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Help! Another Berkeley/Oakland Graduation Dinner Query

Help! Another Berkeley/Oakland Graduation Dinner Query

Hi everyone! I am graduating from Cal on May 12th, and I am going to have a family dinner afterwards (ideally around 6:30). There will be about 10 people ranging in age from 10-85. All of us appreciate good food, but some are not too adventurous. I really want a place with great food that is not too fancy and definitely not stuffy. We tend to be pretty loud so I would like a place that isn’t too intimate and quiet, with a fun, laid-back atmosphere. We won’t be in a hurry, so slow-ish service isn’t too big an issue.

I originally thought to do the Chez Panisse Café but I am a little worried about parking (walking is not an option for my 85 year-old grandparents) and also I’ve been there 3 or 4 times and I feel like I might like to do something different. Also, I am afraid the atmosphere might be a little too intimate (i.e. low lights, lots of couples). However, my parents (who are paying!) still think CP Cafe is the best choice, so if I do go somewhere else I would like the food to be comparable at least.

My top choice at this point is Dopo, but I am also looking at Pizzaiolo (I figure Italian is a pretty safe choice with just about everyone), however I haven’t eaten at either of them and I’ve chosen them mostly from research I’ve done on CH (and cause I’ve wanted to try Dopo for a couple years now!) .

Can anyone give me advice about whether the atmosphere at these places sounds like it would work well for what I’ve described (I have heard that Dopo is small, but is it lively enough that we would feel comfortable as a loud-ish group?)? Also, any other suggestions for places that might be good choices that I’ve overlooked (some other ideas I’ve had are: Café Rouge, Zuni (rejected because I don’t want to go to the city/parking), CP downstairs (too expensive, too intimate), Oliveto (liked it when I’ve been, didn’t LOVE it), Eccolo (I know nothing about this place))? Also, how do Dopo and Pizzaiolo compare to CP Cafe and Oliveto (i.e. two places I've been) in terms of food deliciousness (and quality) and also the price?

Thanks for the help!

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  1. Pizzaiolo's the first place that comes to mind given your requirements. The chef-owner worked at Chez Panisse Cafe for ten years and cooks in much the same style.

    Dopo's not small since they expanded into the next storefront. I don't think parking's much easier there than at Chez Panisse.

    1. The atmosphere at Pizzaiolo may work for your party -- you would either be placed in their back room (which has one big table that seats about 12 or so, and two smaller tables where people who aren't of your party would likely be placed, or the long table in the back of the main room of the restaurant. The back room is better, because it's quieter, but it's still pretty lively there, plenty of noise from the rest of the restaurant and music playing. One question, though, is whether it might be too lively and not fancy enough for your family, given what you've said -- it's not a dressy place at all, and has a pretty casual atmosphere, and I can't tell whether that would work for you. I'd also suggest that you check out their website, they have menus posted usually for the day or a few days before, so if you look every day for a week or so, you'll see most of the variety that they have on the menu, so you can see if that's the kind of food that you and your family will like. There the parking won't be a problem, because there's a big lot across the street (often crowded, but I always find a spot).

      Dopo is great, but it is smaller -- I've seen big parties there, though, of about that size. It's less loud than Pizzaiolo (the atmosphere is more in between that an CP cafe, I'd say), so that might be a consideration. I think you'd be fine as a loudish group there, though, because though it's quieter, it's not a quiet restaurant. However, parking at Dopo will definitely be much more of a problem.

      Both of those places are much much cheaper than Oliveto (looking at the Pizzaiolo website will help, the pizzas all range from around $14 to 18, and the entrees are all around $21-25, I think), and cheaper than CP Cafe (especially since they both lend to sharing appetizers and pizzas).

      Cafe Rouge would be a fun place, and I think the parking there wouldn't be that difficult.

      3 Replies
      1. re: JasmineG

        Thanks to everyone for such great, FAST responses!
        In response to Jasmine, the place doesn't need to be fancy at all for me, though not too casual for my grandparents' sake-- from the sound of it I think Pizzaiolo would probably not be too casual. I will stop by Pizzaiolo one of these days and take a look . . . from the sounds of these responses that may be a better option than Dopo (I am actually having lunch today at Dopo so I will see how that goes and how I like the room/food/etc.)

        1. re: JasmineG

          I don't suggest the back room at Pizzaiolo for a group of 10. The giant table seats 20, and they will seat other parties with you.

          The large table in the main room is the perfect size for a party of 10.

          1. re: Morton the Mousse

            The large table in the main room is a lot more difficult with older people in the group, however, and it makes it much harder to communicate to the whole table. The people sitting against the wall basically have no hope of hearing the people at the other end of the table, and the whole table will have to get up if anyone needs to go to the restroom. Not the greatest place to sit for a group including kids and elderly people.

        2. I love both Dopo and Pizzaiolo. In this case, I think you should go to Pizzaiolo. The space is larger, and the kitchen is better suited to accomodate a group of 10. Also, parking is much, much easier as you can park in the Walgreens lot across the street from Pizzaiolo (totally legit, no tickets or towing) whereas Dopo is limited to difficult Piedmont street parking.

          1. I don't think that Dopo takes reservations, even for groups that size. Pizzaolo does, and lots of people on this board recommend it for large groups. However, I want to warn you about my three experiences with making reservartions there, for groups of 4. Each time, we were not seated until 30 to 40 minutes after our reservation time, and there is really no comfortable place to wait, particularly for older relatives. The host has never been apologetic at all about the wait; in fact, quite the opposite. The closest we ever got to an apology, after standing outside in the rain for 30 minutes, was: people without reservations have to wait much longer. I understand that reservations are not an exact science, but at this restaurant, the waits with reservations have been consistently too long for me me to consider going there on a special occasion. Or anytime with my husband, who refuses to ever go again, after our last 3 experiences. Perhaps they would be better able to accomodate a reservation for a large group, but I would not risk it unless other people report better experiences.

            In contrast, I've had wonderful experiences with group dinners at Zax Tavern. They have a lovely small room in the back, that perfectly holds 10 people. We had a terrific 10 person dinner there Thanksgiving weekend. Parking nearby on Telegraph is almost always very easy. There service is consistently great, and the food is very good. I would not put it in the same league as CP and Zuni (2 of my absolute favorites), but it is really, really good. Prices are reasonable for what you get, and there are choices that would appeal to folks of all ages. Loud, happy dinner conversation would be perfectly appropriate.

            6 Replies
            1. re: Jamie Rudman

              I agree that if you aren't seated on time waiting for your table at Pizzaiolo is a problem. However, I think if you go early with a large group and are told you will have the large table, that it shouldn't be a problem.

              I used to really like Zax, especially the desserts, but FWIW, my last two dinners at Zax have been quite disappointing. I remember a pork stew with overcooked, stringy meat. Service is very good, although I once did have a problem there where, despite having made a reservation well in advance, they tried to seat our small group in the bar (where the seats are quite uncomfortable). Presumably that wouldn't happen if you specified the back room. Still, I think that the food at most of your other choices will make you happier than Zax will, unless they've taken another turn way uphill...

              1. re: susancinsf

                I've also given up on Zax after a couple of underwhelming meals. The food at Pizzaiolo and Dopo is so much better.

              2. re: Jamie Rudman

                Reservations at Pizzaiolo can have these problems -- if you're going to go there, I'd suggest getting a 5:30 reservation.

                1. re: JasmineG

                  Yes, you'll always be seated on time with a 5:30 reservation, 6:30 will be tough, though, I don't believe they offer a 6:30 res for a party of any size.

                  1. re: Morton the Mousse

                    I waited about 30 minutes for a 7:30 reservation. I think the only hopes of sitting down on time are a 5:30 reservation and one after 8:30.

                2. re: Jamie Rudman

                  Thanks for the heads-up-- the fact that Dopo apparently didn't take reservations was a concern for me but I called them and they said that they do for groups over 6!

                3. Parking at Dopo won't be any easier than Chez Panisse Cafe, as others have said, and the menu at Dopo is more limited than either CP or Pizzaiolo, which I think is an issue with a not too adventurous group, even if it is Italian...The back room will be quieter if you are the group at the large table back there and can control the music volume...otherwise, it can get very loud back there, or in the back of the main room...

                  I think the menu at and atmosphere at Eccolo would be great for your group. Here is my report from last year:

                  http://www.chowhound.com/topics/43352...

                  also, their website:

                  http://www.eccolo.com/

                  This should give you an idea of what the place is like. Prices are fairly comparable to CP Cafe.

                  BTW, someone in the thread I link refers to 'terrible parking'. Perhaps for lunch, but not for dinner: there is a parking lot right behind the restaurant.

                  9 Replies
                  1. re: susancinsf

                    Good point about Dopo's eccentric menu. They have appetizers, pastas, and pizzas, but no entrees. Not a place to take someone who wants a piece of fish or meat.

                    If you didn't love the food at Oliveto, you probably won't love the food at Eccolo. It's very similar, not quite as good. Service at Eccolo can be spacey.

                    1. re: Robert Lauriston

                      All I can say in response to this is that after four tries, I *don't* love the food at Oliveto, but I *do* love (or at least very much like) the food at Eccolo. I don't agree that it is very similar, and certainly the service I have had at Eccolo has been better than at Oliveto.

                      1. re: susancinsf

                        Interesting. What do you find different about the food? I like Eccolo's food a lot, the only reason I don't eat there more often is that it seemed so similar to Oliveto's.

                        1. re: Robert Lauriston

                          While I know both are Italian in influence, I consider Oliveto to be more traditionally Italian (I know you could argue that point, but that is how they describe themselves on their own website), whereas I think of Eccolo as Cal-Ital.

                          I do think Oliveto is somewhat less accessible to an unadventurous diner, both in terms of the menu and the service. There will be more unfamiliar tastes, combinations and even menu terms at Oliveto than at Eccolo, which I think is an important consideration for a group.Indeed, Oliveto is heavier on organ meats, game, and stronger flavors. (as well as on pork, I can recall a post I did on my last visit upstairs, with my Muslim daughter, where I commented on the relative difficulty finding non-pork dishes, and someone, I believe it was you, commented that perhaps Oliveto wasn't the best place to bring someone who didn't eat pork...of course, now I can't find that thread on a search...)

                          On a positive note, Oliveto has more pastas than does Eccolo...

                          Don't get me wrong, I love traditional Italian food, but just haven't been able to develop any love for Oliveto. It has admittedly been a few years since I've eaten there (I kept giving them 'one more chance, and kept leaving feeling that I hadn't gotten my monies worth...)

                          Plus Eccolo is somewhat cheaper, with mains in the $20 (roast chicken, and it is good here, not to mention a great choice for someone who wants a simple meal!) to $30 range (top price on the current menu, for a veal chop)...vs Oliveto, which currently ranges from $22 (pork sausage) to $34 (rib eye steak)...Similarly, the appetizers at Eccolo are mostly under $10, whereas every first course except a green salad and the soup at Oliveto is more than $10, and most are around $13 or so. Interestingly, pastas are a bit less at Oliveto, which I suspect reflects the intention that they not replace a main course...and the wine list is definitely more expensive at Oliveto.

                          None of the above is why I prefer Eccolo however: bottom line for me as I say is that I gave Oliveto a number of tries, and always left feeling that I hadn't gotten my monies worth from either food or service: a feeling I haven't had at Eccolo. The 'feel' at Oliveto is just a heck of lot more of one of self importance than I feel at Eccolo.

                          But the OP can decide for herself:

                          http://www.eccolo.com/dinner.htm

                          http://www.oliveto.com/basic.html

                          Susan

                          1. re: susancinsf

                            Actually the most expensive main course on the menu for Eccolo tonight is $42 for a Niman Ranch rib eye steak with creamed spinach and Sarladaise potatoes. Which is fancier side dishes and likely a bigger serving than Oliveto's $34 ribeye tagliata with chicories.

                            The menu at Oliveto's changed significantly in the last two years since Paul Canales took over. In particular the main courses generally include side dishes. And the service has gotten much better--he's much tighter with the front of the house than Paul Bertolli was.

                            1. re: Robert Lauriston

                              yes, you are right, that is a special tonight. I was looking at the regular menu and missed that down at the bottom. But it doesn't change my point: obviously what you order has an impact on price, and the price ranges do overlap, but prices are generally lower at Eccolo.

                              I can't remember whether my last meal was just before, or just after, Canales took over. I believe there were side dishes, so perhaps it was after, but I can't remember. I am thinking if I do try it again I might go 'whole hog' and try the Whole Hog (without my daughter of course :-))...for a regular celebratory meal there are just too many that are higher on my list (including Pizzaiolo and Chez Panisse) than Oliveto for me to want to try again...especially now that I live on the other side of the bay (when I used to live in Rockridge Oliveto's proximity was appealing.)

                            2. re: susancinsf

                              Thanks for the Eccolo tip, susaninsf . . . I will look into that since I've had similar feelings about Oliveto-- I've always enjoyed it but never loved it and didn't quite feel it was worth the price/hype.

                      2. re: susancinsf

                        Susan, as the weather improves, you should try the back patio at Pizzaiolo. It's like a completely different restaurant: quite, peaceful, serene even. They have good heaters for when the sun goes down.

                        1. re: Morton the Mousse

                          It is on my list! :-) Thanks for the reminder about the patio...I feel a meatball craving coming on.....

                      3. The loudest, most fun atmosphere I've recently experienced was at Dona Tomas, a few steps down from Pizzaiolo. Another "safe" (non-Italian) choice. Full of laughing, singing people, festive atmosphere in casual but nice red-walled rooms. They also have an outdoor patio which might make it a good option.
                        http://www.sfgate.com/g/pictures/2005...
                        http://www.chowhound.com/topics/37729...

                        3 Replies
                        1. re: grocerytrekker

                          Don't know if Dona Thomas crosses the adventurous line for some people as it did with someone I took there and we had to leave because that person wasn't into 'ethnic food' ... and NO it didn't look too Americanized to them. I mean who doesn't like Mexican and this ain't even Mexican, Mexican.

                          I havn't been, but I'd check out Eccolo. It is someplace I want to try and given your parents fondness for Chez Panisse that might be acceptable if Dopo or Pizzaiolo won't do. Given it is a graduation day, if all else fails, maybe think about T-Rex. It really has gone up in quality, there's lots of easy parking, certainly a large group would be no problem, it is an easy walk-in for your grandparents and they have an interesting beer and cocktail menu ... it's a Lalime's group restaurant though ... which with the exception of the mother restuarant I find unexceptional in terms of wine. Just a back-up thought though ... not a top rec.

                          1. re: rworange

                            I've never found Eccolo very lively. Quieter, older crowd.

                            1. re: Robert Lauriston

                              There was a large multi-generational group (of about 12 persons) on my last visit. They seemed to be having a very good time.

                        2. Cesar on Piedmont is another option. There's a big public parking lot right in back.

                          http://www.barcesar.com/piedmont/dail...

                          4 Replies
                          1. re: Robert Lauriston

                            I wouldn't count on that lot. It's used by all the folks going to longs, as well as people eating, shopping, etc in that area. It's almost always packed, in my experience.

                            1. re: Hunicsz

                              I've always found a space there at dinnertime.

                            2. re: Robert Lauriston

                              That lot is very difficult to park in, especially since Cesar opened.

                              1. re: JasmineG

                                I never parked there much before Cesar opened.

                            3. Congrats. My friend is graduating and I suggested Zuni Cafe (on market) and LuLu (on Folsom, by 4th) to her. Both of them have valet parking. Both are nice and can accomodate a large party like yours but both are in the city.
                              LuLu has a room full of large tables and there menu is huge (lots of variety). I would definitely say try the daily specials, fritto misto of artichokes, mussels, pizzas, grilled meats...etc. Zuni is great too and you should be able to find decent street parking (free at meters after 6pm) but again, there is valet. I would suggest the Caesar salad, burger, fries, roasted chicken and oysters.

                              If you really don't want to venture into the city and would rather stay in east bay, two locations that do very good food, are fun and take reservations only for large groups are Sea Salt (san pablo, near dwight) and Fonda (solano Ave). Sea Salt is great except that it offers only seafood (everything I've had has been good, ex: clam chowder, BLT, fish n chips, lobster roll, any grilled fish) and Fonda
                              has excellent modern central american small plates (duck tacos, carnitas, steak, lamb, scallops were all good).

                              Hope this helps.

                              1. Thanks again to everyone for all the response. You guys mentioned a bunch of places that sounds promising that I overlooked, but it seems that (judging from most of the comments) overall both Dopo and Pizzaiolo would work well, so I think I will keep it simple and keep the choice between those two.

                                I had planned to go to Dopo for lunch today but got there and found they were closed (I assume because of the Easter weekend) . . . However, it seems like there were a lot of positive comments about Pizzaiolo, and it definitely sounds like it would work and be fun . . . I think I might try to eat there sometime this week to check it out. Thanks for the heads up about reservation problems, I think the 5:30 reservation sounds like a good idea (as long as we can all refrain from eating too many of the munchies they provide at the after-graduation reception).

                                I'll try to report back and let folks know what I decided and how it worked out!