Diablo Food Awards
The votes are in, and the hottest places to grab the most inspiring bites in the East Bay are inside!
Photography by Cody Pickens
We at Diablo spend all year waiting for this moment: when we stack the plates and count the votes to pick our Food Award winners. With the bounty of amazing restaurants in the East Bay, it can be tough, even for our discerning staff, to decide which is best. So, we polled you, our readers, for your favorites, and then we brought in some of the finest foodies in the Bay Area, including Narsai David and Mollie Katzen, to whittle down your fave 14 to our top seven winners (CLICK HERE to read about the runners up). Now, open up your menu, and pass the wine because it’s time to dine.
Lynne Char Bennett, food and wine writer, San Francisco Chronicle.
Gene Burns, host, KGO radio’s Dining Around.
Dorothy Calimeris, food writer and chef.
Linda Carucci, director, the International Culinary School at the Art Institute of California—San Francisco.
Narsai David, food personality, KCBS radio.
Meesha Halm, editor, Bay Area Zagat survey.
Sara Hare, food and wine writer, Travel + Leisure, Bon Appetit, and Wine Spectator.
Michaela Jarvis, editor of Napa Sonoma, Diablo editor at large.
Mollie Katzen, best-selling cookbook author.
Liam Mayclem, host, CBS Eye on the Bay.
John Scharffenberger, co-founder of Scharffen Berger chocolates.
Cathy Schreiber, president, San Francisco Professional Food Society.
Monica Silvestre, East Bay editor, Yelp.
Food: 95 / Ambience: 98 / Service: 96 / Value: 96
"With stellar cooking technique, top quality seasonal ingredients, and exemplary service and hospitality from everyone working in the dining room, Esin rises to the top again.” —Linda Carucci
Our first-ever repeat top scorer is Esin Restaurant & Bar, which continues to wow with its stellar cuisine. But more than just food, it was that hard-to-define ambience that pushed Curtis and Esin deCarion’s Danville eatery to the top. While Narsai David raves about the service, wine menu, and value, he concludes, “Most important, there’s a really good feeling.” Linda Carucci, who lives in Oakland, pays the restaurant the ultimate compliment, saying it was “well worth the drive from the other side of the tunnel.” She adds, “Every time I return to Esin, it’s like visiting a good friend, as this restaurant continues to delight on so many levels.” Congrats, Esin, for another year on top.
Best dish: Pork chop on polenta with green and wax beans, all perfectly cooked. What they’re doing right: The terrific waiters at Esin are pivotal in ensuring a great dining experience. Defining moment: First bite of my amazing pan-roasted ono dusted with fennel pollen. Every bite was sublime. Best drink: A perfect pomegranate martini. Flavor we can’t forget: Well executed steak frites with grilled certified Angus flatiron, blue cheese butter, Zinfandel sauce, gremolata fries, and arugula salad. I’d go here for: A business lunch, quick bite at the bar (a really great burger), a family dinner, or just a comfortable night out. Funniest moment: When describing a Coho salmon special, the waiter told us: “It’s wild, so watch out!” Contact: 750 Camino Ramon, Danville, (925) 314-0974, esinrestaurant.com.
Food: 96 / Ambience: 95 / Service: 98 / Value: 92
"This is an exceptional restaurant with a deep commitment to Italian food.” —Narsai David
Sophisticated. Exceptional. Classic. These are a just a few of the words our judges used to describe Prima Ristorante. As a perennial Food Award winner (seven times), chef/co-owner Peter Chastain and his team might have started to rest on their laurels. Not by a long shot, according to our judges, who were unanimous that Prima’s still got it, offering deeply soulful Italian cuisine, with excellent service. “The kitchen is so strong that virtually everything on the menu was close to flawless,” says Narsai David. “Once seated, you immediately know you’ll be taken care of.” And far from being stuffy, the restaurant manages to retain a relaxed, youthful vibe. As David says, there’s still “a nice hum to the place.”
What they’re doing right: Cranking out top-notch quality food, in a classy but never stuffy environment. Best dish: Tagliatelle: Perfectly cooked pasta with porcini and a concentrated essence of the sauce that sticks to your lips—this dish really rings my bell. Secret tip: Prima has had the same pasta-maker for more than 10 years—and it shows. Flavor we can’t forget: The tanginess of the fennel braised with tomato and wine, served with the grouper. Defining moment: When a waiter gently, quietly placed our leftovers in the seat next to me without slowing down, like a secret agent making a drop-off in a crowded train station. Best drink: The classic Italian red flight kept getting better with each taste—from a typically light starter, to a blockbuster finale that more than held its own against my out-of-this-world steak. I’d go here for: A very special occasion meal that we want to have close to home. Contact: 1522 N. Main St., Walnut Creek, (925) 935-7780, primaristorante.com.
Food: 94 / Ambience: 96 / Service: 93 / Value: 93
"The real standout at the Restaurant at Wente Vineyards is the consistently high quality of everything we tried. They have Ferrari ingredients, and they treat them very well.” —Cathy Schreiber
Wente blew away the judges with its “gorgeous,” “picturesque” vineyard setting and professional, sophisticated service and cuisine. No surprise here for this frequent Food Award winner. So, what’s different this year? How about raves for new executive chef Eric Berg’s commitment to featuring fresh produce from local farmers and Wente’s on-site vegetable garden. “Any menu that names the executive chef and the master gardener is obviously taking this concept to heart,” says Cathy Schreiber. “The menu is full of seasonal flavors and sustainably farmed ingredients.” Or, as Monica Silvestre puts it: “Good looks and good food? Count me in!”
What they’re doing right: With rolling hills in the distance and a country club–elegant dining area, Wente is exactly what you’d want when donning your Lilly Pulitzer best. Flavor we can’t forget: The smoky tomato broth in the seafood stew. Best dish: If I were forced to pick, it would be the smoked double-cut pork chop, but we were impressed with the consistently high quality of everything we tried. Secret tip: Wente offers a tour of its garden. Best drink: 2009 Small Lot Pinot Noir Rosé: crisp with a fruit finish, more dry than sweet. I’d go here for: A late Sunday brunch to feel like you’ve jetted to a small winery town in Italy, or an intimate dinner with a partner to fall in love all over again. Contact: 5050 Arroyo Rd., Livermore, (925) 456-2400, wentevineyards.com/restaurant.
Food: 94 / Ambience: 92 / Service: 90 / Value: 96
This little gem, hidden away on a nondescript stretch of San Ramon Valley Boulevard, continues to teach food experts not to judge a restaurant by its cover. Enter the doors, and it’s “like walking into a Roman osteria,” says Sara Hare, with food that is “simple, wholesome, yet so authentically Italian and flavorful that you will think about it long after you finish dinner.” And the force of nature behind Incontro? Owner Gianni Bartoletti (described by one judge as “my personal waiter”), whom all the judges mentioned by name for making them feel welcome and at home. Buon appetito!
What they’re doing right: Everything. Fresh pastas are perfect. Classic dishes command an encore. Bravo! Best dish: The gnocchi. They make it so light and delicate. Defining moment: First bite of the veal scaloppini, with the strong flavors of Asiago and Parma ham blended in. Secret tip: As Bartoletti told us, use a spoon with the malloreddus, Sardinian pasta. “It’s so annoying when a little piece falls off your fork.” Flavor we can’t forget: The house bruschetta. White truffle oil, Pecorino cheese, and fava bean puree on rustic Italian toast. Best drink: Our favorite had to be the 2008 Stefano Farina Gavi with the bruschetta, for an explosion of flavors. I’d go here for: The trip back to Italy, to see Bartoletti, who is such a delight, so caring of his food and diners. Contact: 2065 San Ramon Valley Blvd., San Ramon, (925) 820-6969, incontrosanramon.com.
Food: 93 / Ambience: 92 / Service: 92 / Value: 89
Upscale comfort food? Our judges were skeptical, but Picán won them over, with food that managed to “class up” old favorites such as fried chicken. “A major cliché-busting experience,” admits Mollie Katzen. “I learned that Southern cooking can be light, subtle, edgy, healthy, surprising, sophisticated, and tremendously satisfying.” Or, as John Scharffenberger puts it, chef Dean Dupuis “delivered familiar foods that were updated, without taking away any of their comfort.” Judges also enjoyed how Picán captured the best of the fun, urban vibe of Oakland, making it feel like a real night out.
Defining moment: Luscious fried chicken: Moist and perfectly cooked with a light batter that was really crispy but without any grease. Flavor we can’t forget: Biting into a fried green tomato salad and getting a small piece of ripe peach—flavor perfection. Overheard: Diner to waiter: “Don’t you dare touch that corn bread!” Best drink: Rye Manhattan with 100-proof Rittenhouse rye whiskey. Funniest moment: Running into old friends from San Francisco: It must be worth crossing the bridge for. Secret tip: The chef uses Velveeta in his mac and cheese to keep it extra creamy. Best dish: Sorghum-coated duck breast was fantastic; the sorghum is not too sweet and fruity, so it didn’t interfere with the duck. It gave it a smoky richness. I’d go here for: The food. There were more things on the menu than we could eat in one meal. Contact: 2295 Broadway, Oakland, (510) 834-1000, picanrestaurant.com.
Food: 93 / Ambience: 93 / Service: 89 / Value: 89
New this year, Sasa’s hopping bar/lounge scene, “evocative atmosphere,” and super-fresh sushi complemented by an array of unusual Japanese small plates “had people waiting for tables through most of the evening, even though it was a Wednesday night,” says Lynne Char Bennett. “Very Japanese teahouse meets urban oasis,” describes Sara Hare, who raves about an A-list menu packed with “many familiar dishes offered at any great sushi bar—and a long list of ones that aren’t.”
Best dish: Gindara misoyaki, the roasted black cod with miso marinade. The utter simplicity of this perfectly cooked dish highlights the cod’s delicacy and freshness. I’d go here for: A bite and a drink after work, a fun dinner to share with a group of friends, or to check out the local singles scene (if I weren’t married, of course). Defining moment: The bite of short ribs: satisfyingly deep flavor in a surprisingly light vinegary beef broth—the kind of dish that justifies not spending all your money on the fresh sushi. Best drink: Forget the wine: Go with the unique Koshihikari Echigo Japanese rice beer, and pair it with the awesome short ribs. Flavor we can’t forget: Buttery piece of salmon sushi topped with fish roe to give it a briny, straight-from-the-ocean taste. What they’re doing right: A great place with a great menu, super execution and above-average service. Firing on all cylinders. Contact: 1432 N. Main St., Walnut Creek, (925) 210-0188, sasawc.com.
Food: 94 / Ambience: 91 / Service: 88 / Value: 91
Michele Nguyen wanted to put a modern, upscale twist on her new Vietnamese restaurant, without losing traditional flavors and ingredients. Mission accomplished, say our judges, who gush about the hip, energetic vibe and “a lovely and delicious evening of new and fresh flavors.” Élevé’s emphasis, says Cathy Schreiber, “is on fresh ingredients and a current-day approach to Vietnamese-style dishes—a great twofer. It’s full of dishes with vibrant aromatics like ginger, garlic, sweet onion, peppers, jasmine, and lime.” Don't forget to try the excellent array of pre–Prohibition era cocktails.
What they’re doing right: The presentation is great, food divine, and they let you sit back and relax and talk. Best drink: The subtle fresh ginger finish of my perfectly deep pink El Diablo cocktail—Tres Agaves tequila, lime, cassis, and ginger. Best dish: The traditional-style pork firepot, with anchovy sauce and a whole egg. Defining moment: When we glanced around the room and noticed that every diner at every table was smiling and having a wonderful time. Flavor we can’t forget: Hmm… the melt-in-my-mouth lemony peppercorn filet mignon, sweet-but-dry artisan cocktail, oozing flourless chocolate cake. Sorry—it was all good. I’d go here for: An amazing, delicious, and light meal of fresh and distinct flavors. Contact: 1677 N. Main St., Walnut Creek, (925) 979-1677, eleverestaurant.com.