2014: How We Eat Now
Diablo Food Award Winners and so much more.
For the past decade, Diablo has been chronicling our regional dining scene’s upward trajectory. But now, the East Bay has left suburban gravity and dining has entered an astonishing new phase. We’re calling it “the tipping point,” using the popular term coined by author Malcolm Gladwell for when a trend passes a certain threshold and takes on a life of its own.
In the following pages, we showcase four Food Award–winning restaurants that have pushed us over the top. Plus, we have chefs predict the upcoming trends that reflect this rising of the tides. We even show how burger joints and bakeries are setting a new standard.
When I interviewed Gladwell shortly after the debut of his monumental best seller, he used an old-fashioned ketchup bottle to demonstrate his concept. Hit after hit didn’t bring forth any ketchup, but a final tap caused a deluge. It is the same with our restaurants. We’ve had hit after hit, but 2014 has really done it. —Nicholas Boer
Updated comfort food delivers deep satisfaction.
If there’s any one local restaurant with major-league cred, it’s The Cooperage American Grille.
Executive chef and partner Erik Hopfinger has launched 15 restaurants from San Francisco to New York City, punctuated by an appearance on Top Chef. Owner Andrew McCormick’s dad developed scores of McCormick and Schmick’s seafood restaurants in California and more than 20 other states. And general manager Michael Iglesias has earned his chops at top-tier Bay Area restaurants—most recently at Michael Chiarello’s Coqueta in San Francisco.
Heavy hitters aside, The Cooperage is flat out gorgeous. Architect Jim Maxwell’s concept is rustic yet upscale-convivial, with five distinct dining areas, including a split patio and retro-pub boardroom (an ode to Petar’s, the restaurant that occupied this space for decades).
The Cooperage’s onstage rotisserie—an ancient/avant-garde way of cooking—captures the elemental approach to food that’s being defined by the Bay Area’s best new restaurants. Hopfinger’s menu celebrates American classics with style—shrimp Louis, short rib pot roast, pineapple upside-down cake, and the county’s best take on brussels sprouts: a warm bacon and poached-egg salad.
Like Chow in La Fiesta Square across the street, The Cooperage has the disarming air of a community gathering place but with an urban edge that keeps it sharp. 32 Lafayette Cir., Lafayette, (925) 298-5915, thecooperagelafayette.com.
Top Plate: Shrimp and Grits
The smoky undertones of chef Erik Hopfinger’s rich shrimp and stone-ground grits deliver deep—almost primal—satisfaction. The wild jumbo shrimp are seared on the grill, finished in the pan with Cajun aromatics, and plunged into Southern grits bound with a trio of American cheddars, including a smoky white. The dish is then sauced, étouffée style, with a silky reduction of shrimp stock and cream. Concluding notes of paprika, charred tomatillo salsa, and salty shavings of Pecorino Romano bring it all home.
A Surge in Restaurants Reflects a growing appreciation for Asian food.
The stylish, Vegas-sized MayFlower Seafood in Dublin, with its daytime dim sum and spectacular fish tank (try a succulent spot prawn) is the Cantonese counterpart to China Lounge (see page 40). MayFlower’s menu is broad, with refined takes on Chinese classics, such as an eggplant clay pot. At Pleasanton’s cozy Blossom Vegan, the curried eggplant, fresh green papaya salad, and—stay with us here—kale and date smoothie make meat irrelevant and Vietnamese cuisine shine. Sri Venkatesh Bhavan is cavernous compared to Blossom, but it’s also lively and strictly vegetarian. Try the vada (light and delicious lentil donuts) or the multidish tiffin lunches served with fresh raita and coconut chutney to tame the spice. Yo’s on Hartz—an Asian-fusion hot spot in Danville—has glitz (a glowing cocktail bar), à la carte dim sum (go for the crisp pork buns) and sushi (how about a shrimp tempura/tuna/avocado “girly man” roll?). Pleasanton’s Taste of Sing-Ma (Singapore-Malaysian) specializes in presentation: fried rice in a half pineapple, chicken stir-fry in mango boats, and chilled juice in a whole young coconut. An order of Sing-Ma’s buttery roti (crispy crepes), served with a curry dipping sauce, is a must. A pair of new chef-owners has given Sushi Yokohama in Danville a much-needed makeover, including the menu. One chef hails from the Drunken Fish in Oakland (hence, Yokohama’s sinful drunken fish roll), the other from Kauai (hence, killer ahi poke). Modern Asian classics are served with Chipotle-like efficiency at San Ramon’s sustainably focused Spice Kit. Try the vibrant Vietnamese sandwich with Niman Ranch pork and house-made pàte, a Korean rice paper wrap—the size of a burrito—with organic tofu, or a brown rice bowl with kalbi-style grass-fed beef cooked sous vide. And make sure to get a side of pork belly buns and coconut juice fresh squeezed on the spot. Whew. Hamburger, anyone?
Tipping Point: Special Request
“For families with kids who love to eat out, call the restaurant, and ask to be seated with a server who is great with kids. If you’re celebrating a special event, e-mail the restaurant or general manager early on. That gives us a chance to establish communication and ensure a unique experience.” —Grant Johnson, general manager, Blackhawk Grille, Danville
Our readers name the most dream-worthy restaurants.
You voted for your favorite restaurants in our online poll, we tallied the votes, and voilà, here are the winners—with readers like you explaining why they love each spot.
Best place to go on a rainy night: The Peasant and the Pear
“The Peasant and the Pear is just so warm and cozy; I feel very comfortable there. It’s a place where you can go and feel like you’re taken care of. You feel like family. The cheese fondue would be so nice on a rainy day: It’s very yummy. And the crème brûlée is to die for.” —LeAnn Bethel, San Ramon
267 Hartz Ave., Danville, (925) 820-6611, rodneyworth.com/the-peasant-and-the-pear.
Best place to see and be seen: Bridges
“Bridges is the restaurant in Danville, probably partly because it’s in Mrs. Doubtfire. I hadn’t been there before the movie, but I’ve been numerous times, and never have I gone there and not seen someone I know. I went there once and ran into an old high school friend sitting at the bar. And Bridges has a great outdoor patio. You can watch the town of Danville go by when you’re sitting out there.” —Scott Bigelow, Danville
44 Church St., Danville, (925) 820-7200, bridgesdanville.com.
Best place to go for your last night on Earth: Esin
“One time, this guy sitting at the other end of the bar and I struck up a conversation. He’s from Marin County. He comes all the way to Danville to get his hair cut, and he always stops to eat at Esin. That right there speaks to how good of a restaurant it clearly is. If it was my last night on Earth, and if they had their meat loaf on the menu, I’d have that with some roasted vegetables, a small Caesar salad, and glass of wine, of course. The atmosphere and friendliness of the staff make me want to keep going back. They don’t rush you through the meal; it’s so relaxed.” —Betty Bushnell, Walnut Creek
750 Camino Ramon, Danville, (925) 314-0974, esinrestaurant.com.
Best place to go if you win the lottery: Chez Panisse
“Chez Panisse is one of the best restaurants in Northern California. I’ve only been there maybe three times over the past few years, but every time I tasted anything, it was superb. [If I won the lottery] I’d probably order one of the seafood dishes as an appetizer. For an entrée, a meat dish. And I’d definitely order the side vegetable dishes; those are great. And the desserts—oh my goodness, just about any of the desserts! It’s remarkable to go to a restaurant where every single dish is superb.” —Debbie Demer, Orinda
1517 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley, (510) 548-5525, chezpanisse.com.
Best place to go with a long-lost friend: Gianni’s
“We took a group of people my husband has done business with for more than 30 years to Gianni’s for dinner. We chose it because we love Gianni and the food, and because the restaurant is smaller and divided into several rooms, so you can catch up and actually hear each other talk. Gianni’s isn’t that close to our house, but my husband doesn’t mind driving to go there." —Candice Blackman, Pleasant Hill
2065 San Ramon Valley Blvd., San Ramon, (925) 820-6969, giannissanramon.com.
Best place to go after a shopping spree: Va de Vi
“It was one of those beautiful, warm afternoon days. My wife and I had just finished shopping in downtown Walnut Creek. We were walking up the street and said, ‘You know, we could go home and eat, or we could stop.’ So we decided to stop at Va de Vi. We sat under the lovely oak tree in the back. We must have been shopping for two hours—we sat there for another two hours just eating and spending time outside. It was the most simple, wonderful meal I remember having.”
—Newell Arnerich, Danville
1511 Mt. Diablo Blvd., Walnut Creek, (925) 979-0100, vadevi.com.
Best place to take Anthony Bourdain: Artisan Bistro
“We would take Anthony Bourdain to Artisan Bistro because it has such unusual things, particularly the sous vide octopus. Who would enjoy octopus? Probably Anthony Bourdain. We just adore the creativity there. It’s amazing what the restaurant does in that little kitchen.” —Marcy Terry, Moraga
1005 Brown Ave., Lafayette, (925) 962-0882, artisanlafayette.com.
Tipping Point: Here’s a Heads Up
“Customers should be able to ask for pretty much anything. Let us know if there’s a persnickety relative coming from out of town, and we can pour it on. You can give us notice to not serve that second bottle of wine—maybe someone drinks too much. A restaurant should respond to every piece of information that matters.” —Bob Klein, co-owner, Oliveto, Rockridge
A creation both contemporary and classic.
Built from the ground up in the space previously occupied by Carpetland Flooring Center in Pleasanton, Allen Shi’s China Lounge has reimagined the Asian restaurant, finding a way to honor tradition with an innovative design.
In hindsight, Shi’s opening of Pleasant Hill’s Sichuan Fortune House in 2007 and San Ramon’s YiPing in 2011 seems like child’s play. Calling China Lounge stunning or contemporary does it a disservice. The lavish booths are cloaked in drapery and defined by hand-painted black screens of labyrinthine design. Ultrawide white-cushioned chairs are built for royalty. An illuminated abstract Chinese landscape with 30 panels that change color throughout the evening creates the Tri-Valley’s most stylish lounge.
The most striking element, however, is the restaurant’s expansive exhibition kitchen. It’s worthy of chef Jian Li’s deliciously complex cuisine, with remarkably varied textures that reflect the dining experience in Chengdu, the capital of the Sichuan province from which Li hails. Provocative dishes include the chilled silky and spicy “bang bang” chicken, and the glazed rabbit—diced, fried, and laced with dried chiles and mouth-numbing Sichuan peppercorns.
Yet the menu is not always esoteric. Shi highlights familiar plates such as kung pao chicken, just expect notes of citrus, wok-scalded peanuts, and a darkly smooth—not sticky sweet—sauce. This is both fine dining and fun dining: China Lounge has a full bar, draft beer, an extensive wine program, and a bar menu available until midnight to attract young professionals.
The Pleasanton restaurant’s July unveiling set a new Bay Area standard for Sichuan cuisine and may revolutionize our entire idea of the Chinese eatery. 4220 Rosewood Dr., Pleasanton, (925) 227-1312, chinalounge.us.
Top Plate: Eggplant Cake
This elegant appetizer makes wontons and potstickers seem as clunky as a cast-iron wok. Chef Jian Li flash-fries Chinese eggplant, turning its flesh custardy with a crackling crust. The finely ground pork stuffing is light and tender—nothing like sausage, and a subtle foil to Li’s glossy sauce of rice wine vinegar and chile paste. Finished with a few sliced scallions, this dish is a stunning expression of simplicity—for the eye and the palate.
Four top local chefs make predictions for the 2015 dining scene.
The Park Bistro and Bar
Adam Carpenter / Executive Chef / The Park Bistro and Bar
“Social media is huge,” says Carpenter. It’s mostly a positive, he says, keeping chefs on their game and inspiring more photogenic plates. It’s also driving a trend to serve dishes that are fun, quirky, and tweetable—like Carpenter’s “corn dogs” made from cod brandade, or the trio of cocktail crème brûlées. Another growing trend these days, Carpenter says, is chefs relying on sous vide, a slow and precise technique of precooking meats and fish in Cryovac shrink film. It produces consistent, high-quality results and allows the kitchen to put food out more quickly. “I use it all the time,” says Carpenter.
Let’s Eat . . .
Romesco and multicolored cauliflower. “I love to pair the three colors of cauliflower with scallops. The purple ones are great to pickle.”
Peter Chastain / Executive chef & co-owner / Prima Ristorante
Sophisticated restaurants will encourage deeper communication between the server, diner, and chef, says Chastain. It synergizes the staff’s expertise and the diners’ desires. Nearly a quarter of Prima’s diners will tell Chastain, “We don’t want a menu; we want you to cook for us.” Chastain tells us, “You have to have a balance. You don’t want to be controlling, but neither do you want to abdicate all choice and responsibility to the guest.” Americans approach food in a thousand different ways. As a result, Chastain says, an unfocused menu with no map can result in “a train wreck in the stomach.”
Let’s Eat . . .
Bitter greens such as Treviso and endive. “I would love to see the Caesar-ites have a wild arugula salad with shaved truffle and white mushrooms.”
Matt Greco / Executive chef / The Restaurant at Wente Vineyards
Greco says using local, fresh-milled grains is going to be the next big thing in Bay Area cooking. Soaring fish and meat prices, and health and environmental concerns, are encouraging chefs to build their plates around whole grains and vegetables. “It’s going to have to change,” says Greco. He applauds the “trickle-down” of the sustainable movement to restaurants like Roam Artisan Burgers in Lafayette. And he sees concerned chefs and farmers beginning to question the quality of the land. “It’s not about organic. It’s about the soil.”
Let’s Eat . . .
Lima beans. “I love, love, love fresh shelling beans.”
Gavin Schmidt / Executive chef / Corners Tavern
The practice of breaking down the whole animal and using every part is becoming more prevalent, says Schmidt. “Part of it is sustainability. Farms don’t raise racks of lamb; they raise lambs.” It also controls costs, honors chefs’ creativity, and instills respect for the animal, he says. This primal approach complements the resurgence of traditional cooking, such as cooking with live fire and smoking. But chefs won’t dismiss new cooking technologies, says Schmidt. “Will you find us using technologies that refine our cooking? Yes. Will you see spherification or liquid nitrogen simply to show off? Probably not.”
Let’s Eat . . .
Octopus. “I love the rich flavor it gives to sauces and broths. There are many octopus skeptics, but when it’s done right, it’s glorious.”
Tipping Point: A Taste, Please
“When you’re paying $8 or $20 a glass, it’s fair enough that you taste it first. I’ll ask what your palate requires, and if it’s just a glass that you want, I’ll bring at least two samples.” —Gianni Bartoletti, general manager, Gianni’s Italian Bistro, San Ramon
New bakeries and burger spots will conquer all cravings.
54 Mint Il Forno
This cute, from-scratch Italian bakery, with café seating and a few outside tables, is an offshoot of 54 Mint trattoria in Concord. Tempting pizzas, calzones, and simple salads are showcased alongside a delectable array of Italian pastries. 1686 Locust St., Walnut Creek, (925) 476-5844, 54mint.com.
Roam Artisan Burgers
This is where chefs come for their (grass-fed) burger fix. Choose a designer hamburger, such as the watercress- and cremini-topped chalet. Or create your own classic. (Pepper Jack and applewood smoked bacon works for us.) The bison burger, organic milk shake, and zucchini fries combination makes for a healthier choice than your normal burger fare. 23 Lafayette Cir., Lafayette, (925) 385-0798, roamburgers.com.
Tous les Jours
An airy and immaculate modern Korean café, Tous les Jours has open aisles displaying a vast array of soft breads and silky pastries. Also expect Illy espresso and absolutely charming service. 7151 Amador Plaza Rd., Dublin, (925) 828-7081, tljus.com.
Mona’s Burgers and Shakes
The menu looks zany, but Mona’s has class, serving Niman Ranch beef in a handsome charcoal gray dining area. Go for broke, and pair a real milk shake—laced with espresso or Guinness—with the “screw diet” burger (bacon and fried egg), or the blue cheese topped drunken burger. 1574 Palos Verdes Mall, Walnut Creek, (925) 278-1415, monasburgers.com.
Sugarie Bake Shop
With its Parisian motif, this boutique bakery is as cute as its signature macarons. Buttery chocolate and almond croissants are just the beginning. 3500 Bernal Ave., Ste. 155, Pleasanton, (925) 789-9027, sugariebakeshop.com.
The ethos is local and sustainable. There are craft beers and a whiskey menu. The design is thoroughly modern. And the burgers are brilliant. Stick with the classic, choose a cowboy burger, or opt for gourmet toppings such as fig marmalade with goat cheese or—believe it—bone marrow porcini butter. Everything is made in-house, including french fries and onion rings, and it’s conveniently located close to BART and the theaters. 2068 Center St. (at Shattuck), Berkeley, (510) 809-8282, eurekarestaurantgroup.com.
Tipping point: Make My Menu
“The best dining experiences come about when the guest says 'order for us.' The server knows the most about the bar, wine list, and kitchen, and can put together courses and pairings that diners would need years of visits to think of. This is not an opportunity to gouge guests; after all, you want to leave some cash in their pockets for the gratuity!” —Samuel Spurrier, owner/manager, Bull Valley Roadhouse, Port Costa
One restaurant, two chefs, many Talents.
Revel has class but defies classification. Entering through Revel’s striking transparent facade, your first impression is one of a sleek urban lounge, where cocktails fuel lively conversation until midnight. Here, you see revelers enjoy Kumamoto oysters and Burrata-topped bruschetta paired with Manhattans and Revel-ritas.
But wait. At one of the small tables to the left of the bar’s river-washed granite counter, you spot old friends raising pints of Arrogant Bastard Ale and oatmeal stout over platters of duck cassoulet and braised short ribs. This feels more like a tavern, an American bistro.
Then, you explore further, moving to the right and down a hidden hallway. You come upon a wall of wine—hundreds of bottles hailing from Livermore to the Loire Valley. Revel takes a page from the casual-chic wine bars opening in Napa Valley, as simple small plates—like Revel’s Mediterranean lamb sliders—take full advantage of Northern California’s bounty.
Finally, as you continue down the dining hall, you come to what has been dubbed Lover’s Lane—a line of intimate tables well-suited for wine and the menu’s saffron clams and ginger-spiked ahi tartare, or its house-made pappardelle and local king salmon. Restaurant doesn’t do Revel justice. Eatery is too crass. Oh, hold on. Revel has a tagline: Kitchen and Bar. I guess that will do.
But let’s just call it the latest jewel from Esin and Curtis deCarion. The unassuming couple helped pioneer ingredient-driven cuisine more than 16 years ago with a little out-of-sight café in San Ramon, which is now Danville favorite Esin Restaurant and Bar. 331 Hartz Ave., Danville, (925) 208-1758, revelkitchenandbar.com.
Top Plate: Spinach Pappardelle With Braised Rabbit
This is a beguilingly simple pasta dish. The hand-rolled pappardelle is cast forest green with heirloom spinach. The rabbit turns supple from a slow braise in aromatic veal stock. Earthy mushrooms and the tang of whole-grain mustard lend deep character to a sauce made glossy by the reserved braising jus reduced with sweet butter. The cooked pasta is tumbled from pan to plate and graced with olive oil and parmesan. Now, that’s our idea of weeknight pasta.
Pristine plates paired with beer.
Sunol Ridge’s dual concepts—craft beer and refined, cutting-edge food—are what set the restaurant apart. Chef Frank Jordan, who worked in Hollywood under a Top Chef champion, creates show-stopping presentations. Meanwhile, owners Mark Flaherty and Christopher M. George—who first brewed in a barn literally on Sunol Ridge—display a passion for beer that ignites the restaurant’s celebratory atmosphere.
The glassy entrance—once a portal to the classy former restaurant Cypress—shows off a splashy, often packed beer lounge, with tempting dining options down the hallway and a relaxed patio out back. Some come for the singles scene (who knows, you might bump into someone at the unisex hand-washing areas), and some for the stylish dining.
A good example of Jordan’s modern/farm/international cooking is his salmon prepared vertically—cooked from the skin up. It’s sauced with a classic savory sabayon and adorned with newborn radishes and vivid blue starflower petals.
You can complement such dishes with one of 16 California wines on tap, or choose from the dozens of draft beers organized into eight craft styles. Jordan says Sunol Ridge is “not a restaurant in the conventional sense” but a mix of contrasting concepts that comes together like “that little loop in the bow.” Sounds like a great gift to the East Bay dining scene. 1388 Locust St., Walnut Creek, (925) 278-1948, sunolridgerestaurantandbar.com.
Top Plate: Ahi Poke
The inspiration for chef Frank Jordan’s dish comes from Sunol Ridge’s owners Mark Flaherty and Christopher M. George, whose passion for beer turns red hot when paired with “superchilled” tuna poke, explains Jordan. His elaborate presentation begins with a foundation of perfectly cubed ruby ahi—perfumed with tamari and lime—and fanned avocado. He spoons mock fish roe made with cucumber tapioca alongside moistened seaweed. Then, Jordan blasts the plate with “snow”—coconut milk frozen with liquid nitrogen. So how do you eat it? “Break off a chip [a flash-fried sesame cracker], and dig in,” says Jordan.