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Berkeley/Oakland birthday dinners -- overwhelmed by choice!

DavisSquare Mar 17, 2010 10:10 AM

Help, please! I have to arrange a dinner for two successive nights for significant birthdays (n0 and n5 for suitably large values of n) from afar. The breadth and depth of dining choices in Oakland and Berkeley is a vast improvement since I moved East lo those many years ago, but the range of choices has me a little overwhelmed (far better than the alternative problem, however).

We're starting out near Lakeshore, so anywhere between Downtown Berkeley and Downtown Oakland would be fine. Further excursions are possible for extraordinary food, but I don't think we want or need to go into the City.

The first night will be more casual with a couple of adventurous eaters and a couple less so. I was thinking perhaps of Chinese or SE Asian (Battambang? a really good Thai?) or sit-down Mexican (where?), but would love other suggestions (and perhaps tips on getting some authentic dishes when half the party will order sweet and sour chicken :-).

The second night is a bit trickier with about 10 of us, including the four from the night before. We absolutely need somewhere that will take reservations, and diners range from adventurous to fussy. I think sticking to "New American" is safest, with B in Oakland looking pretty good. What say you?

Finally, we may try Dim Sum on Saturday morning. Any consensus on the best place in Oakland Chinatown?

I appreciate, in advance, the help, and promise to let you all know where we end up and how well we fare.

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  1. JasmineG RE: DavisSquare Mar 17, 2010 10:16 AM

    Well, you didn't ask for Italian, but I've had and been to a number of birthday dinners at Pizzaiolo, and they do a great job -- the pizza and pasta are good for less adventurous diners, but will please adventurous ones as well. That might be good for the second dinner; they do take reservations, though you'll have to call well in advance for a large party. For the first night, Burma Superstar in Temescal might be a good choice; it has familiar things for the less adventurous in the group as well as some unfamiliar for the others.

    1 Reply
    1. re: JasmineG
      myst RE: JasmineG Mar 17, 2010 10:56 AM

      I agree DimSum at East Ocean in Alameda - try to get there before noon as it will get a line. This place is also great if you had the 10+ for Chinese - they have very reasonable banquet menus and the food is good.

      BurmaStar also has an Alameda location (Bagnan) the food is a nice mix of Chinese/Indian flavors.

      Zen in Alameda is a kind of fusion Asian place that is good for drinks and tapas size plates.

    2. Ruth Lafler RE: DavisSquare Mar 17, 2010 10:32 AM

      I think B is an excellent choice. For Chinese/SE Asian/really good Thai, I'd check out Champa Garden, which depending on where in "Lakeshore" you are might be closer than Chinatown: http://www.champagarden.com/. The food there is delicious, but somehow not challenging, unless you order the Lao versions they offer for some dishes, which can be pretty heavy on funky fish sauce. Get the appetizer sampler and the 50. Pad Ped Pla Dook (fried catfish) (really, my friend who claimed he doesn't like catfish scarfed it up). There are long threads on what to order there if you pull up the listing for them here.

      Champa Garden
      2102 8th Ave, Oakland, CA 94606

      1 Reply
      1. re: Ruth Lafler
        ML8000 RE: Ruth Lafler Mar 17, 2010 10:42 AM

        B is a good choice. You can also grab a drink across the street afterwards at Lavende East (very cocktail-ish) or at The Trappist for a Belgium brew around the corner.

        Also next door to The Trappist is Tamarindo Antojeria, a pleasant and modern sit-down Mexican place. (side note: I was walking by Tamarindo and they're opening a Tequila bar next to their current place, between the Trappist, big window sign)

      2. Robert Lauriston RE: DavisSquare Mar 17, 2010 10:40 AM

        Second on Champa Garden. Cheap and great Laotian but relatively nice place with relatively festive atmosphere (compared with, say, Chai Thai or Green Papay) plus they have Beerlao and Navarro wines. Great place for a party.


        Shanghai and Spices!3, or both, are a couple of other options in that vein. Or Ahn Hong in downtown Berkeley, relatively nice space with a relatively good bar.

        B is a great choice for a party of 10, reserve the big table in the back. The back room at A Cote is another good option. So is Pizzaiolo.

        Dim sum, I'd go through the tunnel to East Ocean in Alameda.

        5 Replies
        1. re: Robert Lauriston
          Ruth Lafler RE: Robert Lauriston Mar 17, 2010 12:56 PM

          Yeah, when I was at Champa recently I was struck by how festive it seemed. Plus, the parking there is really easy, unlike some of the other areas under consideration. If you want it to be even cheaper, it's on restaurant.com (current promotion is 70 percent off, promo code LUCKY)

          1. re: Ruth Lafler
            Robert Lauriston RE: Ruth Lafler Mar 17, 2010 03:35 PM

            I'm not sure I understand that site. You can get a $25 gift certificate for $10, so that's $15 off. the minimum $35 purchase. If you enter LUCKY the gift certificate is free?

            1. re: Robert Lauriston
              cvhound RE: Robert Lauriston Mar 17, 2010 03:42 PM

              Robert, you're spending anywhere from $1 to $3 at restaurant.com in order to purchase the gift certifcate. However, in order to use the $25 g/c at Champa Garden, CG requires you to spend a minimum of $35 before tax and tip. I believe add'l requirements imposed by CG are that you must eat-in (so no take-out) and you can only use the g/c at dinner, not lunch, and you may only use one g/c per table.

              Champa Garden
              2102 8th Ave, Oakland, CA 94606

              1. re: Robert Lauriston
                wolfe RE: Robert Lauriston Mar 17, 2010 03:42 PM

                The gift certificate is $3 with 70% off and with 80 and 90% promotions is $2 and $1.

                1. re: Robert Lauriston
                  Ruth Lafler RE: Robert Lauriston Mar 17, 2010 04:07 PM

                  The percentage off is off the discounted certificate price. So, for example, if you choose the $25 gift certificate the regular price is $10. When you apply the promo code that amount is discounted by the promotional percentage. So, for example, with 70 percent off, the $25 gift certificate is $3 (70 percent off the regular price of $10). Of course there are various restrictions (be sure to read the terms and conditions, they vary slightly from restaurant to restaurant), but it will still save you a few bucks. For example, my friend and I had dinner at Champa Garden, barely met the $35 minimum, and after tax and tip it was slightly less than $30 (not including the $2 the gift certificate cost me), so we saved about $15.

            2. nicedragonboy RE: DavisSquare Mar 17, 2010 11:29 AM

              math major foodie? i'm glad i'm not the only one! well, someone mentioned pizzziolo, but their offshoot, Boot & Shoe Service, is right near your way on Grand a couple of blocks up from the theater.

              But closer to what your looking for, you might consider having everyone brave getting lost in near east Oakland to find Champa Garden. Nestled in a quiet neighborhood, I would call in a reservation, but their food is great and the menu has enough variety for the adventurous and the less so. Only about a 5-10 minute drive from Lake Merritt.

              B in Oakland is a good choice, Also not that far from that area is Chop Bar and Bocanova.

              For Saturday's dim sum, I say go through Posey tube into Alameda for dim sum at East Ocean. You'll find that it's cleaner, bigger and has better parking in the neighborhood than anything in Oakland. Though, East Ocean in Emeryville would have the nicer view.

              1 Reply
              1. re: nicedragonboy
                Robert Lauriston RE: nicedragonboy Mar 17, 2010 11:35 AM

                Boot & Shoe doesn't take reservations and the wait can be over an hour, so Pizzaiolo might work better for this purpose.

                Bocanova is great.

              2. Robert Lauriston RE: DavisSquare Mar 17, 2010 11:33 AM

                Another option for the first night, particularly if the people are wine lovers, Great China in Berkeley.


                6 Replies
                1. re: Robert Lauriston
                  bbulkow RE: Robert Lauriston Mar 17, 2010 08:14 PM

                  I dissent on Great China. They seem to do only a few dishes well, and apparently I don't know what they are. Or, I hear, you need to know the owner. For a random birthday dinner, if you're going chinese, you'd want a place with more consistency across the menu (just about anywhere).

                  Great China Restaurant
                  1589 Farmers Ln, Santa Rosa, CA 95405

                  1. re: bbulkow
                    abstractpoet RE: bbulkow Mar 17, 2010 09:51 PM

                    Really? Every dish I've had at Great China has at least been fairly good, and several have been great -- especially the Peking duck, which is one of the best versions I've had in the U.S. And everyone loves Peking duck, right? Even non-adventurous eaters. But I've found that they do a pretty decent job even with seemingly generic dishes, like a plate of sauteed bok choy. The only complaint I'd make is that the service is pretty brusque, but no more so than plenty of other Chinese restaurants (and the owner himself seems quite friendly, whether you know him personally or not).

                    What have you had there that you didn't care for?

                    Great China Restaurant
                    1589 Farmers Ln, Santa Rosa, CA 95405

                    1. re: abstractpoet
                      bbulkow RE: abstractpoet Mar 17, 2010 11:18 PM

                      I think one dish might have been scallops and baby choi and mushrooms, and I don't remember the other dish. While neither was bad in any way, the best I'd call those dishes I had was inoffensive and non-destination-worthy. Average, maybe. China Village I'm used to the "classic" dishes being noteworthy and lip-smacking. Not to say that the regional styles of those restaurants are similar in any way, simply their approach to the "classics".

                      1. re: bbulkow
                        Ruth Lafler RE: bbulkow Mar 17, 2010 11:36 PM

                        Great China's best dishes are marked "house specialties" on the menu -- not hard to find, although there are a few dishes among them I would consider suspect. I'm a little puzzled by your reference to the "classic" dishes at China Village being "noteworthy" since they use the term "classic" on their menu to denote traditional American-Chinese dishes that I wouldn't bother to order at China Village.

                        1. re: Ruth Lafler
                          bbulkow RE: Ruth Lafler Mar 18, 2010 12:37 AM

                          Me neither, but I went with "less adventurous diners", they ordered "classics" and I was quite impressed. Not impressed enough to order them myself, but it was a fine rendition of lemon chicken.

                    2. re: bbulkow
                      Robert Lauriston RE: bbulkow Mar 18, 2010 09:07 AM

                      Dining well at a Chinese restaurant that mixes exciting regional specialty dishes among a larger number of boring Chinese-American standards can be a challenge, but at least Great China now has the asterisks.

                      Many of Great China's specialties are Shandong / Korean-Chinese dishes. I'd order all of them again except the tang soo yuk, which was too sweet for my taste. The other plus is that it's the only Chinese restaurant I know around here with a great wine list.

                      If you want to know which dishes to order to have a great meal there:


                      If you want "classic" Chinese-American or Hong Kong dishes, go somewhere else.

                      Great China Restaurant
                      1589 Farmers Ln, Santa Rosa, CA 95405

                  2. daveena RE: DavisSquare Mar 17, 2010 12:36 PM

                    Lots of good recs in this thread - I'd like to put in a plug for Pican, which has been consistently good on my last few trips. Upscale Southern (they make some great fried chicken, but they also do some fantastic pork belly), gorgeous space well suited to large festive groups, consistently excellent food. Good cocktails, extensive bourbon list. It's usually pretty easy to get reservations, I think.

                    1 Reply
                    1. re: daveena
                      JasmineG RE: daveena Mar 17, 2010 06:56 PM

                      Pican is a great recommendation, as is Champa Garden. The only hesitation about Champa is that it's a little in the middle of nowhere (easy to get to, and five minutes from the freeway, but not in a business district at all), so if people are nervous about places that they don't know in Oakland, they may be a little concerned. That said, I think it's a completely safe area, and I don't hesitate to drive there by myself at night, it's just something to know.

                      Champa Garden
                      2102 8th Ave, Oakland, CA 94606

                      Pican Restaurant
                      2295 Broadway, Oakland, CA 94612

                    2. d
                      dcfb RE: DavisSquare Mar 17, 2010 11:07 PM

                      Fussy scares me a bit. Not sure how to please fussy people so my thoughts are with you.

                      I enjoyed the new menu that debuted at B last week or so (they rotate seasonally - something we learned while living nearby). The menu is not on the site yet, but I expect it will be soon. The burger on the menu right now is a bit pricy for me but one of the best I have had. Delicious, Niman Ranch beef, piled with fancy and tasty. The scallop appetizer has a nice bitter green underneath to play off the smoothness and creaminess of the scallops. Yum. My favorite on the new menu is the chicken dish. Can't remember how to describe it, but it was comfort food. I also noticed they are rotating their cheese selections more which I appreciate as a cheese guy.

                      Peony is the best dim sum in Oakland Chinatown to me, but sometimes service is odd. If they have had dim sum in Hong Kong, Vancouver and other super dim sum cities, it will be hard to be as good, but I've liked Peony. My one trip to East Ocean in Alameda was uneven, but that is hardly enough to refute the praise they have received.

                      We also just went to Champa Garden for the second time and loved it both times. Just flavorful, well-prepared, and very reasonably priced food. I kind of want to go there right now :) For more expensive, but a nice spin on Thai, I also like Soi Four in Rockridge. Good if you want to hang out after and walk around.

                      My one meal at Battambang didn't do much for me.

                      For Mexican, my favorites right now are Tamarindo (around from B, but sometimes harder for a large group), El Huarache Azteca, and a tiny little place on San Pablo called Chile Jalapeno.

                      El Huarache Azteca
                      3842 International Blvd, Oakland, CA 94601

                      850 Broadway, Oakland, CA 94607

                      Champa Garden
                      2102 8th Ave, Oakland, CA 94606

                      Chile Jalapenos
                      6706 San Pablo Ave, Oakland, CA 94608

                      468 8th St, Oakland, CA 94607

                      Niman Ranch Corporate Headquarters
                      1600 Harbor Bay Pkwy, Alameda, CA 94502

                      1. DavisSquare RE: DavisSquare May 9, 2010 12:23 PM

                        Hey, thanks everyone. The weekend went off spectacularly, and the food was great. We went to Champa Garden on Friday night and had wonderful food. The Tom Yum in particular was one of the best I've ever had. Subtile blend of coconut milk, lemon grass, kaffir lime, ginger, and I'm sure a bunch of other stuff. It would make a fantastic lunch all by itself. Beerlao isn't bad either. A bunch of the locals live near there and had never heard of the place; you certainly wouldn't go looking for a meal in that location.

                        The second night, we were too full from the birthday party to go out, but we did have delicious dim sum at East Ocean. Everything was wonderful, but I'd strongly advise you to get there early. By the time we left at 10:45, there was a line down the block out front.

                        Thanks again for the recommendations. My local contacts now give me credit for superior chowdar, and I owe it all to you. If you're ever in Boston, please come to our board, there are lots of good eats out our way too.

                        Champa Garden
                        2102 8th Ave, Oakland, CA 94606

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