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Birthday dinner in Berkeley/Oakland - input please!

To kick off my birthday weekend on January 15th, I am planning to have dinner with a few friends in the Berkeley/Oakland area. I know that there are plenty of threads on the subject, and indeed, I've been to most of these restaurants over the years.

But here's the thing - I actually haven't been eating out at restaurants that much in the past year, and even though I have my strong opinions and faves, I'd like to be pushed out of my comfort zone, and be surprised somewhere I haven't been in a while. Mostly, I'd like to have the dinner be extraordinary, and good value, and a good experience for all. I should note that I am food obsessed, cuisine savvy, like very good wine lists by the glass, and will eat anything. Also, small plates place are OK, as long as they are at the level of cookery of the restaurants mentioned below.

Here are the choices I'm considering:
Sea Salt (this is my default restaurant, and will probably have a great meal here, but I do go there all the time for happy hour, so am hesitant to be that unadventurous)

Riva Cucina (again, have been here often, the owners are friends, and perhaps a little too familiar for this particular dinner)

Rivoli (same as above, except I haven't been in about 3 years)

Bay Wolf (haven't been in about 3 years, was underwhelmed by everything but the duck pate the last time I went)

Lalimes (the new chef sounds exciting)

Oliveto (haven't been in forever, is this the time?)

Commis (maybe?)

Chez Panisse (haven't been downstairs since 2007)

A Cote?


Anything else exciting that I'm forgetting?

Here are the restaurants I am definitely not considering for various reasons:

Pizzaiolo (i'm in the minority, but find it overpriced and meh)
Flora (always had terrible service here, can't convince my posse to go, although I like the food)
Dona Tomas (many birthdays spent here)
Cafe Rouge (not special enough for dinner?)

We'll be about 5 people, I think. Thanks!

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  1. I would think Commis, but I'm not sure if it will meet your value criterion -- opinions seem to differ depending on how much value the diner places on their interest in what the chef is trying to do, rather then the results. I think the new menu at Lalime's would be my next choice -- did you see the post from yesterday?

    I don't know if it's a high enough level of cuisine, but have you considered Bocanova?

    1. I'd vote Commis. I did my birthday dinner there and had a wonderful meal. Service is stellar and the food is wonderful. I think the value is clearly there and having eaten there a couple of times can't quite understand the talk of small portions.

      Otherwise, I always like Chez Panisse for a celebration.

      1 Reply
      1. re: absc

        I went both before and after the Bauer review, and I think the portions (both of food and wine) increased significantly after the review. I think it's a solidly excellent value now.

      2. À Côté can't be beat for wines by the glass.

        The one other place I'd put on a list like that is Wood Tavern. Maybe Corso as well.

        I think Oliveto is better than ever. Pricey but worth it.

        The food at Bocanova is really good. I was surprised.

        1. I'm curious about Lalime's, now, so I'd probably go there. I also like A Cote a lot. You could add Five to your list. My dinner there was uneven but the room is birthday-ish.

          1. Another vote for Commis, as I had an amazing birthday dinner there a month ago. When you say something that will push your limits or surprise you, that's the first place that came to mind. Depends on your budget, though, obviously, but if you're considering Oliveto and Chez Panisse as well, I thought Commis was great bang for the buck in this price range.


            The only drawback is that it's a tiny space, and I don't know if any of the tables are actually big enough for five. Anyone know what they do for larger groups there?

            Otherwise, I like Wood Tavern as well.

            1 Reply
            1. re: abstractpoet

              We had a six top there for my birthday.

            2. For the experience and the $$ my suggestion would be the annual crab feast at the U.C. Berkeley Faculty Club. It is a phenomenal all-you-can-eat crab and seafood buffet and as much wine as anyone would want - all for $40.00 per person. You must know a member and if you're interested email me and I'll get your party in. In the meantime, go to www.berkeleyfacultyclub.com to see the facility. It will be Friday, January 15th.

              1. So the small birthday dinner grew into a 20 person gathering, and all the restaurants I was considering no longer seemed like viable options. So I went waaaay off-course and decided to do a banquet at China Village instead.

                I worked with Mr. Yao to replace items on the $238/10 ppl (which we doubled) menu to make it more vegetarian friendly. In addition to the standard cucumber appetizer and spicy beef tendon, we got a subtle and delicious yuba appetizer lightly slicked with sesame oil, and a peanut/pressed tofu appetizer. Our calamari and shrimp first course was simple and spectacular, a light garlic wine sauce fully showcasing juicy prawns and well-knifed calamari. This was followed by the only disappointing course - "dry shredded beef in special sauce." I was somehow expecting the spicy shredded beef with celery, and this version was pallid and soupy. When I shared this with our excellent waiter, he comped us a dish of the beef with celery, which became the favorite of the evening at both tables. The smoked duck with chilies was very, very good, with just the right amount of sichuan pepper offsetting the richness of the duck. I'm not a fan of sweeter meat preparations, so this version of duck was perfect for me, and a hit with the other guests. Salt and pepper crab was *excellent* with a nice hit again of sichuan pepper. The Westside Spicy Fish Soup delivered on drama, as expected, and was redolent with chili warmth, on target. The next few dishes were vegetarian - A-vegetable with fermented tofu, eggplant, and julienned potato. The comic element of the evening was the much touted "fancy" vegetarian dish - tree ear mushrooms with tofu. When it arrived, Mr. Yao said - this has pork in it, because we tried it without the pork and it didn't taste good!" Ha! Well, that meant one less dish for the vegetarian at the table. My favorite dish of the evening was the pork shoulder with perfectly cooked florets of bok choy balancing out the heat and 5 spice of the sauce. Hand-cut noodles were on the house in honor of my birthday, and the Eight Treasure rice pudding was beautiful to look at! Beer flowed throughout, we brought our own wines and champagne, but all told, including corkage, tax and tip, the bill came out to $37 per person. An amazing value, and a wonderful birthday celebration.

                Now, I'm going to use the recommendations above and check out each of the restaurants you all suggested, especially Commis and Bocanova!

                China Village
                1335 Solano Ave, Albany, CA 94706

                1 Reply
                1. re: mielemaiale

                  You should also consider trying out Eve on University and Five at Hotel Shattuck.