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Comfort Food Done Right

Bold flavors and an easy vibe make Lafayette’s Rustic Tavern an instant hit.


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Photography by Mitch Tobias

Natural redwood and a woman’s smile reflect in sparkling ceiling-high mirrors. A guy drapes his lap with a white linen napkin. The dining room bustles. The patio blooms.

At every turn, Rustic Tavern melds masculine with the feminine.

A strapping chef and his lovely wife—owners Gary and Tressa Rust—reflect the refined Americana that is Rustic Tavern. Luckily for us, they made this restaurant happen. Gary had been getting home at 1 a.m. from  One Market in San Francisco—unable to spend much time with their two young children. Family life just wasn’t working.

“Either we’re moving to Hawaii or opening a restaurant,” Tressa told Gary. Days later, a Lafayette location opened up, and soon they were ready for business. The islands would have to wait.

The Rusts and third partner Chris Amsden are still reeling from how quickly an unformed concept and loose partnership jelled. “We were like, ‘Wow, how did this even happen?’” says Amsden. Now, Gary’s in the kitchen, Tressa works the front, and Amsden mans the bar.
 

Left: Owners Gary and Tressa Rust, Right: Partner Chris Amsden
 

The trio worked together at Lark Creek Walnut Creek 17 years ago and toyed with the idea of opening a restaurant ever since. But it wasn’t until this year that the talk turned serious.

Gary’s food shows the no-nonsense finesse he developed working at Yankee Pier, One Market, and Lark Creek.

Crab cakes—the meat picked from crabs cooked and cracked in-house—are so light and fragile it’s a wonder they don’t collapse in the pan. A tastes-too-good-to-be-healthful kale salad comes flocked with Feta and tangerines. And—as if you’re on the frontier—the lemon cheesecake arrives in a Mason jar (sporting a quinoa and almond crust).

Seasonality and morality (sustainable products, no factory farming) are a lifestyle for the Rusts and their kids. So each plate highlights clean flavors and quality ingredients. And the kids’ menu, including grilled cheese and a PB&J with fries or a salad, is only $5.

For grown-ups, the grilled grass-fed New York steak is simply the best on the market—its rosy hue improbably uniform throughout. A crackly-skinned chicken breast, chickpeas, spicy house-made sausage, and rapini are presented as distinct elements—a potpourri of flavors. All meats are enhanced by a tablespoon or two of rich, flavorful jus.

Rustic Tavern was an instant hit. Lafayette has a wealth of restaurants—romantic, affordable, and sophisticated—but the tavern fills a niche with its classy, comfortable, and community-spirited sensibility. The dizzying pace of the restaurant and tiny kitchen keep the menu tight: six entrées, six starters, and three desserts. The dining room is loud but sound baffles are on the way. We counted three high chairs and a couple of families, including one celebrating a birthday at the gorgeous farmers table—constructed by Gary and his brother.
 


 

Rustic Tavern, however, is also designed for date night. A pint of local Trumer Pils seems like the right choice here, especially at the handsome granite bar. Tressa’s wine list—featuring two dozen bottles from California and a handful of imported “Rustic Reds”—is well matched to the locally inspired American menu. But temptation lurks in the signature cocktail list designed by local mixologist Manny Hinojosa. (Check out the Rustic Collins with St. Germain bourbon and fresh grapefruit.)

There were a couple of disappointments. Our grilled pork chop was dry, but quickly replaced. The “cheesecake” was as loose as yogurt. And our server and bartender seemed preoccupied one night, lacking presence even when the bustle subsided. Although Rustic Tavern was finding its rhythm in the opening weeks, there’s little doubt it has legs.

The new owners bring light and energy to a location known for quick turnover. The space that became available to the Rusts so fortuitously also happens to be right next to Collector’s Choice Antiques— a circa–1930 Philco anchoring the shared foyer. Amsden is a bit of a collector himself and has brought in antique water pitchers and mix-and-match coffee cups. A vintage hutch and rusty knickknacks on the wall add to the rustic vibe.

But the bottom line here is the food: Gary is a master of combining sweet, salty, bitter, and tart, with crisp textures and a rich mouthfeel. You never get bored with a dish. For example, just bite into a thin rye toast topped with sweet fennel slaw, rich crème fraîche, briny capers, and shavings of perfumed house-cured salmon. It explodes in your mouth—a mini version of the thrill of having this new restaurant burst onto the scene.


At a Glance

What makes it special: A masculine yet graceful restaurant with food to match. The space: Lots of reclaimed wood and vintage furniture, big mirrors, and a tall glass front. When to go: Come early, late, or at the beginning of the week to avoid an overly loud dining room. What to order at lunch: The irresistible BBQ bacon-cheddar Niman Ranch burger. Bonus: A full menu is served between lunch and dinner.


 

Contact: 3576 Mt. Diablo Blvd., Lafayette, (925) 385-0559, rustictavernlafayette.com. Hours: Lunch and dinner Tues.–Sun. Price: Appetizers $9–$16, entrées $18–$28. Alcohol: Full bar.

 

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