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Deep Dish

Closings. Openings. Chef shake-ups. And lots of juicy gossip. It's been a wild year for food news in Diabloland.


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This has proven to be one heck of a year on the East Bay dining scene. A frenzied game of musical chefs in restaurant kitchens made for a sensational combination platter of food gossip. As our area continued its upswing in terms of restaurant quality, the jus on what’s new and who’s who got tastier by the month.

Check it out.

Who’s In, Who’s Out

When rumors surfaced late last year about the sale of Bridges by owner Ryota Sugitani, son of the man who founded the Danville institution, no one could believe it. Diablo had a pretty strong hunch (supported by insider information) that something was shaking, but Bridges’s then manager Kim Anselmo repeatedly denied that a sale was imminent. Soon, however, the truth was revealed: Sugitani had lost interest, and the restaurant was struggling to run itself. Randy Negi, then owner of the popular, pan-Asian OnoMazé in Walnut Creek, jumped at the chance to acquire Danville’s destination restaurant.

After the transaction, OnoMazé closed its doors, and no one knew who would become the “new” Bridges chef. Would it be chef Allen Vitti, who was then running Bridges’ kitchen? Or chef Kevin Gin, of OnoMazé? In a telling turn of events, Vitti happened upon some business cards with Gin’s name and new title—Bridges executive chef—tipping him off that it was time to start cooking elsewhere.

Now Vitti—who had come to Bridges after having worked with one of San Francisco’s best chefs, Piperade and Bocadillos owner Gerard Hirigoyen—is overseeing some fancified burger-flipping at Walnut Creek’s hopping sports bar, McCovey’s. Why, you ask? Well, rumor has it that Vitti will oversee the kitchens of all of restaurateur Jeff Dudum’s celebrity-namesake sports bars, which are slated to open all over the country in the next five years, so it’s a bigger gig than it seems.

Dudum, Where’s My Chef?

Meanwhile, Dudum’s empire is growing mightily and exerting a huge influence on our choices for chow—a phenomenon we’ll get to right now. The smash debut of Bing Crosby’s in Walnut Creek practically cleaned out the employee roster at Lafayette’s The Duck Club Restaurant, the grande dame of Contra Costa dining, as a stampede of kitchen staff went to Bing’s late last year. Dudum, out on a dinner date with his wife, convinced chef Frank Palmer and pastry wiz Todd Moore to jump from The Duck Club to Bing’s, and food and beverage director Jay Lifson took the challenge, too.

As history would have it, Bing’s became the hot ticket for the over-30 crowd, with a multitude of martinis and a choice of white or black napkins intended to keep diners free of visible lint.
But the World of Dudum wasn’t for everyone. Shortly after opening Bing’s, General Manager Lifson left to head up Lafayette’s Chamber of Commerce.

Speaking of Lafayette, The Duck Club recovered, but it wasn’t easy. Sous chef Patrick Fassino, Diablo’s 2005 Rising Star Chef (see page 83), spent many a day—and night—trying to run the kitchen himself before new chef Evan Crandall, formerly of the Hyatt in Burlingame, stepped in. But just as The Duck Club bounced back on its webbed feet, Crandall flew the coop.

Passing the Torch

In late summer, Paul Bertolli, the long-time star chef at Oakland’s Oliveto, moved out of the College Avenue eatery to pursue another passion. Bertolli will concentrate on his new company, Fra’ Mani Handcrafted Salumi, in West Berkeley.

Oliveto’s owner, Bob Klein, says that Bertolli still has a financial interest in the Oakland restaurant, and the change has been in the works for the past three years. During this time, new executive chef Paul Canales has been building an outstanding reputation of his own.

Meanwhile, in Contra Costa, a dining institution changed hands this year—finally; we’d been hearing about it forever. Prima Ristorante’s executive chef Peter Chastain and wine director John Rittmaster took over ownership of the Walnut Creek landmark. Founders Michael and Janet Verlander—whose Main Street restaurant helped create Walnut Creek’s downtown dining scene when it opened in the late 1970s—are enjoying retirement and making some kick-ass Chardonnay and Pinot Noir near the Russian River.

Longtime Livermore personality and Wente executive chef Kimball Jones moved out of the East Bay and became executive chef at the Boon Fly Café at The Carneros Inn in Napa Valley. Although Wente hasn’t changed much—chef Elisabeth Schwarz is in charge of the kitchen—we’ll miss Jones, who was a true star in the East Bay.

Hot off the Presses

One of Walnut Creek’s hippest spots, Va de Vi, has a lot on its (small) plate. This food and wine mecca had to start taking reservations to quiet the nightly mobs at its door. But even as patrons storm the gates, chef Kelly Degala has been busy publishing The Va de Vi Cookbook, and the owners have been looking for a space in San Francisco to house a second location.

Nearby Ephesus, whose California kebabs have wowed Walnut Creek, is also slated to sequelize in San Francisco soon.

The Tri-Valley’s dining scene has been happening, too. Pleasanton’s Main Street, already known as outdoor dining central, got many new additions this year, and the hits just keep on comin’. Mahalo Grille, Oasis, and Fresh Grille are all new and dishing out some delicious fare.

We also saw the emergence of a bold new player on the local restaurant scene. Concord struck dining gold with the renovation of its historic square, Todos Santos Plaza, which drew a bunch of new restaurants. E. J. Phair Brewing Company, with delicious food and homemade brews, won raves from critics and locals. According to city planners, E. J. Phair’s success has convinced many restaurants that Concord’s the place to be. Vahid Safiari, owner and executive chef of Fontina in Pleasanton, opens Toscana Ristorante, his Italian-Mediterranean restaurant, there this month.

Through the Tunnel

In Berkeley, plans to turn the old Dale Sanford Building (adjacent to César and Chez Panisse) into a miniature food shopping plaza fell through because of disagreements with the landlord.

At Fonda in Albany, August Churchill took over former chef David Rosales’s position after Rosales moved to Oregon. Churchill has been sous chef at Fonda since it opened three years ago, and the food is better than ever.

Over in Oakland, Chez Panisse alumnus Charlie Hallowell finally opened Pizzaiolo, his pizza and pasta restaurant in the Temescal district. That makes him neighbors with Doña Tomás, whose owners—Dona Savitsky and Tom Schnetz—are looking to open a restaurant and bar in downtown Oakland, which, incidentally, will not serve Mexican food. If launched, it will be the business pair’s third restaurant, including Tacubaya in Berkeley.

What’s Next?

Whew. So what’s in store for 2006? Expect more from Concord, a second César on Oakland’s Piedmont Avenue, and a hot new Berkeley cooking school called Kitchen on Fire. And there will also be plenty more from Jeff Dudum, who is working on his first San Francisco enterprise, Joe DiMaggio’s (after the baseball legend and Martinez native), as well as opening 24 restaurants around the country in the next three years.

Then there are the new upscale steak houses planned for Danville (Forbes Mill) and Pleasanton (Tres). And Zachary’s Pizza will finally head east of the tunnel, to a new location in San Ramon.

So many new restaurants, so little time. Don’t worry, we’ll keep you updated in our monthly installment of Diablo Dish.

Additional reporting by Kathryn Jessup

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