Offbeat Eats in East Bay

Credit my son, Andrew, who is loving life in his adopted hometown of Oakland, California. It was he who planted the scrumptious seed in my disheveled brain.

“Dad, since Papou owned a bunch of restaurants back in DC,” he reasoned, “why don’t you take my advice and check out a short list of cool, indie places we have out here?”

I liked the idea, especially since it would be a great way to honor my dad’s memory. If memory serves, across his career he owned three roast beef houses, a crepe house, a couple of redneck saloons, a gay bar, and a couple more redneck saloons that happened to serve crepes and hot roast beef sandwiches.

(As an awkward 15-year-old pretending to be a busboy in one of my dad’s places, I recall tripping in the aisle during the height of a busy lunch. Then it happened: the contents of a bus pan oozing with peas and carrots found its way onto the lap of the assistant attorney general of the United States! I got to keep my job, because I knew the owner.

A quiet, unassuming man, the only thing my father said to me after that embarrassing incident was, “I’m not running a non-profit here. Go clean that booth.”

While Washington is an international destination, its reputation as a bona fide food town has been less-than-stellar. For too many years, DC was a place where restaurants came to die. They rolled up the sidewalks at 6 o’clock, was a familiar refrain. I don’t think they were talking AM.

To be fair, that ghost town image began to evaporate during Obama’s presidency, not unlike the marine layer around San Francisco as it readies itself to go wherever it is marine layers go when they’re not on the clock. Today, the city without a state – but, at last, with a Stanley Cup – has finally loosened its figurative necktie, kicked off its shoes and is welcoming a flotilla of new flavors.

What DC doesn’t have that East Bay does have are alluring displays of bougainvillea at the Safeway. Nor windows and doors thrown open at popular spots like Belotti, a nice Italian place on College Avenue.  So much nature! So close! So celebrated!

Then there is the block party that forms – even on Monday mornings – on the street in front of Peet’s near Berkeley.

Not in Washington. Here, especially during the steamy days of summer, you are drenched with that good-all-over sensation of being entombed.

Breeze into the Red Onion in El Cerrito and your senses go on high alert. The classic hamburger joint, done up in rich, retro splendor, offers an environment that channeled my youth.

The shop, nestled beneath elevated subway tracks, features a counter with eleven-count ‘em – faded black leather stools complemented by a sparkling black and white tiled floor.

I pondered the wallpaper, plastered with throwback Coca-Cola ads. Here’s one: “It’s a Pleasure to Say Just 5 Cents.” And the vintage milkshake machine! No powdery formula here. The trio of workers, all sporting cheery red aprons, mixed it up with customers. In the thick of the action was the owner, Sylvia Figueroa.

The native of Mexico emphasized she never felt called to automatically switch the menu to flavors of her homeland. “I always wanted to own a restaurant that sold hamburgers, cheeseburgers, and milkshakes,” she asserted. Nor, she continued, is there a need to spend money on advertising. “I have something that really works for me. I have word of mouth.”

Figueroa caters to all comers. “If you’re on a diet,” she declared, “I have a veggie burger. Instead of bread, I’ll give you lettuce. I fold it and it simulates a hamburger bun.”

High on the list of places to check out – if more for the ambiance than the food – was Richmond’s wind-whipped Point Isabel Regional Shoreline. It took me two more visits to learn that it serves as a playground for people and pooches. In fact, this tree-lined oasis, unceremoniously tucked away near Costco has the distinction of being one of the largest off-leash dog parks in America. True to its mission, there it’s business as usual, with abundant barking, running on long and short legs and barking. A few dogs frolic in the choppy water, their owners keeping a close eye on them from the rocky shore.

As yet another owner wheels his Volvo into a tight space, I catch snatches of conversation cascading from his radio. Obviously, the dial is set to a station tapping a liberal slant into the ether. “There is visceral anger,” is what I extract from the gab fest. “This is the first president who hasn’t aged in office, while the rest of us look a lot grayer.”

I met Audrey Waller. The Santa Cruz resident swooned it was her first time at the park.  She brought “Brie,” a rescue. Waller said she relishes being a part of a group of “like-minded people who get up and explore the day. Come and grab your coffee.”

Besides comingling along the water’s edge, owners and their dogs can restore and rehydrate at the nearby Sit and Stay café, a cozy snack-bar affair.  The menu brims with grilled chicken club and a mountain of energy bars, which makes sense, considering the aerobic haven that unfurls before them. The Americano coffee goes down as smooth and easy as the cup of hot apple cider—both beverages perfect for the bracing chill in the air.

Of course, while some eateries strictly enforce their no cell phone policy, off-leash dog parks also prescribe rules. “No grooming…No dogs on tables (I would assume that goes ditto for people)…No fetching, ball-throwing, Frisbee or rough play…and a reminder that Gum and Dogs Don’t Mix.”

Later that day, still on San Pablo, I strolled into Potala Organic Café. My son said he digs the place for its “monastery-quiet dining room,” where a photograph of the Dali Lama, the Tibetan spiritual leader, glimmers in a gold frame. Most conversations over vegan fare are barely audible. The soup changes daily, but the foundation – celery, collards, turnips and yams – is locked in.

For Krissy Eliot, Potala hits the spot. “It makes me feel sleepy, calm,” said Eliot, a magazine writer. Plus, she said, it keeps her regular.

Alfonso’s Café, Berkeley. I get weak-kneed when I spot a kiosk. Maybe that’s because in DC, the only kiosks have the Bank of America logo slapped on them, along with the warning of a10-foot clearance. This one’s hard to see from the road, set back nearly in the middle of a parking lot between Bancroft and Chaucer. Behind the counter, just by a white box of pastries from Hopkins Bakery, is Jose Flores. He reported when there’s a strong wind off the Bay, it tends to discourage patrons from sitting at the tables outdoors. “They want to sit inside. But the building is very small,” and the indoor seating is limited.

One day, I may uproot myself from button-down Washington and relocate to the Bay Area. When I’m not hanging out with my son, I can sip my morning coffee on the Berkeley campus; try to envision the anti-war protests of the 60s, while awaiting the next mudslide, wildfire, or earthquake. Aside from the cost of living, what’s not to like? Even if moving meant I could no longer crack open Maryland blue crabs, the ugly truth is that most of the `Maryland’ crustaceans are harvested from Gulf state waters. I demand a refund.

Goodbye, DC, cheap gas, policy wonks, and no discernable sidewalk cafes. Hello, mountains of playfulness, randomness, and Dungeness crabs, whatever they are.

I wonder if the assistant attorney general wore that pea-green suit again.