Pleasanton's Fine Dining Secret Revealed
As I pushed through the crowded entryway at Hap’s Original on a recent
Friday night, it occurred to me that this steak, chop, and seafood
house is downtown Pleasanton’s best-kept secret. Although I’d been
asking locals for weeks about their favorite spots to dine, I’d gotten
only evasive responses like, “We prefer to cook at home.” I’d almost
lost hope, but now I’ve figured it out: They’re all at Hap’s. They
don’t talk about it because they don’t want it to get any busier.
Neither do the restaurant’s servers. “We’re blessed,” one young waitress told me with a sigh, “but it is chaotic.”
On many nights, the bar- and fireplace-centered lounge is so packed with chatty, cocktail-loving singles that you have to get a little pushy to make it through. Tables in the dining room are positioned close together, and the collective roar and live piano music in the lounge force diners to talk loudly. Still, everyone looks happy, from the cuddly table of two in the throes of first-date infatuation to the rowdy group of businessmen letting loose after a long workweek.
The restaurant’s popularity is easy to understand. Although some entrée prices soar as high as $38, you always leave feeling that you got what you paid for—and that includes atmosphere. The Wild West exterior hasn’t changed much since the place opened in the 1950s, and current owners Mike and Paris Connors and Jim Wilson have made the interior, especially the front dining room, all about class and comfort. Tables are wide, dressed with soft linen, and topped with heavy silver and graceful glassware. High-backed chairs are cushy and comfortable, soft lighting is enhanced by candles, and walls are a soothing shade of washed brown, with burgundy trim.
The quality continues with the highly seasoned American fare, both in the large-portioned entrées and the appropriately sized appetizers. Plump, gently seared sea scallops doused with a red curry sauce awaken the palate with hot chili and coconut. Overwhelming as an entrée, the starter portion is just the right size to prepare the appetite for more.
The Cajun lamb chops appetizer does the same: Five tender baby loin chops rubbed with paprika and coriander arrive grilled to a rosy medium and served on a bed of mixed greens. Dipped in the accompanying creamy, Maytag blue cheese sauce, they’re remarkably satisfying.
Although our first visit was several months ago, I still remember the slightly chemical, burnt flavor of the croutons in the “award-winning” Caesar salad, a flaw that nearly ruined the delicate, well-balanced dressing on the crisp romaine lettuce. I preferred this visit’s sturdy, fresh wedge of iceberg lettuce, drizzled with the same Maytag blue cheese sauce that’s served with the Cajun lamb chops and sprinkled with candied pistachios.
But people don’t squeeze their way into Hap’s on a weekend night just to nibble on a salad. Many come to indulge the carnivore within. And whether it’s the 24-ounce prime rib, the leaner, more feminine filet mignon, or the succulent, brined-then-grilled pork chops, the beef and pork served at Hap’s always seem to be seasoned and cooked just right.
Hap’s makes no statement about whether its meats are naturally raised, but it does say the beef is dry-aged Angus and graded prime, meaning it’s highly marbled. That marbling translates into rich, juicy flavor accentuated by the kitchen’s practiced hands.
The side dishes included with the entrées aren’t too exciting—on our second visit they consisted of out-of-season green beans and tomato—but the selection of additional sides makes up for it. Creamy, cheesy, well-seasoned macaroni and cheese in a miniature white ceramic serving bowl could almost make a meal on its own. And it’s hard to stop eating the house fries—thick wedges of russet potatoes crisped in the oven—although you really should restrain yourself if you want to make it to dessert.
But even if you’ve saved room, desserts at Hap’s are harder to tackle than the crowd. The cheesecake measures at least five inches high and wide, and despite its clean flavor, sweet graham cracker crust, and smooth texture, its heft is overwhelming. Less daunting in size but disappointing in taste was the crème brûlée with chocolate sauce. Ours resembled cottage cheese rather than custard.
While I doubt the desserts are what brings them back, the locals have done well in trusting their Friday nights and special occasions to Hap’s. They couldn’t keep it hidden forever. Sorry, Pleasanton: Your secret is finally out.
Hap’s Original, 122 W. Neal St., Pleasanton, (925) 600-9200. Appetizers $10–$14.95, entrées $20–$38, desserts $8. Dinner daily.