salami) raises the bar; then the Ike’s creamy mustard Godfather sauce puts it over the top.
21 Railroad Ave., Danville, (925) 820-9500; 2204 Broadway, Oakland, (510) 338-6789; coming soon to Walnut Creek, ikeslair.com.
The ciabatta bread is what draws crowds for this thinly sliced turkey, roasted red bell pepper, tomato, basil, fresh mozzarella, and pesto sandwich.
1218 Boulevard Way, Walnut Creek, (925) 939-2426.
The Mr. Pickle
This eponymous specialty is a hot chicken breast topped with bacon, avocado, and melty Jack cheese. Order it on a fresh Dutch crunch roll, and add the house garlic sauce for extra zip.
Dublin, Livermore, Pleasanton, and San Ramon; coming soon to Walnut Creek; mrpicklesinc.com.
A budget-busting lunch—that’s worth every bite.
Surf and Turf Trio
NM Cafe at Neiman Marcus
Taken one at a time, each item in NM Cafe’s surf and turf trio would be a treat—decadently rich and creamy lobster chowder; a butter-tender steak slider cooked to order with a zippy side of horseradish aioli; a lobster salad roll that tastes like it was flown in, first-class, from the New England shoreline. But put them all together on a plate, preceded by a complimentary shot of pristine consommé and one of Neiman’s airy popovers (served with strawberry butter, of course), and you’ve got a $23 lunch dish worth the splurge. Hey, you can brown-bag it tomorrow. And maybe the next day...
1000 S. Main St., Walnut Creek, neimanmarcus.com.
Quick and delicious? Four spots passed our time trial.
0:00 In line behind a couple who both order pork tenders (tip noted) then linger awkwardly, unsure whether to wait for the food or find a table. I drool over the dessert case.
3:35 Told to pay later, the couple head off, and I order those pork tenders. And a triple-chocolate mousse.
9:57 I take in the scene: Most tables full, chatter echoes off the sparsely decorated walls of the dining room.
12:52 Entrée arrives. I cut into a slice of garlic and rosemary crusted pork tenderloin. It’s juicy-tender with a blush of pink in the center.
22:43 As I take the last bite of the accompanying potatoes, my mousse appears discretely on the table. It’s stunning, caged in dripped chocolate. I have time.
26:21 Half of my mousse boxed to go, I return to the counter, noting house-made granola and scone mix for sale, and close my tab.
2211-B San Ramon Valley Blvd., (925) 837-2886, cafeattila.com.
0:00 Customers in front of me insist on asking every single possible question about the menu. Cashier looks at me apologetically as I check my phone.
3:45 Finally place my order: one salmon skewer plate and sour cherry drink.
5:53 Grab a seat and am greeted with a complimentary cucumber plate and my drink. Ravenously dip cucumbers in the provided salt while hoping that painfully slow couple get their food at a painfully slow pace.
7:07 Cucumbers are gone. I nervously eye the open kitchen.
13:32 Meal arrives, complete with three light vegetable-based sides, fresh baked pita, salad, and juicy salmon skewer. I slide the fish off the skewer and rip into the pita.
19:45 Greasy fingers aside, there’s not much left of my meal. I leave full but not overstuffed.
1550 Olympic Blvd., (925) 932-4872, citragrill.com.
Shish Kabab Show
0:00 A rack of spicy shawarma looks enticing at the counter of this cozy slice of Tel Aviv in Lamorinda. But as I scan the chalkboard menu, my eyes stop on schnitzel.
0:45 Manager invites me to sit and take my time ordering, not realizing I’m timing this. “Schnitzel!” I exclaim.
1:30 My Coke arrives as another customer orders lamb chops to go, asking how long they will take. Eight minutes. Not bad.
6:58 My schnitzel arrives, crispy on the outside, tender on the inside, served with rice, hummus, and pita bread. It is delicious. I destroy it.
15:25 I finish but have to wait to pay the check because Mr. Lamb Chops is ahead of me. Server offers a dessert menu listing housemade baklava and something called a chocolate dome. Not today.
19:18 Out the door.
376 Park St., (925) 388-0351, shishkababshow.com.
0:00 Yikes. The complicated menu lets diners choose between eight different house-made raviolis and seven sauces. Ditto for fresh pastas. Oh, and there’s also polenta, meat entrées, salads, sandwiches, soups, pizzas, and calzones. Too… many… choices…
6:24 Service is Norman Rockwell–level nice, but it took six minutes to decipher the menu and order. I went with the namesake raviolis, half mushroom and half artichoke. Bolognese sauce for an additional $3? Nah, let’s do the marinara for free. Complimentary focaccia bread? Yes, please.
16:30 Food has arrived! Raviolis are fresh, flavorful—in particular the mushroom. I also gobbled up all my focaccia (Dr. Atkins is rolling over in his grave).
23:46 My fork is down with minutes to spare. Nice. I relax and start eyeing the packaged raviolis in the marketplace to take home for an easy dinner…
2151 Salvio St., Ste. I, (925) 689-3819, raviolismarket.com.
The diablo editors dish on their east bay salad cravings.
Sesame Noodle Salad With Grilled Prawns
It’s got the crunch (toasted cashews and fried shallots), the zest (citrusy cabbage), the savory (sesame-soy dressing), and the comfort factor (sesame noodles and plump grilled prawns) to steer me away from the temptation of Bridge’s Rolls-Royce burger. Well, most of the time…
44 Church St., Danville, (925) 820-7200, bridgesdanville.com.
Spring Chopped Salad
I’m a fan of the gourmet thin crust, but my visits ramp up around March through May—for the salad. The spring chopped selection features romaine lettuce, wine-cured salami, sun-dried tomatoes, croutons, and avocado tossed in a zippy red wine vinaigrette with fresh basil. It’s so flavorful and satisfying, I don’t even miss the pizza.
3600 Mt. Diablo Blvd., Lafayette, (925) 299-0500, pizzaantica.com.
Southern Fried Chicken Salad
I once took an interview subject to lunch at Lark Creek Walnut Creek, and we both ordered the Southern fried chicken salad, then spent most of the interview talking about how amazing it was. Perfectly fried breast strips are laid on a bed of fresh, leafy greens and garnished with pickled beets and hearty hunks of Shaft’s bleu cheese.
1360 Locust St., Walnut Creek, (925) 256-1234, larkcreek.com/walnut_creek.
Spicy Barbecue Chicken Salad
I’d choose garlic fries over a salad any day, unless it’s this best-seller. The breaded pieces of chicken—tossed in a house-made honey barbecue glaze and served with black beans, corn, pico de gallo, avocado, and Jack and cheddar—are so good, the salad doesn’t even need dressing.
3015 Hopyard Rd., Pleasanton, (925) 426-9600; 470 Market Pl., San Ramon, (925) 277-9600, hopyard.com.
#12 Grilled Chicken Breast Salad
All you really need to know are the ingredients: freshly grilled chicken, avocado, applewood-smoked bacon, Point Reyes blue cheese, and balsamic vinaigrette. Oh, and some greens. Chances are good you’ll see this order on every table.
411 Hartz Ave., Danville, (925) 984-2713, sideboarddanville.com.
Walnut Creek’s locust street salad spots go head-to-head.
Lettuce // Joe Budd
Number game: 14 signature salads, plus an endless array of make-your-own combinations. Sets you back: $7.95–$11.95. Go green: Produce is organic when possible and frequently comes from the Danville and Walnut Creek farmers markets. Grill talk: Sorry, red meat fans. You have the option of smoked or grilled salmon, grilled rosemary chicken, shrimp, herb-crusted ahi, or bacon. It’s polite to stare: With the assembly line setup, you see every ingredient that goes into the salad. Gender breakdown: The fellas are easy to spot in a sea of women in business casual. You’ll count eight guys, tops. Grab a chair: If you go during the lunch rush, be prepared to swoop on a table as soon as it’s vacated. Final touches: Grab a crisped-to-order crème brûlée and glass of complimentary spa water flavored with sliced fruit. Chain status: Lettuce is the only one of its kind.
1632 Locust St., (925) 933-5600, lettuce1.net.
Tender Greens // Erika Pino
Number game: 18 salads—12 loaded versions and six with less than three ingredients. Sets you back: $6–$11. Go green: Offerings include exotic lettuces such as tatsoi and mizuna, and come from Scarborough Farms or local farmers. Grill talk: Hot-off-the-grill proteins include marinated steak, chipotle barbecue chicken, and herb-brushed albacore. It’s polite to stare: The open kitchen lets you peruse ingredients, but the crowd will keep you moving. Gender mix: While the majority have two X chromosomes, plenty of guys have infiltrated this ladies’ club. Grab a chair: With tables, booths, communal tables, and an outdoor patio, seating is easy. Final touches: Just try to resist the house-made pastries, like salted white chocolate oatmeal cookies and vegan banana brownies. Chain status: It’s the only East Bay location, but there are nine statewide.
1352 Locust St., (925) 937-5100, tendergreensfood.com.
It was almost too close to call. Lettuce throws a one-two punch for local sourcing and non-chain status, but T.G. ekes out a win with its grilled meats, flaky pastries, and ample seating. Move to a bigger spot, Lettuce, then we’ll talk rematch.
A burger above the rest, and where the CEOs go.
Anatomy of a $15 Burger
The rosemary potato bun, baked on-site, is delicately soft save for the inner walls, which are lightly grilled. The beef is a mix of chuck and brisket, ground in house daily, and grilled to order, topped with year-aged white cheddar. House-pickled onions are served on the side, along with vine-ripened tomatoes and Little Gem lettuce. A side of fries is nice, but I prefer the crisp Aleppo pepper–seasoned house-made potato chips.
1342 Broadway Plaza, Walnut Creek, (925) 948-8711, cornerstavern.com.
Eat Like a CEO
Left: Courtesy of Joe Kennedy, Right: Ed Anderson
Seal the deal:
“Ozumo is a great Japanese restaurant with a formal touch. Get the spectacular sushi rolls, or its signature dish, Gindara [sweet miso- and sake-marinated black cod].”
2251 Broadway, Oakland, (510) 286-9866, ozumooakland.com.
“My go-to dish is the salmon steak on green beans, and I order a special off-the-menu combination of spinach and eggplant.”
59 Grand Ave., Oakland, (510) 465-4600, vosrestaurant.com.
Left: Courtesy of Rick Welts, Right: Cedric Glasier
Golden State Warriors
Seal the deal:
“Just took one of our players to a meeting there with some executives from Adidas last week. Outstanding Southern cooking.”
2295 Broadway, Oakland, (510) 834-1000, picanrestaurant.com.
“Faz is right across from the Warriors’ downtown offices. Unique food with a Mediterranean flair. Whatever the special with fresh salmon, that’s what I'm ordering.”
1111 Broadway, Oakland, (510) 272-1111, fazrestaurants.com.
Left: Courtesy of Mark Mastrov, Right: Ed Anderson
New Evolution Fitness
Seal the deal:
“That’s where I went when I had lunch with [Governor] Jerry Brown. The team there is great. I love the chopped salad, the fish tacos, and the chicken sandwich.”
3524 Mt. Diablo Blvd., Lafayette, (925) 284-4422, metrolafayette.com.
Patxis Chicago Pizza
“For something quick, I go to Patxi’s for a lunch salad and a slice of deep dish. It’s quick service and good people.”
3577 Mt. Diablo
Blvd., Lafayette, (925) 299-0700, patxispizza.com.