Take a Stroll Through the Park
The Park Bistro and Bar: Lafayette’s venerable Duck Club is reborn.
Photography by Mitch Tobias
Settling into a spacious, plush, just-reupholstered caramel leather booth, my perpetual fiancée and her precocious eight-year-old boy soften and smile.
A minute later, she grins at the arrival of her three-olive dirty martini. Precocious, meanwhile, has already rated the revamped Park four stars—based entirely on the crusty bread and his cherry limeade.
If only my little family was always so easily pleased.
Chef Adam Carpenter and food and beverage director Obadiah Ostergard were hired a year ago in anticipation of the death and resurrection of the Duck Club—now called The Park Bistro and Bar. The new name reflects its contemporary vibe without sacrificing the Duck Club’s elegant note. And it does justice to Carpenter, a former executive chef at Blackhawk Grille.
Our jovial waiter, Randy, is evidence of the Lafayette Park Hotel’s preserved pedigree. He started 25 years ago, back when the staff wore peach vests. “Not a pretty picture,” he says.
My farro tabbouleh, on the other hand, couldn’t be lovelier: a molded cylinder of chewy grain, Feta, and olives—its richness cut by tangy sweet cherry tomatoes. In between bites, I reach for the lush flavorful meatballs in the buttered noodles from the kids’ menu. I’m with Precocious on those: four stars.
My fiancée’s bistro greens tossed with toasty pecans is sublime, dressed with razor-thin peaches and flecks of goat cheese. “This is a place to linger,” she says, taking a silky sip of Grgich Zinfandel, “then stumble up to your room.”
This is the place for a staycation.
Her wine tastes even better with an aged New York steak from the “butcher block”—part of the farmhouse motif embraced by the new menu. It highlights charcuterie, flatbread, steak frites, and the Duck Club’s old-fashioned French onion soup.
An ethereal potato gratin (is that possible?) served with the steaks is the size of a Rubik’s cube. A manifestation, perhaps, of a puzzle solved: aging establishment turned cutting edge.
Take my ruby-red ahi. (Hands off! I don’t mean literally.) Wrapped in crispy fried nori, the sliced tuna is just cool in the center and draped over a warm melange of naturally creamy Mediterranean veggies.
As the sun goes down, we pull open the three scrims behind us, revealing a central courtyard and its griffin-topped fountain. This feels very Mediterranean indeed. That is, until dessert arrives: soft-serve Straus ice cream with as many toppings as you dare.
Precocious chooses house-made Oreos, marshmallows, fudge brownies, and sprinkles. Perpetual fiancée limits herself to caramel sauce—“amazing,” she tells me—and berry compote.
I had been eyeing the bacon brittle and strawberry dust, but eventually choose the mint mud pie over the sundae. The eight-year-old’s eyes widen at its arrival. Apparently, I owe him several bites for having stolen a meatball. So I avert my eyes as he attacks.
This is a world away from the restaurant I wrote of in 2005. The roast duck, I said, was “like a cruise-aholic dozing on a deck chair, the poor bird flabby and overdone.” And then there was “the aging dining room, walls flocked with flying mallards.”
The new dining room is stunning. A trio of gold-rimmed mirrors adds life and light. Hand-painted bell-shaped light fixtures and floral drapery deliver an understated elegance. Colorful and playful art lightens the mood. And for a casual evening, choose one of the many shaded or heated outside tables.
I’m hardly the only one who has noticed the remarkable transformation. Waiting at the bar, I strike up a conversation with Scott Kelly from Foster City, a long-time regular of the Duck Club.
“It’s much lighter,” he offers. “It doesn’t feel like a dungeon.”
A bit harsh, certainly, but in comparison, the new bistro is a knight in shining armor.
Shaking It Up: What’s Old is New
In his 24 years as the Duck Club’s bartender (don’t dare call him a mixologist), Luiz “Papa” DaHora’s bearlike hands have shaken half a million martinis.
You’ll see a lot of sweet concoctions at the Lafayette Park Hotel’s annual martini contest, but Papa most enjoys and is proudest of shaking and serving the classic. Gin drinkers, he says, are loyal and making a comeback, while vodka drinkers are flexible—willing to stray from the classic.
“Everything you put in a stemmed glass is called a martini,” says Papa, who appears intimidating but is more of a jolly giant.
In his earliest years, when the place was practically a men’s club, Papa poured plenty of brandy and needed a shower after all the cigar smoke. In the ’80s he poured thousands of kamikazes and cosmopolitans.
Working Tuesday through Saturday nights, Papa likes the Park’s new look (“It’s really bright”), with its outside patio and handsome back bar. And he’s equally happy with the resurgence of martinis.
If martinis aren’t your thing, that’s OK. Try Papa’s the Park, a cocktail he designed for the club’s new incarnation. It’s made with artisanal vodka, bourbon, and pomegranate liqueur.
Just like Papa, it’ll have you glowing with a wide smile.
Contact: 3287 Mt. Diablo Blvd., Lafayette, (925) 283-3700, lafayetteparkhotel.com. Hours: Breakfast daily (brunch on Sun.), lunch Mon.–Fri., dinner daily. Dinner prices: Appetizers $6–$15, entrées $17–$39.