Spotlight: Dog's Best Friend
Jim Telford, restaurateur
Jim Telford remembers his first Top Dog: He was 7 years old at the original South Berkeley location and the Raiders were playing the Minnesota Vikings in Super Bowl XI. The Berkeley native and Walnut Creek restaurateur behind Residual Sugar Wine Bar and Rooftop Restaurant and Bar has gone back many times since, most recently earlier this year on his 50th birthday when he introduced a friend’s sons to the wonders of a Top Dog bratwurst. He is hardly alone in having fond memories of this 54-year-old institution, which is probably best known for providing cheap and delicious late-night food for generations of inebriated UC Berkeley students.
So, when Telford read in the Chronicle that longtime owners Renie and Richard Riemann were struggling due to the impacts of the COVID-19 shutdown—the libertarian-leaning couple and children of the ’60s had refused federal aid—he knew he had to help. “As a fellow East Bay restaurant and bar owner, it was simply unacceptable to me,” he says.
Telford quickly organized a GoFundMe fundraiser and enlisted the media to spread the word. Maybe it was nostalgia— or the thought of future students being denied a juicy bratwurst, bockwurst, kielbasa, or hot link at 2:45 a.m.—but the East Bay responded big-time. The campaign quickly surpassed its $10,000 goal and ended up raising more than $15,000 to help the Riemanns keep their dogs top among late-night eating options for decades to come. topdoghotdogs.com.
A Sweet Affair Bakery, Walnut Creek, asweetaffairbakery.com.
A Sweet Affair [bakery] makes the best chocolate chip, white chocolate chip (occasionally with macadamia nuts), oatmeal, and oatmeal raisin cookies. Delicious cookies!” —Anne Lagache, Orinda
Runner-up // Old Towne Danville Bakery, Danville, danvillebakery.info.
Sauced BBQ and Spirits, Livermore and Walnut Creek, saucedbbqandspirits.com.
Runner-up // Slow Hand BBQ, Martinez and Pleasant Hill, slowhandbbq.com.
George’s Giant Hamburger, Walnut Creek, georgesgianthamburger.com.
Runner-up // Roam Artisan Burgers, multiple locations, roamburgers.com.
Uncle Yu’s, Lafayette, uncleyus.com.
Runner-up // Ming’s, Pleasant Hill, mingspleasanthill.co.
Coffee Shop, multiple locations, coffeeshop411.com.
Runner-up // Sideboard, Danville and Lafayette, sideboard.co.
Morucci’s, Walnut Creek, places.singleplatform.com/ moruccis-si-mangia-bene/menu.
Runner-up // Genova Delicatessen, Walnut Creek, genovadeli.net.
Lottie’s Creamery, Walnut Creek, lottiescreamery.com.
Runner-up // Loard’s, multiple locations, loards.com.
Naan ’n’ Curry, Concord, naancurryconcord.com.
Runner-up // Swad Indian Cuisine, Lafayette, swadindiancuisine.com.
Montecatini Ristorante, Walnut Creek, montecatinirestaurant.com.
Runner-up // Locanda Ravello, Danville, ravello-danville.com.
Los Panchos, Danville and Pacheco, lospanchosrestaurant.com.
Runner-up // El Charro, Lafayette, elcharrolafayette.com.
Social Bird Kitchen and Bar, Lafayette, social-bird.com.
Runner-up // Vic’s Martinez, Martinez, vicsmartinez.com.
Zachary’s Chicago Pizza, multiple locations, zacharys.com.
I’m an Oakland native, and Zachary’s [Chicago Pizza] has always had a special place in my heart. I love the deep-dish pizza, of course! It is so yummy. The thick, delicious crust is filled with veggies, gooey cheese, and the most scrumptious tomato sauce. I love their seasonal menus because I know i’m getting fresh ingredients. Finally, their crew is the best. Everyone is fun to chat with, accommodating to specific requests, and a master class in staying cool in an ever-slammed restaurant. Some of my favorite memories with my parents and friends are at Zachary’s. Can’t beat it!” —Alyssa Stone, Oakland
Runner-up // Slice House, Walnut Creek, slicehousewalnutcreek.com.
Walnut Creek Yacht Club, Walnut Creek, wcyc.net.
You cannot go wrong with the Walnut Creek Yacht Club as your destination. Their standard fresh fish offerings let diners build their entrées, choose the fish cooking method, and add sauces. Or go a different direction, as the fish and chips are always excellent and a satisfying treat. The wine list has interesting choices, including some options that won’t break the bank. Their aft deck is an enclosed outdoor dining area and a different experience from the dining room. It tends to be calm and quiet, whereas the dining room is lively.” —Andrew Fluss, Walnut Creek
Runner-up // Scott’s Seafood, Oakland and Walnut Creek, scottswc.com.
Mikuni, Concord, mikunisushi.com.
Runner-up // Sasa, Walnut Creek, sasawc.com.
Kacha Thai Bistro, Walnut Creek, kachathai.com.
Runner-up // Lemongrass Bistro, Martinez, lemongrass-bistro.com.
Vanessa’s Bistro 2, Walnut Creek, vanessasbistro2.com.
Runner-up // Kevin’s Noodle House, multiple locations, kevinsnoodlehouse.com.
SPECIALTY GROCERY STORE
Diablo Foods, Lafayette, diablofoods.com.
Diablo Foods has yummy olives and cheeses. Their meat department is awesome, and the guys never make you feel dumb when you ask questions. They are always friendly. They have a unique floral section. Their farmers market out front has the best fruit and veggies. They carry food that I can’t get elsewhere. They are helpful in the parking lot, too. ”—Laura Shields, Pleasant Hill
Runner-up // Lunardi’s, Danville and Walnut Creek, lunardis.com.
Esin Restaurant and Bar, Danville, esinrestaurant.com.
Runner-up // Postino, Lafayette, postinorestaurant.com.
Danville Farmers Market, Danville, danville.ca.gov.
Runner-up // Walnut Creek Farmers Market, Walnut Creek, cccfm.org.
BEST OLD-SCHOOL BUSINESS WE’RE GLAD STUCK AROUND
Meadowlark Dairy, Pleasanton
A drive-through market where you can pick up butter, eggs, flour, milk, sugar, salt, ice, and other staples to go along with delicious soft serve, Pleasanton’s Meadowlark Dairy is a modern-day oddity, a nostalgic relic of the Tri-Valley’s past. But when the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent Bay Area shutdown order hit in mid-March, its seemingly antiquated service model transformed overnight from eccentric to essential. Almost immediately, according to Jesse Takens, the third generation of his family to run the business, a cavalcade of vehicles showed up filled with shoppers stocking up on groceries for a week or two at a time. The experience, he says, has been “strange, to say the least.” But Takens notes that other than larger orders, longer-than-normal lines, and the requisite protective masks and gloves worn by staff and customers, business has essentially continued in much the same manner as 50 years ago when the family-run drive-through first opened back in 1969. Given the uncharted waters we’ve been navigating, and the upheaval it has caused in our daily lives, we can all take some comfort in that. meadowlarkdairy.com.
BEST BAY AREA PANDEMIC MEAL
The Salt, San Ramon
Potato and spinach lasagna. Rasam tomato bisque. Caesar salad with fish sauce and pepitas. A lot of restaurants stepped up to the plate to offer takeout during the shutdown. But there may have been no better go-to for Tri-Valley diners yearning for more elevated shelter-in-place fare than the Salt in San Ramon. This eclectic marriage of Indian flavors with California cuisine drew rave reviews in this magazine (see our December 2019 issue) and beyond. Opening executive chef Jerrod Doss has since moved on, but new hire Keegan Taylor is remaining true to the restaurant’s genre-defying DNA with dishes such as cauliflower wings with goat cheese mousse, roasted beets and paneer, and a vegan take on korma. Pass the homemade chutney. thesaltsanramon.com.
BEST EXAMPLE OF GOOD KARMA
Monster Pho, Oakland
If you’ve ever been to Monster Pho, you’ll remember Tee Tran. That’s because the owner of the Oakland spot almost always remembers you. Tran’s ability to remember customers’ names is uncanny. It’s also a big reason his restaurants have been successful— that and the tasty noodle soups, Vietnamese sandwiches, and tofu spring rolls, all based on family recipes. True to form, when the pandemic hit, Tran responded by handing out free Vietnamese coffees to frontline workers and even helped collect and donate masks and gloves to the nearby Kaiser hospital. The influential nonprofit World Central Kitchen tapped into Tran’s generosity when it chose Monster Pho as its local partner to prepare emergency meals for the underserved in the East Bay. Within two months, the restaurant was cranking out 500-plus meals per day for homeless shelters, hungry families, and more—helping Tran keep his restaurant open and staff employed while helping others in need. Couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy. monsterpho.com.
BEST FOOD DELIVERY FOR THOSE IN THE KNOW
Hella Bagels, Oakland
Starting a business already comes with challenges, but starting one two weeks before the COVID-19 quarantine? Downright daunting— unless you’re delivery-only Oakland bagel company Hella Bagels. Primarily marketed through social media word of mouth, Hella Bagels opens a weekly order window every Sunday at noon on Instagram, where the eager masses can message a request for four bagels and one cream cheese for $20, delivered primarily in Oakland, Berkeley, Piedmont, Albany, El Cerrito, and Alameda. Most weeks, the bagels sell out within as little as five minutes. Owner Blake Hunter, a native of Concord, models his self-taught iterations off the New York–style bagel—crunchy on the outside, soft and chewy on the inside—but infuses his version with a little bit of his own history. “Bagels have always been a staple for me, from being a child of a Jewish mother from New Jersey, to where I stopped for breakfast every morning before high school, to the shop in the city where my partner and I spent our only day off together,” he says. While some businesses have struggled to adapt to the stay-at-home age, Hella Bagels’s model primed it for success. Does Hunter have any advice for scoring a slot in his weekly bagel deliveries? “Send me a message an hour before and pull on my heartstrings, and maybe I’ll save you a spot,” he says. “No promises though!” instagram.com/hellabagels.
[By the Numbers]
BEST PROOF THAT THERE IS SUCH A THING AS A FREE LUNCH.
Horn Barbecue, Oakland
6 Pop-up barbecue giveaways hosted by Oakland pitmaster Matt Horn as part of his Horn Initiative to feed frontline hospital workers and those impacted by COVID-19.
10 Volunteers recruited to help serve.
3,000 Pounds of smoked pulled pork and chicken cooked.
4,000 Plus meals donated.
$20,100 Amount raised for the initiative on GoFundMe (out of Horn’s initial $15,000 goal). hornbarbecue.com.