7 Great Spin-offs

Put These New Restaurants Into Heavy Rotation


     Food is the new music. Many of us anticipate the opening of a restaurant the way we used to look forward to the latest release by a favorite band. Just tune into the conversations, especially among baby boomers, at your next party. Because pop sounds have fragmented to the point where a single style no longer galvanizes a generation or defines a decade, you’re more likely to hear chatter about pop-up markets, fresh burrata, boutique wines, signature cocktails and the comings and goings of eminent chefs than about the new Arcade Fire or Fleet Foxes album.
     In the East Bay, little generated more buzz this past summer than speculation about when Daniel Patterson’s Haven, with Kim Alter in the kitchen, would actually fire up its stoves in Jack London Square; or which of À Côté owner Jack Knowles’ new ventures, Rumbo al Sur in Glenview or Next Door in Rockridge, would debut first; or whether Tanya (Brown Sugar Kitchen) Holland would scoop them all with her B-Side BBQ in West Oakland.
     All that conjecturing, you’ll note, centers on offshoots, which brings us to the theme for this year’s new restaurant roundup. In 2010 our plates were full with more than a dozen significant openings from the prior year or two. If 2011 was a tad less lustrous in eatery premiers, reflecting the cautious tone engendered by a stagnant economy, it nonetheless brought forth a plethora of interesting new Oakland, Berkeley and Alameda dining options, running the gamut from personalized takes on tried-and-true comfort foods to reinventions of familiar ethnic cuisines.
     A complete rundown would mention Homeroom, Zut!, Enoteca Molinari, Commonwealth Cafe & Pub, Rio California, Cosecha Café, East End Pizza, Hudson and more. But we were especially taken with the number of new establishments that cropped up with impressive Bay Area pedigrees. In these recessionary — if not downright depressive — times, it’s heartening to know that savvy restaurateurs with solid track records in San Francisco and the East Bay still see Oakland and Berkeley as hospitable climates for investment and expansion.
     From a purely self-serving tummy perspective, it increases the opportunities for intriguing and satiating meals within shouting distance of home. Taking the longer view, it engenders a mite of optimism about economic recovery when positive indicators are hard to come by. We have our fingers crossed that by this time next year we’ll be preaching to the choir about Haven, Rumbo al Sur, Next Door and B-Side BBQ, and singing the praises of Origen, for making good in the ill-fated space on Telegraph Avenue above Ashby in Berkeley, Faz Oakland, for resuscitating the Caffe Verbena location downtown and whatever former Oliveto chef Paul Canales springs on us.
     Meanwhile, join us in toasting seven remarkable spin-offs that staked their claims to dining notoriety in 2011. Their proprietors saw reason to double down in the East Bay, to put their money where your mouths are. If you time it right, you could probably try all seven in seven days. But we’re betting you’ll want to stretch out the enjoyment, take more than one spin through the repertoire and put all of these new East Bay favorites on replay.

1. Paisan Pizzeria
     The Albany-Berkeley-Oakland corridor might seem too narrow a geographical slice to harbor a restaurant empire. But don’t tell that to Haig and Cindy Krikorian, who established a foothold with Lalime’s more than a quarter century ago. The K2 Restaurant Group now owns and/or manages seven other popular dining spots, including Jimmy Bean’s, Fonda, T-REX Barbeque, Sea Salt, Bar César, César España and Paisan Pizzeria, which hits a straightforward Italian note.
     With its virtually mandatory brick-wall and wood-burning-oven ambience, full bar and twinkle-lit and heated back patio, Paisan is a party that doesn’t need to wait to happen — at breakfast, lunch and especially dinner.
The menu includes roasted chicken and pork loin and several pasta dishes.
But thin, blistered-crust pizzas ($11–$15.75) predominate. The Molto Aglissimo — roasted garlic, roasted green garlic, chopped garlic, spring onion, Parmesan and fontina, $13.75 — worked well with a Sazerac ($9), but was hard to finish when we added in fried olives ($4) and the Wednesday night “family-style” fixed-price ($22) special: farmer market salad, shrimp-corn-tomato-saffron risotto, pine nut torte and “your first glass of wine.” Such fair-minded abundance makes it hard to be anti-imperialist on the food front.
2514 San Pablo Ave., Berkeley
(510) 649-1031, www.paisanberkeley.com

2. Xolo La Taqueria de Doña Tomás 2
     Chez Panisse may be the ultimate fount of East Bay spin-offs, but when Thomas Schnetz and Dona Savitsky opened Doña Tomás in 1999 (after stints at Square One and Bizou in San Francisco), they planted their own rootstock for a series of scene-defining offshoots: Tacubaya on Fourth Street in Berkeley, Flora across from the Fox on Telegraph and now Xolo, the humblest branch of the bunch. The menu focuses on burritos ($5.50–$9.75) and tacos ($2.75) with fillings ranging from slow-cooked shredded beef, chile verde and chile relleno to batter-fried shrimp, achiote-marinated chicken thigh meat, crimini mushrooms and spicy pork (al pastor), especially good in the popular Vampiro taco on a fried cheese tortilla.
     But if you roll in on a Friday or Saturday, it’s time to get your goat on with the birria: big bony braised chunks in a chile broth ($8.95). That’s just one of the specials — there’s vegetarian pozole ($7.75) and a bacon-wrapped “danger” dog with pinto beans, cheese, jalapeños and avocado ($6.50) — that distinguish this tiny, colorful, Madonna- and Frida Khalo-adorned space. Although seating is restricted to eight chairs downstairs, a few on the sidewalk and 15 squeezed around tables in a back balcony, the word is that both Xolo and Flora will soon expand. Some things are inevitable.
1916 Telegraph Ave., Oakland,
(510) 986-0151, www.xolotaqueria.com

3. Rudy's Can't Fail Cafe
     When you name your diner after a ska-tinged song from the Clash’s London Calling album, jazz up the interior with a two-tone scheme and keep classic new wave, blues-rock and R&B pumping on the sound system — and one of your co-owners is Mike Dirnt of Green Day — you definitely get the connection between food and music. The punk-democratic sensibility of the new Rudy’s — next to the Fox Theater at the downtown end of Uptown — comes across as slightly more stylized than that of the Emeryville original (open since 2002). But the feel resonates with a crowd that needs a place to hang in a neighborhood waiting for retail and residential to catch up with the proliferation of great places to eat.
     You can get a variety of salads at Rudy’s, as well as enough hot and cold sandwiches and breakfast and dinner options (omelets, pancakes, scrambles, burritos, steaks, catfish, tuna, meatloaf, spaghetti, ribs) to feed a hybrid convention of truckers and thrashers. The main theme, however, is burgers ($8.75–$12.95) — and all the variations (18, which include bacon, blue cheese, goat cheese, bacon, Cajun spices, grilled onions, bacon, mushrooms and more bacon) that most punk songs lack. And yes, you’ll want fries with that, and probably a shake, too, perhaps an adult version with Baileys and Maker’s Mark from the full bar. Rudy’s knows how to make itself crucial.
1805 Telegraph Ave., Oakland
(510) 251-9400, www.iamrudy.com

4. Addie's Pizza Pie
     Less a true spin-off than a collaborative merger of recognized talents, Addie’s is the brainchild of Jennifer Millar of the Sweet Adeline Bakeshop (one block down the street) and serial resto-entrepreneur Thomas Schnetz (see Xolo). Of all the derivative ventures celebrated here, Addie’s embodies the biggest leap of faith. Millar and Schnetz took over the former bank building at the corner of Adeline and Alcatraz that previously housed Spud’s Pizza. Although Spud’s lasted five or so years, the location has yet to secure itself as a dining destination. Addie’s, however, has the moxie and vibe — starting with a stylish but neighborly makeover that emphasizes the architectural charm of the high-ceiling space — to anchor a south Berkeley revival.
      A wood-fired oven puts a crisp crunch to the edges of thin-crust pizzas (12-inch and 16-inch, $12–$27) with standard toppings (prosciutto, sausage, black olive, tomato sauce, mozzarella, basil) and ingredient combos just different enough (white corn, goat cheese, red onions, jalapeños, cilantro and lime) to distinguish Addie’s in an overcrowded field. A few excellent salads and sides (great meatballs, $9), a small but good selection of wines, beer on tap and in bottles and house-made frozen custard round out the constrained but balanced and alluring menu.  
3290 Adeline St., Berkeley,
(510) 547-1100, www.addiespizzapie.com

5. Plum
     Although he made his name in San Francisco at his Michelin-starred Coi, Daniel Patterson really wanted to make his mark on Oakland. As his plans for Bracina in JLS were put on indefinite hold, Patterson pushed ahead with Plum, adding even more polish to the Uptown dining scene. From the get-go, Plum was a sensation. Rightfully so, because it pleasingly embodies a unique vision of casual fine dining, from the minimalist hard-edge decor of wood and modern art to the vegetable-based (but not vegetarian) cuisine that displays an inventive touch with seasonal ingredients, and an artful eye for presentation.
     It’s hard to say that Patterson went downscale: You can still drop a bundle when you put together a full meal of (truthfully represented) small servings, even when they’re all priced from $4–$21. But while some will find the plating a bit precious and the flavors sometimes bending toward the experimental, what Plum does with beets and broccoli, halibut and albacore, burgers and oxtails, slow-cooked pork and smoked farm eggs is as satisfying as it is original. After some early staff turnover, Charlie Parker settled in as chef, Plum branched out from dinner and late-night service to add lunch and brunch, and started selling porchetta sandwiches from its “porky” pushcart on the sidewalk at lunchtime. Plus, Patterson recruited Scott Beattie (Cyrus, 15 Romolo, Spoonbar) to fashion an artisan cocktail list for the Plum Bar next door. How sweet is that?
2214 Broadway, Oakland,
(510) 444-7586, www.plumoakland.com

6. Hawker Fare
     As the first chef to earn a Michelin star in Oakland, James Syhabout could have rested on his laurels at Commis, where the modernist aesthetic appeals to those who’ve always wanted to eat at el Bulli in Spain or Alinea in Chicago. But Syhabout, born in Thailand and raised in Oakland, returned to his roots instead. Not only did he take Asian street food as his inspiration for a menu dominated by rice bowls and “snack aisle” starters, he also housed Hawker Fare in the storefront where his mother once operated her own restaurant.
     Although we’re not talking taco truck prices here, nothing on the menu tops 10 bucks, and with chef Justin Yu running with Syhabout’s passion for balanced seasoning, such rice bowls as vadouvan tofu, 24-hour pork belly and Issan sausage seem like bargains at $8.50, $9 and $9.50, respectively. The music and décor keep the sensibility grounded in the off-Broadway neighborhood, but it’s the surprising depth of the seemingly limited menu, from spicy blistered green beans ($5.50) to the Hawker sundae (with candied red beans and puffed rice, $6) that keeps Hawker hopping.  
2300 Webster St., Oakland,
(510) 832-8896, www.hawkerfare.com

7. Southie

     Rich and Rebekah Wood were early adopters of the spin-off-from-San Francisco-to-Oakland syndrome. From almost the day they opened Wood Tavern in early 2007 they have engendered remarkable loyalty. The enviable location, on College Avenue where Elmwood transitions into Rockridge, has something to do with their success, but not as much as their consistently delicious new American brasserie (and bar) cuisine. When they took over the tiny space next door, opened Southie and put chef Morgwn Jones in charge of the sandwich and small plates menu, a slam dunk seemed inevitable.
     But as the 18th-century German thinker Wilhelm von Humboldt said, “How a person masters his fate is more important than what his fate is.” And Jones and crew have truly mastered the fine art of upscale down-to-earth comfort food. When you combine a love of pork (truffled bacon and poached egg salad, $10; pork-pistachio terrine, $6; La Farine bakery baguettes and rolls stuffed with shaved porchetta, $12, spicy pulled pork, $10, and genuinely awesome beef-pork meatballs, $10) with huge portions of mussels ($11), a great small selection of beer and wine on tap and a super friendly staff that loves to engage, there’s no direction to go but up.
6311 College Ave., Oakland,
(510) 654-0100, www.southieoakland.com