Does Rudy’s Can’t Fail Cafe aspire to become a chain? An inside menu fold is covered with travel mugs, buttons, and T-shirts, all with the restaurant’s little red X-shaped man defiantly holding up a fork.
According to Margo Graham, the front-of-house manager, the brand-new diner in Emeryville eventually does hope to clone itself. But the owners, a trio of local businesspeople plus an anonymous local rock star (see Kitchen Sink, September 18), aren’t designing a plastic one-size-fits-all model. They also love the little touches, like the two silver dog bowls filled with water next to the front door and the glowing blue diner-doll showcase stretching across the back wall. And to be fair, co-owner Jeffrey Bishoff runs a successful Oakland screen-printing operation, so merchandising isn’t such a drastic step.
Rudy’s replaced Emeryville institution Eugene’s Ranch House, which closed several years ago after a quarter-century run. In its stead is a thoroughly up-to-date diner that starts serving breakfast early and follows lunch with a post-work happy hour featuring burgers, snacks, and beer.
Inside the tiny whitewashed brick building there’s a six-seat counter, booths and tables, and swinging doors to a tiny, swarming short-order kitchen. Outside, diners catch the sun at seven or eight tables in a fenced-off patio area.
The owners are aiming for a millennial take on the 1950s, a retro wink at early punk-rock’s riffing off rockabilly. The restaurant owes its name to the 1979 Clash song “Rudy Can’t Fail,” and bands such as X and the Pretenders share the joint’s loudspeakers with the likes of Little Richard.
The cafe is staffed with a squadron of attractive hipsters, pierced, plugged, and Manic Panic-ed, who look squeaky clean in their blue bowling shirts, black trousers, and little aprons. Take off their uniforms and they could be sitting at the same tables with the pierced and pomaded Pixar animators, expensively slovenly, who have trekked across the street from their fenced-in Willy Wonka compound for lunch.
I can’t exactly tell who our server is, because all of them pass by our table to do something or other, but that’s not a bad sign. In fact, the service isn’t just with-it in the sartorial sense: The servers are chatty, friendly, and attentive.
The kitchen also updates the diner idiom. Chef Heidi DiPeppo, who made her bones at LuLu, has brought the San Francisco restaurant’s passion for freshness to her food. All the ingredients radiate it: The greens are crisp, the veggies bright, the bread soft. But respecting the ingredients is one thing, and letting them have their way at the expense of flavor is another.
Chunks of white meat in the chicken salad sandwich are coated with a brightly colored but skimpily applied red-pepper pesto that might have made the meat moist and flavorful had there been enough of it. The fish in the tuna melt has never seen the inside of a can, but it needs to be drained after sautéing and mixed more generously with mayonnaise and other seasonings. A crunchy Caesar salad is dressed so lightly that the subtle hints of garlic and anchovy never make their way to our palates. And a California “rap,” a spinach tortilla rolled around spinach, tomato, and cream cheese, needs at least one punchy ingredient to give it character. Even the dressing on a side salad needs more vinegar.
But the light approach succeeds in dishes that are normally leaden and greasy. A bacon cheeseburger has turned out perfect: crunchy, smoky, and juicy. And I can’t say when I’ve had better fries, whose crisp exteriors are somehow battered and glossy. They don’t even need ketchup or mayonnaise. Some of my tablemates don’t like the lightness of my shepherd’s pie, ground beef sautéed with corn kernels, mushrooms, and peas and topped with a cloud of fluffy mashed potatoes whose edges brown in the oven. But it doesn’t send me to sleep afterward.
The diner’s location near our editorial offices reminds me that all too often we overlook what’s in our backyards. So I ask my fellow writers to take me out to lunch. We settle on Bisco’s Cafe, just down the block from Rudy’s. Inside, a huge menu taking up half of one wall lists something for everyone: sandwiches, salads, prepared entrées, pastas, soups, smoothies.
We order at the counter and take over half of a long wooden table. Most of the other seats at the tiny, cheery cafe fill with office workers — a slightly older crowd, but tattoos emerge from short-sleeved shirts here and there — by 12:30. Large windows let big hunks of sunlight in, and Technicolor paintings of dogs line the exposed-brick walls.
The preprepared entrées, displayed in glass cases, come with small mixed-green salads. Most make an adequate lunch but don’t stand up to scrutiny. Microwaving doesn’t do much for a large wedge of bland broccoli quiche except soften its pastry crust. A premade chicken burrito, stuffed with flavorless rice and beans and served with a cup of salsa fresca, barely one-ups the kind you find in convenience stores. And while I enjoy the vegetarian polenta, moist and peppery, its topping of red onions, sun-dried tomatoes, and mozzarella has dried out after serving some hard time in the refrigerator case.
My tablemates have passed over the hot pastrami, chicken breast, and roast beef sandwiches, as well as all the regular ones, in favor of the “panini” on chewy walnut baguettes. Neither the Europa (which stacks turkey breast, cheese, spinach, and sun-dried tomatoes on basil pesto-smeared bread) nor the du Nord (which combines Black Forest ham, tomato pesto, and cream cheese, a dubious choice) are press-grilled like Italian panini, but they’re well put together, fresh, and reasonably priced.
We all take a coworker’s advice and order smoothies. The fruity Citrus Berry Dream is packed with strawberries and bananas whirled up in orange and apple juices. No one can work up the nerve to order a Fiber Max. But we do get a Daily Special, complete with protein powder, wheat and oat brans, and even brewer’s yeast; the shake still manages to taste more like strawberries, albeit berries dusted with whole-wheat breadcrumbs. The only smoothie that doesn’t make the grade is the Mocha Freeze, which combines bitter, stale coffee with an off-note of banana. I wash the taste out of my mouth with a sip of the Chocolatty, which is really a chocolate-banana shake.
Lunch food often generates more profits for owners than excitement for diners, and such is the case with Bisco’s. Rudy’s shows more promise. All the ingredients for a winning — and replicable — recipe are there. Rudy just needs a heavier hand with the seasoning. And, if the place really wants to live up to its name, how ’bout a little Skyjuice? Ten cents a bottle!