Gone are the days when the East Bay took a backseat to any place in terms of food. Whatever your pleasure is — whether it’s rustic regional Italian cooking, modernist reinterpretations of classic American comfort dishes, or a well-executed taco al pastor — chances are you’ll find a restaurant (or food truck or pop-up) here that will make you very, very happy.
The only question that remains, then, is where, specifically, the intrepid chowhound ought to go. Gastro-tourists and Foursquare badge collectors could do worse than to stick to the handful of restaurant hubs — Berkeley’s Gourmet Ghetto and Oakland’s Uptown, for example — that have garnered national press.
But to really know the depth and breadth of the East Bay dining scene, you have to venture out into the less-talked-about neighborhoods, where up-and-comers are bringing new shine to rough-and-tumble city blocks, and where hidden gems — the ones those of us lucky enough to live around the corner from have known about for years — continue to thrive.
Chez Panisse is still tops for the kind of simple, beautiful food that Alice Waters pioneered some forty years ago, but one of the most approachable places to experience this signature Northern Californian cuisine is at West Berkeley’s Bartavelle Coffee & Wine Bar (1603 San Pablo Ave., Berkeley, 510-524-2473), which has been filling the shoes of its predecessor, Cafe Fanny, deliciously for several months. It’s an unassuming little spot where breakfast comes with a view of the parking lot — but, oh, what a breakfast: hot, butter-drenched porridge; uncommonly crisp radishes served the French way, with good butter and good sea salt; and as lovely a boiled egg as you’re likely to ever encounter.
Farther north, on an utterly nondescript stretch of San Pablo Avenue, Sushi Sho (10749 San Pablo Ave., El Cerrito, 510-525-1800) quietly makes a compelling case for best sushi in the Bay Area. Newbies might be intimidated by the long lines and obscure rules — don’t even think about trying to order takeout — but chef Akitoshi Kawata’s regulars know there’s no better place to luxuriate in the simple, but profound, pleasures of skillfully prepared nigiri. Each piece is a perfect little jewel: the rice served at just the right texture and temperature, the fish cut beautifully and impeccably fresh.
Suffice it to say that Jodie’s Restaurant (902 Masonic Ave., Albany, 510-526-1109, JodiesRestaurant.com) is the quintessential hole-in-the-wall — a tiny six-seat diner tucked underneath a BART overpass and set off from the more visible dining establishments of Solano Avenue’s restaurant row. For 24 years, Jodie Royston, the garrulous owner, has been charming the pants off of every man, woman, and child who sets foot inside his humble digs, but it’s his food that keeps the steady crew of regulars coming back: a hundred different spins on old-fashioned greasy-spoon classics like scrambled eggs, buttermilk pancakes, and hash browns — all cooked with a sure hand and a well-thought-out spark of creativity.
If you weren’t aware that there is such a thing as Oakland-style pizza, you need to head over to Nick’s Pizza (6211 Shattuck Ave., Oakland, 510-658-3903, OaklandStylePizza.com), where each of Nick Yapor-Cox’s homespun pies is a kind of hybrid between a Cheese Board sourdough-crusted horn o’ plenty and a New York thin-crust classic. The crust is incredibly crispy, and the toppings range from Cal-fresh (goat cheese, asparagus) to straight-ahead pepperoni. More than anything, the tiny shop (all six hundred square feet of it) is exactly the kind of friendly, neighborhood-y place that residents of this quiet section of North Oakland have been waiting for — with pizza good enough that out-of-towners would be ill-advised to miss it.
Old Oakland is in the midst of a remarkable food-centered renaissance, and Miss Ollie’s (901 Washington St., Oakland, 510-285-6188, MissOlliesOakland.com) — probably the most exciting Caribbean restaurant in the Bay Area — is at the heart of that rebirth. Chef Sarah Kirnon’s herb-stuffed fried chicken is legendary, and rightfully so, but the restaurant’s real genius lies in how peasant dishes like ackee and saltfish and stewed oxtails are given a dash of elegance without compromising their bold-flavored, down-home roots.
Kang Tong Degi (3702 Telegraph Ave., Oakland, 510-658-2998), the coolest restaurant in Oakland’s sprawling Kimchi Row, is so cool you could drive past it a dozen times and never know it was there (look for the sign: red Korean characters superimposed on black metal barrels). Step inside this soju bang, or Korean pub, and the place is all private booths and papered-up walls covered, from floor to ceiling, with Chinese and Korean calligraphy: atmosphere in spades. More importantly, there isn’t a better place in town to chow down on beer- and soju-friendly comfort dishes (think grilled chicken gizzards, kimchi fried rice, and the everything-but-the-kitchen-sink hot pot known as budae jjigae).
Meanwhile, FuseBOX (2311A Magnolia St., Oakland, 510-444-3100, FuseBOXOakland.com) is also a kind of soju bang, but one with distinctly new-school leanings — a place that’ll serve you a “Tokyo”-style fried chicken po’boy, cold Tang, and a panoply of idiosyncratic kimchis and pickled things: turnip greens, carrot tops, slices of unripe mango. Everything is reasonably priced, and just about all of it is made from scratch. It’s the kind of food you’d just never expect to find in this sparsely industrial, warehouse-y corner of West Oakland, inside a literal “box” of a former furniture showroom.
Also repping, and hoping to revitalize, a rather desolate stretch of West Oakland is B-Side BBQ (3303 San Pablo Ave., Oakland, 510-595-0227, BSideBBQ.com), celeb-chef Tanya Holland’s cowboy-themed barbecue joint, where sustainably sourced meats pack plenty of soulful punch. A little over a year after the restaurant opened, B-Side’s kitchen is now firing on all cylinders. The showstopper is the beef brisket — as tender and smoky and well-spiced a version as you’re likely to find on this side of the Rockies. It wouldn’t be real California-style barbecue, though, if vegetable side dishes like smoked mashed yams and sautéed collard greens weren’t equally compelling.
Hidden away in East Oakland’s Allendale district, in a straight-up residential neighborhood, Vientian Cafe (3801 Allendale Ave., Oakland, 510-535-2218) serves what is probably the best Laotian food in town. If the restaurant looks a lot like someone’s house, that’s because it is: The owners live upstairs. But the homey environs only add to the charm of the place, especially when you start chowing down on crispy Lao-style fermented sausage and succulent chunks of catfish steamed inside a banana leaf — dishes worthy of the Southeast Asian grandmother every fish-sauce-and-kaffir-lime lover needs to have in his life.
If there’s any Bay Area food trend that ought to feel tired at this point, it’s that of “elevated comfort food” — but when dishes like turkey meat loaf and slow-braised baby back ribs are done as well as they are at Cafe Q (2302 Encinal Ave., Alameda, 510-521-8848, CafeQAlameda.com), you’d have to be awfully jaded to complain. Chef Jesse Branstetter’s deceptively ambitious menu would be right at home in downtown Oakland or in San Francisco’s Mission District. Instead, the restaurant sits kitty-corner to a big suburban high school, on a quiet street in Alameda — just another East Bay neighborhood where the dining options are more than meets the eye.