A new café in Danville is one of the town’s best restaurants.
Photography by Cedric Glasier
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It’s rare to stroll into a small café and be struck dumb by its charms. Rarer still is to encounter one where the food and, yes, the coffee are as thoughtfully prepared as the room is well appointed. Rarest of all is a place where the commitment to good taste is buoyed by a commitment to locally sourced ingredients. Welcome to the world of Sideboard.
In a city hurting for a homey restaurant with great food, the arrival of Sideboard in the Danville Hotel building is cause for a sigh of relief and even a squeal of delight. After years working in the food-service industry, Erin and Ford Andrews, Sideboard’s owners, have made a leap of faith, devoting themselves to a restaurant that is open all day and serves the kind of comforting food an adept grandmother might make.
Pondering the Andrews’ zeal, you might go so far as to call them crazy. Erin, the restaurant’s culinary mastermind and for 25 years the head of the East Bay–based catering company Roadhouse, spends 14 to 16 hours a day involved in the restaurant’s operation. That does not mean she spends every hour in the kitchen, though she does spend much of her time there. No, her fervor for finding the best possible ingredients for what she calls her “sophisticated comfort food” regularly takes her all over the Bay Area.
She travels to Oakland from the Andrews’ home in Lafayette to retrieve six different kinds of coffee beans from Blue Bottle Coffee, arguably the finest coffee roaster in the East Bay. On the Embarcadero in San Francisco, she wanders the Ferry Plaza farmers market on Saturdays, hunting for the finest regionally grown produce. From Acme Bread in Berkeley, she procures the rolls, pain de mie, and loaves of levain that form the backbone of the restaurant’s menu.
Returning with her bounty, she assembles Sideboard’s unpretentious, soul-satisfying cuisine. A pressed sandwich melds walnut-basil pesto and Belfiore mozzarella, a product made in west Berkeley. A levain crumb–battered soft-shell crab and slices of apple wood–smoked bacon are set in a soft bun that has been slathered with rémoulade. Tangy shrimp ceviche is piled on miniature tostadas and drizzled with an avocado-mango salsa and Mexican sour cream.
Although it has been 20 years since Erin worked on a kitchen line, she says, “It came back quick.” She makes certain to check every plate that leaves the kitchen because, as she asserts, “I want consistency.” It shows. There is evidence of care and a watchful eye in almost every dish at Sideboard. That softshell crab is battered lightly and pan-fried to a shattering texture. The shrimp in thcozy ceviche is marinated with just enough citrus to accentuate instead of overwhelm the crustacean’s briny sweetness. Fries, served with a blue cheese dipping sauce, are crisp outside, tender and fluffy inside.
Not every menu item fares quite as well, however. A salad of baby lettuces with a runny take on green goddess dressing, bacon, and hard-boiled egg came to our table unevenly dressed. Some leaves were barely coated, others drenched.
And, the café exhibits the occasional tendency to use an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach. A jumble of fresh spaghettini was crushed under the weight of its grilled chicken, broccoli rabe, mozzarella, heirloom tomatoes, and roasted garlic. Similarly, the restaurant’s water dispenser was loaded with citrus that had steeped so long the water was bitter.
Such missteps are infrequent, and the allure of a meal here more than makes up for them. Take, for example, the cozy main dining room, which invites lingering, especially over one of Sideboard’s espresso drinks, possibly the best in town. The room’s rustic wood tables, including a communal one, have been furnished with purse hooks because after years of dining out and having her purse fall on the floor too many times, Erin decided that her guests should not have to suffer the same. In a charming design coup, the flatware and the plates, with the exception of the soup and pasta bowls, are mismatched antique china. In the wrong hands, such a touch would seem lazy. At Sideboard, it’s wholly endearing.
So, too, is the café’s self-service style. Diners order at the counter, are given a placard printed with such food names as pomegranate
and brussels sprouts, and then choose their own table. The food is brought to them, according to the placard they’ve positioned on the table. The Andrews were unsure at first whether diners would feel comfortable with such laid-back service. Instead, Erin has found that “people mill around the counter, talking. It’s a lot like having a party.”
To put it more accurately, a meal at Sideboard is like attending a dinner party at a dear friend’s or your favorite relative’s home. To experience that kind of warmth and reliably good food at any restaurant—let alone a brand new café—is a rarity indeed.
Contact: 411 Hartz Ave., Danville, (925) 984-2713.
Hours: Breakfast, lunch, and dinner daily.
Price: Appetizers $4–$8, main courses $8–$12.
Alcohol: Wine and beer.