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Birthday dinner in East Bay ... something that is not Chez Panisse or Commis

Hi, friends of ours volunteered to baby sit our toddler on my wife's 44th birthday so we're going to have a rare night out. Initially I'd considered Commis, as I'd really like to try it out, but fancy/arty tasting menus aren't my wife's preference. For reference, we both enjoy Chez Panisse but would like to try something else. Also I tend to cook that kind of Cal/Ital/French food a lot myself so would like to try something else. The rough criteria are:

Must be within a 30 minute drive of Albany/Berkeley, and not over a bridge.
Should have a good beer selection, as my wife's not into wine.
Price per person, including tax, tip, and drinks ~$100/person, hopefully less (so Commis would be a stretch anyway).
Not ear splittingly loud (i.e. not at the volume of A16 in Rockridge).

Right now I'm thinking Duende but would love some other options. Ideas?

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  1. Have you already looked at Gather?

    1 Reply
    1. re: goldangl95

      Yes but we've been there three times already. Would like to try something new to us.

      1. re: kilakila

        Thanks! Looks like a possibility.

        1. re: kilakila

          Townhouse is a convivial bar and grill and the food's above the low average for that kind of place, but it's couple of steps down from Chez Panisse or Commis. It doesn't seem like a special-occasion place to me.

        2. À Côté. Quiet, romantic atmosphere (provided you specify the back room when you reserve), great food, great selections of both wine by the glass and beer.


          Duende is as noisy as A16, noisier when there's music upstairs.

          1 Reply
          1. re: Robert Lauriston

            Thanks for the sound feedback on Duende. I've been to À Côté and liked it. A good option. What do you make of Townhouse?

            1. re: vulber

              I was going to agree with you -- but no beer.

            2. Here is a list of places that i have tried and enjoyed, or places i want to try:
              Boot and Shoe Service (GrandLake)
              Wood Tavern (Rockridge)
              Oliveto (Rockridge)
              A Cote (but that was already suggested)
              Haven (Jack London Square)

              Have fun! and Happy Birthday!

              4 Replies
              1. re: jupiter

                Boot and Shoe blasts loud music.


                Haven has been one of my favorites but it just got a new chef who has changed up the menu a lot so previous reports on the food are out of date. Beer selection is very limited.

                1. re: jupiter

                  I really like Wood Tavern and Duende but they are both noisy. Haven and Townhouse are not special occasion places in my opinion. I think À Côté is a good option.

                  1. re: jupiter

                    Isn't the chef who made Oliveto great now at Duende? Or do I have that mixed up? We've had Pizzaiolo pizza, which I gather is similar to Boot & Shoe. Wood Tavern I like but I find it far too loud for comfortable conversation (I know, I'm showing my age).

                    1. re: michaelw

                      The chef who put Oliveto on the map was Paul Bertolli, who left in 2005 to start the Fra'Mani salumi company.

                      He was succeeded by Paul Canales, who I thought brought the level of service up to the level of the food. Canales left in 2010 and it took him a few years to get Duende open.

                      The menus at Pizzaiolo and Boot & Shoe are very similar, same chef-owner.

                  2. More info from my wife. She liked the intimate atmosphere at À Côté but didn't think it was a great value. We both love Ippuku partially for a similarly intimate atmosphere. Noise remains an issue.

                    3 Replies
                      1. re: Robert Lauriston

                        We went for her birthday last year. She liked it, but not enough to go back. I know this is all insanely picky, sorry!

                        1. re: michaelw

                          The combination of special occasion, great food, not noisy, and good beer selection doesn't leave a lot of places to choose from.

                    1. What about Plum? I've not been so have no idea on the noise/atmosphere. But it's in budget and I know that chef from Haven is now there.

                      1. Homestead, on Piedmont Ave., fits in that Cal-French category, but I think the food is a little bit more inventive/playful than Chez Panisse, Camino, etc. It's also a bit less expensive. Might be more casual than some of the other places mentioned, but I think it'd be nice for a birthday. Even if you cook that style of food at home, you might not make your own salami, butter, cheese, etc., as the chefs at Homestead do.

                        Plum would be my other pick from the ones that have been mentioned, but I haven't been since the Haven chef took over. Note that Plum has a tasting menu option now as well, with dishes that aren't available on the regular menu.

                        The food at Duende is great, but it's a bit of a scene...

                        4 Replies
                        1. re: abstractpoet

                          What's the beer list like at Homestead? That part of their web site seems to be offline.

                          1. re: Robert Lauriston

                            Can't remember specific beers off the top of my head (and there were definitely more wines than beers), but I believe one of the Trappist Provisions guys put the list together.

                            Also, the food menu on the website is just a sample — it seems like they swap dishes out every week or so.


                            1. re: abstractpoet

                              I found a copy of the Homestead menu I'd saved. Actually a lot more beers than I remembered. A mix of Belgians and Californians, mostly, definitely a more interesting list than some of the other restaurants mentioned:

                              3 Fonteinen Beersel Lager (Belgium)
                              Allagash White (Maine)
                              Briem 1809 Berliner Weisse (Germany)
                              Cismontane The Mesa (California)
                              Coronado Islander IPA (California)
                              De La Senne Taras Boulba (Belgium)
                              De Molen Rye IPA (Netherlands)
                              Hannsens Oude Gueuze (Belgium)
                              Ichtegem's Grand Cru (Belgium)
                              Mission Alt (California)
                              North Coast Le Merle (California)
                              North Coast Old 38 Stout (California)
                              Pripp's Carnegie Porter (Sweden)
                              Weihenstephaner Pils (Germany)

                              Lots of wines by the glass, too, mostly European, including a few for $7.

                              And they carry another board fave: the Navarro grape juices.

                              1. re: abstractpoet

                                Very nice list. Not the usual suspects except for the Allagash White.

                        2. With the caveat that I've not been for a couple of years, how about Riva Cucina in Berkeley? Looks like a surprisingly decent beer selection and my recollection is that it's nice room and pretty quiet. Anyone been lately?

                          2 Replies
                          1. re: BAnders

                            To my taste it's a pretty lame beer selection, otherwise a good fit.


                            1. re: Robert Lauriston

                              I think their pastas are great. It's on the list.

                          2. A couple of other possible options to consider:


                            1 Reply
                            1. How about Hopscotch? I really think A Cote would be perfect -- can she get by the value issue given that it is her birthday? I agree that Duende would too loud. I think Haven can be special, but would probably go with Plum between the two.

                              3 Replies
                              1. re: The Dive

                                My value conscious spouse really like A Cote and the price. The back room is really nice and not noisy.

                                1. re: The Dive

                                  I had brunch at Hopscotch a week ago and was pretty underwhelmed. But maybe dinner is better. I like the atmosphere.

                                  1. re: michaelw

                                    I had my birthday dinner there last week and was pretty underwhelmed with the food. Really liked the wine by the glass list and service though.

                                2. We ended up going to Bay Wolf, as my wife found all other options to be too trendy or loud for her taste, at least for her birthday. The beer list is short but had a couple of fine options. We had almost the entire dining room to ourselves so it certainly was quiet.

                                  I found the atmosphere fairly dated. Some aspects, like the chairs, were worn. Our server was ok but had an oddly stilted manner.

                                  Food was fine but not something I'd come back for. The duck liver flan was simultaneously bland and overwhelmed by the peppercorns. Pasta with pancetta and duck liver (I think) was the best dish of the night. My main course of duck was cooked well except for the flabby skin. Wife loved the short ribs. No dessert. Tax, tip, food, and four drinks was $175.

                                  For my birthday it'll be Duende, Commis, or Homestead.

                                  1 Reply
                                  1. re: michaelw

                                    Wow, can't believe Bay Wolf is still putting those whole peppercorns on their duck liver flan?!? I thought that was dumb back in 2011, but obviously somebody must like it a lot if it's still on the menu.

                                    We didn't care for Homestead. A 50-50 hit ratio all the way through, miniscule portions. Often I get two starters and share a third, instead of an entree and starter - doing that at Homestead I darn near starved. Went two nights later to Five/Berkeley and paid about $15 more for better food (both places two people dining), although the new Five chef is not quite as good as the previous chef, Banks White, who left for NYC.

                                    I think you'll have a better birthday dinner at Duende or Commis, than Homestead or Bay Wolf.

                                    BTW, although Commis' menus may seem "arty" when you read them, their cooking preparations/flavors are very straightforward and basic. They rightly pride themselves on good, consistent execution, high quality ingredients (they'd be somewhat closer to Commis than Homestead on food quality).