Usually on the back burner, homey foods are what’s in style.
Fried chicken at Picán
Fried chicken. Lasagna. French fries. Meatloaf. Pepperoni pizza.
Everyone loves comfort food, that guilty pleasure we come back to again and again, particularly in times of stress. So it should come as no surprise that these days, restaurateurs, including higher-end chefs, are trying to tap into that warm and fuzzy sentiment to draw in diners.
“Everything’s cyclical, and I think people want an affordable dining experience, with great food, that’s not too fancy,” says Victor Ivry, co-owner of Table 24, a comfort food–themed restaurant set to open in late September in Orinda. The concept is simple: Use the California cuisine approach (fresh, local, seasonal ingredients) to prepare straightforward comfort food, such as hamburgers, pizza, even an artisan cage-free egg sandwich, at reasonable prices.
The idea didn’t spring up overnight. Chow has offered made-from-scratch comfort food in a casual environment for years, while meatloaf and fried chicken have been on Lark Creek Walnut Creek’s menu since it opened in 1995. Now, a wave of similar eateries seems to be cresting across the East Bay.
Opened in February, Oakland’s SR24 dishes out classic American fare with a gourmet twist, including a pot roast made with Kobe beef brisket for under $20. Danville’s two-year-old Sideboard has a similar concept, packing in diners by offering such souped-up classics as fried brussels sprouts with lemon aioli, truffled mac and cheese, and a cheeseburger with Prather Ranch beef, aged white cheddar, heirloom tomatoes (seasonal), and organic pickle on the side.
Similarly, business is brisk at Eddie Papa’s American Hangout in Livermore and Pleasanton, which serves regional comfort food such as Louisiana shrimp jambalaya, Kansas City BBQ pork ribs, and Southern fried chicken, using local ingredients.
Chop Bar in Oakland, opened last year, specializes in global comfort food, with chicken tortas and Vietnamese sandwiches getting equal billing with a classic Reuben. Lasagna and meatball sandwiches are the attraction at the month-old Maggio’s Italian Deli in Livermore. Trueburger and The Counter, two new gourmet burger spots in Oakland and Walnut Creek, respectively, are proving popular, and in August, Bakesale Betty, the Oakland bakery famous for its fried chicken sandwiches, unveiled its latest comfort creation: the Sloppy Joe (made with Prather Ranch beef, of course). Berkeley’s Five restaurant, Danville’s The Little Pear, and Oakland’s Picán are other recent examples.
Another case in point is in Pleasant Hill, where the closure of French bistro Left Bank left a prime downtown location vacant for nearly a year. The space was finally filled in June by Jack’s, a restaurant emphasizing value-conscious, classic American fare.
“Left Bank was a destination restaurant—maybe you dropped in every five or six months—but for us, it’s every day, sometimes twice a day,” says Jack’s co-owner John Marcovici. “We wanted to put together the kind of cuisine that we liked. We were thinking that if we went out to eat, what would we want to eat on a regular basis?”
He says fish ‘n’ chips is Jack’s number one–selling item, with meatloaf not far behind. “It’s served with mashed potatoes and onion rings and gravy on top: If that doesn’t say comfort food, I don’t know what does.” Marcovici talks about creating a welcoming atmosphere that feels like an extension of customers’ homes. And even more than just dollars and cents, that feeling seems to be what owners—and diners—are trying to capture these days.
“I’m not sure if it’s so much the value, although that does help,” says Eddie Papa’s Eddie Westmoreland. “I think it’s more about cooking food that makes you feel good. A chili dog, mac and cheese, a patty melt—it’s something that your mom or your grandmother made for you as a kid. It’s just food that you can’t help but feel good about.”CLICK HERE for the best spots to go for ultracomforting macaroni and cheese. ■