City Series: Insider’s Guide to Lamorinda
Three towns in the East Bay hills—Lafayette, Moraga, and Orinda—offer delightful secrets and surprises.
Illustration by FagoStudio
Tucked in the rolling, scenic hills just east of the Caldecott Tunnel, the hamlets of Lafayette, Moraga, and Orinda provide small-town charm and sophisticated dining, entertainment, and shopping scenes. Each of these communities has its own unique personality and beloved attractions—and together they fuel the idyllic appeal of Lamorinda.
Diablo reached out to several Lamorinda-focused Facebook groups to ask residents for their favorite secrets about their community. Some were so surprising, we researched them to learn more. Here are the highlights.
Athletic Feats and Famous Folks
Diablo: Several readers noted that 49ers legend Joe Montana lived in Lafayette while his son attended De La Salle High School, and that Warriors announcer Jim Barnett resides in Orinda. Both teams have another tie to the area. As Bill Chan says: “The 49ers used to practice at Saint Mary’s College and frequent the Roundup [Saloon in Lafayette].” Daniel Tams adds: “The Warriors also practiced at Saint Mary’s back in the day.”
Helen Dinwiddie Stokes Nieber: “I grew up in [Lafayette’s] Happy Valley neighborhood in the 1940s and ’50s. Ansel Adams used to visit our neighbor, Cedric Wright, frequently. I remember sitting on Ansel’s lap while he played ‘Flight of the Bumblebee’ on the piano.”
Adrian Levy: “Lafayette was home to [Nobel Prize–winning chemist] Glenn T. Seaborg, who had an element named after him—element No. 106 on the periodic table.”
Larry Blodgett: “Moraga was once considered to be the home of the United Nations.”
Diablo: The original meeting of the United Nations took place at San Francisco’s War Memorial Opera House in 1945. Afterward, proposals were made to construct a permanent U.N. facility in Marin County, San Francisco’s Presidio, and Moraga Valley, which offered copious acreage for building among its pear orchards. But, as Wesley Hilton notes: “On November 22, 1946, a proposal to headquarter the United Nations in Moraga Valley was voted down.”
Levy: “When America hosted the World Cup [in 1994], the Swedish and Cameroonian teams stayed at the Lafayette Park Hotel while they practiced at Saint Mary’s College. The hotel took down the French flag when the teams stayed there and flew the Swedish and Cameroonian flags.”
Rock 'n' Roll Suburbs
Wendy Dahlstrom: “I used to live on Reliez Station Road in Lafayette, and Eddie Money was our neighbor. He used to have band practice on weekends; I would have a party and invite all the kids over when he did. Lafayette’s finest usually broke it up before it got too big.”
Katrina Schneider: “The Dead Kennedys played at Acalanes [High School] around ’84. They were booed by many of the students. The band was introduced as the Pink Twinkies. When word got out they were [actually punk legends], people were breaking in the upper-level windows of the small gym to see them.”
Cheryl MacDonald: “The [former] bass player for Journey, Ross Valory, went to Acalanes High.”
Jennifer Epps French: “The Grateful Dead once played at Campolindo High School.”
Diablo: The Grateful Dead played a gig at Moraga’s Campolindo High on May 16, 1969. Also on the bill was Frumious Bandersnatch, a local act that featured Valory on bass before he joined Journey.
The Dead have other, less positive connections to the region. In December 1967, the group’s audio engineer Owsley Stanley was arrested in Orinda while in possession of 350,000 doses of LSD. In 1990, the band’s keyboard player Brent Mydland died of a narcotic overdose in his Lafayette home.
Levy: “My favorite Lafayette secret is Pocket Park, at the west end of Mildred Lane. … It was put there to prevent developers from building on the adjacent hills. It’s possibly [one of] America’s smallest parks, with room for only one bench.”
Matt Price: “I’ve always loved the trail at the top of Bacon Way in Lafayette. There’s an odd cement platform about halfway along the trail. … I’ve learned that it was an old airmail navigation arrow.”
Lynn Andrzejczak: “There was a speakeasy behind the Lafayette Park Theater during Prohibition.”
Diablo: What goes around comes around. Lafayette restaurant the Coop opened a speakeasy lounge called 32 in January. Watch for performances by local legend Diamond Dave Hosley.
Jane Smith: “There’s an active waterfall on the [Lafayette-Moraga Regional Trail] most of the year.”
Chuck Helbush: “I grew up on Helen Lane. In the 1960s, we used to hike up to Lower Lake to fish.”
Jonathan Winchell: “Lafayette is a hidden gem because of its rich history of the Lafayette Reservoir.”
Chris Fisher: “[Roy Jacuzzi, inventor of the Jacuzzi whirlpool bath] was a member of the Orinda Country Club.”
Some responses have been edited or condensed for clarity.
Meet: Natalie Coughlin Hall
Elite swimmer Natalie Coughlin Hall—who has 12 Olympic medals—raises fruit, produce, and her young daughter, Zennie, in Lafayette. She recently wrote a cookbook (Cook to Thrive: Recipes to Fuel Body and Soul) and cofounded a Napa Valley winery (Gaderian Wines).
Q: After growing up in Vallejo and Concord, how did you choose Lafayette as your home?
A: I moved here in 2007; I was still training at Cal, and my husband, Ethan, works in Danville. Lafayette was a good spot in the middle, but we love it so much, we would never leave. Now that we have Zennie, we realize Lamorinda is so nice for young families. All the parks, playgrounds, and trails are incredible. When I was pregnant … I ran for exercise. The Lafayette Reservoir was my go-to spot.
Q: Your cookbook focuses on healthy recipes collected from your world travels. Do you cook with produce from your garden?
A: Oh, yes! One of my fruit trees gave me 40 pounds last year. I have chickens. I use it all. I worked with an incredible Lafayette designer, Stefani Bittner of Homestead Design Collective, to maximize the yard with edible landscape design. She did an amazing job.
Q: How did Gaderian Wines begin? And is the wine sold in the area?
A: My partner and winemaker, Shaina Harding, started it in 2017. Gaderian is an Old English word that means gather. I love the idea that food and wine make people gather. The wine is available at Diablo Foods in Lafayette.
Q: Several elite aquatic athletes hail from Lamorinda. Why is that?
A: We have so many great pools in the area—that helps. The summer rec leagues in this area are insane. … The talent, and the number of kids that participate in swim programs, is impressive.
Where to Eat
Lamorinda is loaded with dining options, from beloved breakfast joints, to hot new lunch spots, to white-tablecloth classics ideal for special occasions.
Start the Day Off Right
While there are plenty of fine dining establishments in Lamorinda, some of the area’s most popular eateries are casual breakfast joints. First on the must-try list is Lafayette’s Millie’s Kitchen, set in a former residence that became a cozy café in the 1970s. There’s always a long line on weekend mornings for Millie’s omelets and signature coffee cake. Another vintage charmer is Moraga’s Ranch House Cafe. This diner, located on a property that once housed an equestrian ranch, whips up comfort-food classics for breakfast, brunch, and lunch. Finally, the Village Inn Cafe in Orinda is perennially packed with regulars enjoying hearty portions of corned beef hash and eggs, fried chicken and waffles, and other down-home favorites. Don’t worry: Each of these diners offers an abundance of healthier options, too.
Let's Do Lunch
Of the many midday hot spots in Lafayette, Sideboard and Tutu’s Food and Drink boast charming interiors and patios where friends can share a meal. Both eateries focus on high-quality ingredients in their salads and entrées. Moraga’s Town Bakery and Cafe is another elegant-casual lunch restaurant specializing in baked goods, salads, and sandwiches.
In Orinda, Genuine Goodness offers afternoon tea, soups, salads, sandwiches, and smoothies. While the café is only open for lunch, it also sells take-and-bake dinners to go.
Back in the days of The Breakfast Club, sushi was only suitable for snobs. Today, you’ll find kids of all ages at sushi bars with their parents—and that’s a good thing. Lafayette’s Blue Gingko, Moraga’s Sushi Fighter, and Orinda’s Sushi Island are all outstanding, serving ultra-fresh fish and creative specialty rolls whose names reference local towns and sports teams.
Meet for Drinks
Canyon Club Brewery has been a game changer in sleepy Moraga since its opening last summer. The handsome beerhouse pours more than a dozen drafts, which are best enjoyed on the expansive patio, complete with firepits.
A much older pub is Lafayette’s Roundup Saloon, a time capsule bar that has been slinging shots since 1935. This is the spot for pool, shuffleboard, and live music. For good times with fine wine, Orinda’s Cine Cuvée taps into the movie-palace splendor of its neighbor, the Orinda Theatre. The wide-ranging wine list includes offerings from Hollywood talents turned winemakers, such as Francis Ford Coppola, Fess Parker, and Fred MacMurray.
Newer Kids on the Block
Thanks to its proximity to the freeway and BART, Lafayette continues to attract exciting dining concepts. Favorites that have opened in the past few years include the upscale French cuisine of Rêve Bistro and the Peruvian flavors of Barranco Cocina Peruana. Meanwhile, Batch and Brine and the recently launched Social Bird Kitchen and Bar are busy for lunch and dinner with their American fare and lively bar scenes. Noodle Theory, in Moraga, has made a splash with Asian-inspired ramen dishes. And Orinda Theatre Square—the retail and restaurant center surrounding the town’s historic cinema—is packed with dining options, with newer highlights like Saffron Indian Restaurant and Bar, as well as the Fourth Bore Tap Room and Grill, a popular pub with 28 beers on tap.
Two words explain why people have flocked to Orinda’s Casa Orinda for 88 years: fried chicken. The Casa’s chicken is second to none, although there are plenty of other favorites on this destination restaurant’s menu, including prime rib, veal chops, and classic Italian dishes. For upscale Italian fare and an elegant ambience, Lafayette’s Postino is an absolute treasure. Fun fact: This is where celebrity chef Cat Cora cut her teeth before achieving fame on TV’s Iron Chef. Moraga’s fine dining scene includes two Italian choices: Ristorante Amoroma and La Finestra Ristorante. Both have served Lamorinda for decades.
Check out these upcoming food and drink events in Lafayette, Moraga, and Orinda.
Taste of Lafayette
Revelers with a “taste passport” can stroll up and down Mount Diablo Boulevard, sampling food and drinks from more than 25 participating restaurants in this annual event organized by the Lafayette Chamber. The JPG@TheBank art gallery acts as the event’s bar, live music enhances the stroll, and a raffle benefits the Lafayette Community Foundation. May 19, lafayettechamber.org/taste.
Lafayette Art, Wine and Music Festival
This two-day festival boasts more than 300 booths displaying fine arts, as well as arts and crafts; the work of local artists is featured in La Fiesta Square. Wine, beer, and food from at least 30 vendors are available, while live music plays on three stages throughout the popular event. There are rides for kids, too. September 26–27, lafayettefestival.org.
Art of Mixology
Bartenders from all around the East Bay bring their special drink recipes to Orinda Theatre Square for this craft-cocktail competition, which serves as the Lamorinda Arts Council’s biggest fundraiser of the year. October 3, lamorindaarts.org/mixology.
Moraga Pear and Wine Festival
A celebration of Moraga’s pear-growing heritage, this event is held at Moraga Commons Park each fall. Pear-recipe contests see adults and kids competing in separate divisions, with prizes for the best-tasting entries. October 3, moragarec.com.
Out and About
Don’t let their sleepy suburban appearances fool you: Lafayette, Moraga, and Orinda have plenty of cultural attractions and outdoor recreation offerings for everyone.
All the World's a Stage
Fans of live entertainment have a range of choices throughout Lamorinda. In Lafayette, the Town Hall Theatre Company stages dramatic productions year-round, with music and comedy shows filling the hall for one-night engagements. Each June, Lafayette’s Plaza Park hosts a free weekly concert series called Rock the Plaza. In Orinda, California Shakespeare Theater’s Bruns Amphitheater is the Bay Area’s best venue for watching the Bard’s masterworks. (Sadly, the 2020 season has been cancelled due to COVID-19.) Live at the Orinda concerts bring top jazz and Broadway performers to the Orinda Theatre’s intimate auditorium. And locals flock to free summer concerts in Moraga Commons Park.
The region’s visual arts scene is thriving, thanks in part to the Lamorinda Arts Council, which recently launched Orinda’s Art Gallery at Wilder. (It also operates the Art Gallery at the Orinda Library.) In Moraga, the vaunted Saint Mary’s College Museum of Art has an extensive collection of paintings, photography, and prints, and mounts temporary exhibitions, too. Meanwhile, the Moraga Art Gallery highlights local artists. Jennifer Perlmutter Gallery in Lafayette showcases paintings, sculptures, and mixed-media works. Perlmutter also runs JPG@TheBank, a pop-up art space in a repurposed Lafayette bank that hosts interactive installations and community events.
Children Making Music
While many public schools have cut back on music education, Lafayette’s remarkable Stanley Middle School jazz program is thriving. Its music director, Bob Athayde, and his son, jazz curriculum director Kyle Athayde, organize a weeklong jazz workshop for middle, high school, and college students (as well as adults) each summer. This year’s Lafayette Summer Music Jazz Workshop takes place July 19 through 24.
Fifty years ago, many towns in the United States had their own neighborhood cinemas. Over the decades, however, most were torn down in favor of shopping malls and multiplexes. All three of Lamorinda’s art deco cinemas are still standing, with the Orinda Theatre and Moraga’s Rheem Theatre screening films seven days a week. Lafayette’s Park Theater has been dark since 2005, but there is a movement to reopen it. In the meantime, its vintage marquee is often used for birthday greetings and prom proposals.
Hit the Trails
Lamorinda teems with fabulous trails that offer biking, hiking, and walking opportunities to outdoor enthusiasts. The Lafayette-Moraga Regional Trail is a paved path that’s perfect for cyclists, runners, and equestrians. Once used by mule trains to carry redwood from Oakland to Sacramento, the trail boasts plenty of shaded coverage over 7.65 mostly flat miles.
Hikers should bookmark the Undiscovered Hikes of Lamorinda web page—a carefully researched guide to more than 20 hikes in the region’s parks and open spaces. Routes are explained in detail, and visitors can discover many natural gems, such as Orinda’s Sibley Volcanic Regional Preserve, a protected remnant from a 10 million–year-old volcano. Once you find the preserve, look for the large labyrinth in the volcanic pit, created by sculptor and psychic Helena Mazzariello in 1990.
The go-to spot for walkers and hikers of all abilities (including those riding along in strollers) is the Lafayette Reservoir. Its popular Lakeside Trail provides a 2.7-mile flat, paved path around the scenic reservoir, while the more challenging Rim Trail has 4.7 miles of hill trails with gorgeous panoramic views. The park also rents rowboats, pedal boats, kayaks, and fishing equipment.
Get Your Game On
The Lafayette Rink at the Lafayette Community Center appeals to in-line skaters and hockey players, as well as pickleball and basketball players. The city organizes games and leagues, and the rink can be rented for parties and private tournaments. When it’s not booked, it’s available for free public use.
Ultimate Frisbee fanatics come from near and far to play the challenging nine-hole disc-golf course at Moraga Commons Park. The park also features bocce and basketball courts, sand volleyball, and a skate park. For young athletes hoping to become the next Buster Posey, Bay Area Ballplayers in Moraga is an indoor training gym with batting cages, soccer and lacrosse equipment, weights, and a range of instruction options.
Lafayette’s La Fiesta Square is brimming with clothing boutiques (Chico’s, Harper Greer, J. McLaughlin) and home-style shops (Luxe Home by Douglah Designs; Clocks, Etc.; Sugi Fine Bedding and Gifts). Across the street, a historic building houses Farmyard Darlings—a country-chic vintage and custom home-wares outfit that would make Fixer Upper’s Joanna Gaines proud.
Mount Diablo Boulevard, Lafayette’s main drag, is similarly stuffed with shops. Upscale clothing boutiques (Jos. A. Bank, Patrizia Marrone, Venture Quality Goods) can be found between restaurants, salons, and spas. Nearby, on Oak Hill Road, is the chic home-furnishings outfit Indigo and Poppy. At the west end of the boulevard, the expertly curated garden center Orchard Nursery has a charming gift shop, Lazy K, on its expansive grounds.
Moraga’s shopping options are found in two centers. Rheem Valley Shopping Center has a T.J. Maxx situated near its post office, cafés, and cinema. Nearby is the Moraga Shopping Center, which hosts a McCaulou’s department store—a local chain with outposts in Lafayette, Moraga, and Orinda.
Just north of Highway 24, Orinda’s Orinda Way is a treasure trove of antiques shops, such as Orinda Village Antiques, and designer consignment boutiques including the fashion destinations Cheryl’s Closet and Rechic 101 and the home-decor favorite Hilton House Consign and Design.
Lafayette’s Myara boutique stocks fancy dresses for girls ages 3 months to 14 years, while Whimsy Kidz sells cute, casual children’s clothes and gifts. Bel and Bunna’s Books in Lafayette is a fantastic kids’ bookstore, while Orinda Books has a generous young-readers section, as well. Toy lovers should visit Lafayette’s Learning Express Toys and Orinda’s Sweet Dreams. Both offer an array of educational toys and games; the latter is a massive toy store filled with action figures, stuffed animals, and classic board games.