A self-guided food tour
By Laura Ness | Photos by Annie Tillis
Rumor has it that a few folks around Oakland and Berkeley aren’t entirely clear that Pleasant Hill and Pleasanton are distinct East Bay cities, so let’s try sorting it out.
Pleasant Hill is located in Contra Costa County just north of Walnut Creek. A relatively new town, it was incorporated in 1961. Its City Hall and now-demolished CinéArts “Dome” Theater have been architectural notables, but since there was no true downtown where people could stroll, an outdoor shopping mall was designed in 2000 to resemble one.
Pleasanton, on the other hand, was incorporated in 1894 and still has its old downtown with tree-lined sidewalks, including one section that retained the old wood planks. It has a vintage gas station and loads of unique, locally owned shops and restaurants, all within walking range of residential neighborhoods that are truly pleasant. Located at the junction of I-680 and I-580 in Alameda County, it’s within the Livermore Valley AVA (American Viticultural Area). Ruby Hill Winery, first established in 1883, is in Pleasanton.
If you’re interested in food history here, you must stop at Dean’s Café, where omelets (265 on the menu) have ruled the roost since the place opened in the 1950s. You’ll wish you had your dad’s old Chevy for a visit to Meadowlark Dairy, the last drive-through dairy in the Bay Area, dating to 1969 at this location. The sign says “Milk,” but locals also motor through (or walk up) for creamy soft-serve ice cream in four flavors: vanilla, chocolate, orange, and strawberry. (Don’t worry, you can mix two, and also score milk and bread in the same visit.)
There are many reasons to stroll through Pleasanton’s Main Street business district: the Saturday farmers’ market, First Wednesday Street Party, Summer Wine Stroll in July, Holiday Spirit Stroll in November, and brew crawls in March and October. People enjoy picnicking in the downtown parks before, during, and after live theater or music performances.
Outdoor seating is a big thing at Pleasanton eateries. Nearly every restaurant has some sort of patio. The most enticing to a passerby might be a seat under the palms in front of the gorgeous 150-year-old mansion at 625 Main Street: The Blue Agave Club is a popular spot for tasting tequilas and margaritas. Another enticing drinking spot is Cellar Door (one street up on Railroad Avenue). And there’s McKay’s Taphouse and Beer Garden on the south end of Main, just past a Pleasanton staple, Gay Nineties, the haunted former-house-of ill-repute-turned-pizzeria). In summer, McKay’s is all about the outdoor beer garden: In less-clement weather, there’s still plenty to enjoy indoors with all the local brews on tap and the house-made Bavarian pretzels.
Like most Bay Area cities today, this community is multi-cultural. Some of the best eats in Pleasanton can be found at Lokanta (Mediterranean), Frontier Spice (Punjabi), Mirch (Indian), Oasis Grille (five-star Afghani), and Tomo Sushi. Owned by an Icelander and cooking up freshly flavored Euro-Californian fusion, Nonni’s Bistro has a killer onion soup, delicious goat cheese crêpes, a standout lamb burger, tasty mussels and fries, and a seasonal fish pot.
One of the town’s most buzzed about spots is Gan. Chef/owner Peter Jee-Oh Chung’s innovative menu melds Korean flavors with local ingredients. Brunch features traditional comfort foods, including buttermilk fried chicken.
My personal favorite is Sabio on Main, a brand new global tapas spot with boldly flavored dishes like lavender-scented lamb meatballs and caramelized cauliflower. This is the domain of Chef Francis X. Hogan, who hails from New Jersey and did a stint as executive chef at San Francisco’s four-star Bluestem Brasserie. Hogan personally handpicks all his ingredients and makes his own bread from a starter he originated by fermenting stone fruit pits. Try the rum-glazed pork belly or wild King salmon poke, and if you’re there for brunch, treat yourself to the beignets and eggs Benedict with jamón serrano. With a great cocktail program and wine list, Sabio hosts monthly dinners with local winemakers.
If you’re headed toward Pleasanton, bring your walking shoes and an appetite!