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Name That Trend

As restaurant labels change, so do our tastes.


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James Syhabout calls his new Oakland restaurant, Box and Bells, an “eating house”—an echo of the English public houses, establishments dating back centuries. Syhabout, the East Bay’s only Michelin-starred chef, serves the kind of meaty dishes one might expect of an old pub: country ham, bone marrow, and blood pudding, to name a few.

How times have changed. In the ’70s, restaurants began calling themselves cafés, doing away with buttoned-up waiters and generic Continental cuisine (à la shrimp cocktail and fettuccine Alfredo). Cafés felt more contemporary and convivial, and the food became lighter as California cuisine took hold.

Colorful relishes displaced dark sauces, and grilled fish supplanted limp sole amandine. As with Chez Panisse Café, cafés still have a niche, connoting a small neighborhood restaurant. (Witness how Cafe Esin in San Ramon became known simply as Esin when Curtis and Esin deCarion made the move to grander environs in Danville.)

In this past decade, as rustic American cuisine caught our imagination, restaurants became taverns, tables, and kitchens.

60s
Restaurants
Staid and predictable

70s
Cafes
Quaint and convivial

80s
Grills
Professional without pretense

90s
Bistros
Relaxed and contemporary

00s
Taverns
Rustic and friendly

10s
Gastropubs
Innovative yet familiar

In the ’80s, grills (or grilles) and bar and grills became popular. Grills built on the lively atmosphere of a café while reinterpreting the menu of a formal steak house. Pioneering restaurants such as Santa Fe Bar and Grill in Berkeley led the way.

In the ’90s, bistros entered the scene—and created a scene—with lusty food and a bustling atmosphere. At first, the word bistro implied country French food, but by the turn of the century, it became ubiquitous—suitable for any relaxed yet contemporary restaurant—and often featured apron-clad servers. (In 2000, Pleasant Hill’s Left Bank rebranded the French feel by calling itself a brasserie.)

In the past decade, as rustic American cuisine caught our imagination, restaurants became taverns, tables, and kitchens. Oakland’s Wood Tavern sparked the trend in 2007. Mill Valley’s Lark Creek Inn became The Tavern at Lark Creek in 2009. Then, Corners Tavern opened in Walnut Creek and Rustic Tavern in Lafayette. New in Danville is Revel Kitchen and Bar, a “neighborhood tavern” by the folks who brought us Esin.

Lately, as libations go fully center stage, we’re seeing a craze for wine bars, bourbon bars, brewpubs, and gastropubs. So it seems we’re back to pubs and public houses. To wit, lauded chef Traci Des Jardins has opened Public House by AT&T Park.

What’s up next? Well, don’t be surprised if “restaurant” is the next big thing.

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