The East Bay’s 13 freshest restaurants for October 2021

The most exciting restaurants in Berkeley, Oakland and beyond to check out right now.


We all have our standby restaurants, the old faithfuls we visit any time we want a comforting, reliable meal. But what about the days we want the thrill of the new? Those days, choosing a restaurant becomes harder, as the fear of the unknown can overwhelm all but the most adventurous diner. After all, when you’re hungry, no one wants to take a chance and end up disappointed.

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September 2021
August 2021

That’s where this guide comes in. Every spot on this list (which we update on the regular) has either opened in recent months, reopened after a lengthy closure or has made a substantial update to its menu. Every spot on this list is a place that we’re really excited about — and we think you will be, too.

As always, we’re eager to hear your own new dining finds. Drop us a line with your picks for fresh spots to check out at nosh@berkeleyside.org.

Berkeley

Badan co-owner Hafez Alsaidi makes his manakeesh and other dishes daily. Credit: Sarah Han

Badan at Berkeley Organic Market and Deli
2642 Ashby Ave. (near College Avenue), Berkeley
11 a.m-5 p.m. Monday-Saturday
Closed Sunday

Badan quietly kicked into gear in May, serving a tightly edited menu of Yemeni food. “We have been finding out that the best food is the food people want,” co-owner Hafez Alsaidi told Nosh this month, saying that since Badan opened inside the Berkeley Organic Market and Deli, he’s built a following of loyal regulars, as “once you taste the food, you don’t need any marketing.”

Alsaidi uses unprocessed whole wheat flour from Community Grains for his veggie-laden manakeesh (savory, pizza-like flatbread with toppings), and on Wednesdays offers a gluten-free version made with rice flour and millet. He’s currently refining a zatar wrap and a “very traditional” quinoa and avocado dish, passing out tastes to customers along with their orders. “Everything I make is how my mother and my grandmother made it,” he said.

Don’t miss the seasonal soup, which Alsaidi makes by cooking down beans and grains. “It’s a wholesome meal for people who have to get things done,” he said, and it’s also delicious. As you might expect, every meal at Badan is grab-and-go, but it’s all “made fresh every day,” Alsaidi said. Your best plan is to place your order, pick up your grocery and household staples at the market, then swing back to pick up your food when it’s done.

Belmo Cafe owners Bel Mokeddes and Mo Boughris stand inside their new cafe; the nearly empty pastry display speaks to how brisk business has been. Credit: Joanna Della Penna

Belmo Cafe
1160 University Ave. (between San Pablo Avenue and Curtis Street), Berkeley
7 a.m.-4 p.m. Monday-Saturday
Closed Sunday

Belmo Cafe opened on University as fall began, and immediately made a splash with its French and Algerian pastries, sweet desserts and solid coffee program. Owners Bel Mokeddes and Mo Boughris are lifelong friends whose banter makes an immediate impression when you come in the door — both seem to know the names of every regular patron who passes by.

Both tell Nosh that they’ve been bowled over by the support they’ve gotten during their early days in business, but they shouldn’t be surprised.

The baked goods, all made in-house, set Belmo apart from the standard coffee shop crowd; and its beverage side is far superior to most bakeries’. Put together, and they’ve got a combination that’s hard to beat.

If you’re looking for recommendations, you can’t go wrong with their massive Madelines, their not-too-sweet citrus tarts and their terrific zlabia. But it’s all good, you’ll see.

If you can score a weekend reservation, Lulu’s $25 per person brunch board is a very special treat. Credit: Alix Wall

Lulu
1019 Camelia St. (at 10th Street), Berkeley 
7:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday
9:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Friday-Sunday
Closed Monday

Lulu, the maiden brick-and-mortar outing from The Mana’eesh Lady pop-up star Mona Leena Michael, is blessed with an airy patio space in addition to its compact dining room, setting it up for COVID-era success. Its concise breakfast and lunch menus mean you’ll get to those seats fast, as it leaves little room for indecision and its most popular items tend to sell out quickly. In three visits, I never managed to arrive early enough to score its buzzy simsim breakfast sando.

During the week, standouts include a garlic-heavy kale thoom caesar, a dish that made me wish all salads had Michael-style roasted asparagus. But the item I keep thinking about is the halloumi and preserves sandwich, which is grilled cheese for grownups who want more than squishy string between their buns. The semi-hard cheese with Michael’s seasonal preserves is a stroke of sweet and salty genius.

While walk-in service to eat in or carry out is the norm on weekdays, Lulu’s weekend brunch is a trickier affair: It’s reservation only, with no takeout service, and tables fill quickly. But if you can get a seat, the $25 per person brunch board is a pretty special treat, with generous servings of Cal-Palestinian items like labneh whipped deviled eggs and a bread and veggie spread that will fill you up far faster than expected.

Oakland

The swanky bar at Binny’s. Credit: Binny’s/Instagram

Binny’s
532 8th St. (near Clay Street), Oakland
4-10 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday
Closed Sunday-Monday

Binny’s has more to offer than its decor, of course. But I must admit that the dim, clubby decor of the Old Oakland bar — which quietly opened in September, and has been humming along ever since —  offers a welcome change from the “Miami Vice” mirror/fern/pastel look that’s dominating Oakland’s restaurant and bar scene. Trade Crockett and Tubbs for Danny Ocean and his 10-12 pals, and you’ve got it.

Danny probably wouldn’t be as into Binny’s artichoke crab dip as I am, but Oliver Putnam, the dipavore star of “Only Murders in the Building,” surely would. (Come to think of it, Putnam’s apartment in the titular “Building” also reflects Binny’s wallpaper and upholstery vibe.) The dip is a cheesy and ‘chokey treat that doesn’t skimp on the lump crab, a solid pair with a selection from Binny’s classic cocktail menu (all offered at just $11, a veritable East Bay steal). 

But just because I naturally gravitate to bar food doesn’t mean that you must. Binny’s has an Ocean-appropriate Nieman NY steak frites that’s generous enough to split, and its root hash is more that home fries, with crunchy macadamias and well-seasoned Brussels sprouts. All substantial enough to soak up the mezcal in their “bi-coastal” cocktail (reposado, shiso, pear and a little lemongrass) or the “she’s so fine,” a negroni-like mix of gin, vermouth, orange bitters and rosemary. 

The pork laab burger at Jo’s Modern Thai. Credit: Angelina Hong

Jo’s Modern Thai
3725 MacArthur Blvd. (near Loma Vista), Oakland
4-9 p.m. Wednesday-Sunday
Closed Monday and Tuesday

Jo’s Modern Thai opened this summer in the Laurel District, the brainchild of chef Intu-on Kornnawong (Kin Khao, Intu-On) and Kao Saelee, who grew up in his family’s Racha Cafe in Berkeley.

Kornnawong told Nosh that Jo’s menu of drinking snacks and family-style food is intended to represent wide swaths of Thai food, but admits that there’s a lot of California in there too. For example, there’s a catfish taco packed with mango and avocado that serves coastal surf vibes galore. Or the pork laab burger, an Isaan-style patty that’s fried, topped with shallots and herbs and slid into a brioche bun.

The cocktail menu is also a thing to behold, with drinks from the mind of Starline Social Club’s Tayler Sampson. Try the “Made in 510,” with cazadores blanco, martini Bitter, martini rosso and watermelon for a not-too-sweet clobber from a velvet boxing glove.

Seats inside Jo’s dining room or on its outdoor patio are walk-in only, but don’t let fears of a wait dissuade you. While Jo’s has been busy, we haven’t had much of a struggle to score a table. And if time is of the essence, Jo’s offers takeout too.

The Saint’s St. Francis sandwich, with vegan cold cuts and an Acme sesame roll. Credit: Eve Batey

The Saint
3016 Macarthur Blvd. (near Maple Avenue), Oakland
11 a.m.-3 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday
Closed Sunday-Monday

The Saint’s name isn’t inspired by religion or Leslie Charteris: the founder of this Dimond District sandwich shop is named Saint James Boney (he goes by “SJ”), so the restaurant name is an eponym. The longtime pop-up chef is well known to East Bay food insiders for Cal-Italian events at spots like Albany Taproom, and you can see those same Italian leanings in the menu at his new spot, which opened in August.

No decent city can call itself a city without a multitude of good, corner deli sandwiches. But great sandwiches aren’t as easy to find. Oftentimes, chefs throw in too many bells and whistles in an effort to “elevate” (ugh, that word) their bread-and-fixings, while others rely on a mad mass of meat to make their sandwiches stand out. The Saint doesn’t make either of those missteps: As my dining companion put it, “the flavors are unexpected, but they aren’t, like, ‘look at me I’m CRAZY’ unexpected.” That means a hot sandwich called The Dimond with pesto, tomatoes, ham, salami and mozzarella on pizza bianca; or a curry chicken sandwich with grapes and mayo on a sweet roll. There’s enough going on there to make you think, but not enough that you feel like you have to struggle to enjoy yourself.

If you’re not a meat eater and the menu scares you off, I’ve got good news: You can sub in the salami or prosciutto for Mia’s vegan version, and the fast and friendly staff is ready with suggestions if you’re looking for other plant-based suggestions. The bread, delivered daily, is from Acme; most spreads are made in-house. And the sandwiches — which range from $12-$14 — are big enough to have for lunch and dinner, so hang on to that takeout box.

Andres Giraldo Florez, owner of Snail Bar, stands over vats of grapes in a vineyard.
Andres Giraldo Florez, the owner of new Temescal natural wine and small plates spot Snail Bar. Courtesy of Andres Giraldo Florez

Snail Bar
4935 Shattuck Ave. (at 51st Street), Oakland
4-9:30 p.m. Thursday-Monday
Closed Tuesday and Wednesday

Snail Bar’s commitment to “slow food” isn’t the only reason for the natural wine bar’s name, as one of its most popular menu items is its escargot with garlic, umami butter and miso from Bay Area fermentation specialists Shared Cultures.

Owner Andres Giraldo Florez has a high-brow resume, with stints at spots like Saison, and I already know what you’re thinking — a fancy food guy and escargot in Temescal, what is happening? But, y’all, it’s OK, the restaurant feels relaxed and warm and judgement-free.

If you’re not a snail snacker, there’s a little gem Caesar salad with Spanish anchovies and shiitake power dressing that you’ll keep thinking about later; and its ham and cheese sandwich is all the buzz. The natural wine list is presented approachably, and picking a glass (or bottle) feels like a collaboration, not a class.

Snail Bar is walk-in only, and Florez told Nosh this week that since their opening, they’ve been remarkably busy. That means that though it’s a good spot for folks with kids, if you think the little ones can’t manage a wait, it’s best to choose an off hour for your visit.

Soul Slice’s Cajun shrimp pizza is served on a biscuit crust. Credit: Soul Slice

Soul Slice
5849 San Pablo Ave (at 59th Street), Oakland
3-9 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday
Closed Sunday and Monday

Soul Slice owner Karter Louis seems torn about calling his dishes “pizzas,” telling Nosh that “we play in the genre of pizza but it is not pizza. It is basically soul food on an open face biscuit with soul food ingredients.”

It’s a game diners want to play too, lining up outside his 2-month-old restaurant for breakfast-style dishes like the bacon & eggs pizza (the eggs are poached and showered with crispy onions and mac and cheese sauce) and the cornmeal chicken nuggets pizza (that one comes with smashed potato and green beans, also on that biscuit crust).

There are so many choices — and the pizzas look on their face to be small — so you’ll be tempted to get multiples. Be careful, though, as even the hungriest among us have been filled by a single (soul) slice. If you have to pick just one, go with the best-selling black-eyed pea pizza, which Lewis says tastes like meat when it’s on his biscuit crust (and if you order with no cheese, it’s also vegan).

There are also a decent number of salads and sides, all of which are very good (especially the grit sticks! Gotta love grits you can eat with your hands). But if you’re going to Soul Slice, you should really get a slice, you know? Lewis told Nosh that the restaurant will start lunch hours in September, and is planning a happy hour deal with a pizza and pint for $15. Reservations are recommended for a seat in the dining room, and takeout or delivery are options, too.

Tribune’s sticky toffee cake is a buttery and sweet end to the night. Credit: Eve Batey

Tribune
401 13th St. (between Broadway and Franklin Street), Oakland
5-10 p.m. Friday-Sunday
Closed Monday-Thursday

Tribune occupies a vast space at the ground floor of Tribune Tower, in a space that’s suffered from turnovers and landlord disputes for years. This new restaurant might fare better, as its owner Doug Abrams, is also its landlord. It’s not Abrams in the kitchen, though, its Gary Danko vet Omri Aflalo; his operating partner, Darrin Ballon is also a former Danko staffer and runs the front of the house.

Their background shows. On a recent visit, I had some of the best restaurant service I’ve had in ages. (Before you ask, while I don’t dine out in disguise I don’t announce that I’m a food writer when I visit a spot for this list — and I always pay my own way — so I believe this is just how things are at Tribune.) When I made my reservation I requested an outdoor table, but unbeknownst to me, they hadn’t opened their outdoor dining space yet as their patio tables had yet to arrive. Despite that, Tribune staffers had set a solitary table outside for me under a glowing heat lamp, and though we were the only party on the patio, our server (who Tribune had lured away from SF fine dining institution Kokkari Estiatorio) was endlessly attentive and present.

Everything we ate was a tiny delight, from a chopped salad with an edgy roquefort to a lemony summer mushroom cavatelli pasta dish that’s inexplicably listed as a starter (it really should be a main). Tribune’s cocktail program is also a powerhouse, with the almonds in Alameda (vodka, bitters, lemon) as its most dangerously delicious option.

I hope I don’t sound like I’m trying to talk you out of dinner there (I am not!) when I say that I also think it’s a perfect spot for dessert and coffee after a night out downtown. Why Tribune’s sticky toffee cake is only $11 is a mystery to me, as it feels like a much more expensive dessert with loads of butter, melty toffee sauce and a sweet scoop of ice cream. I can see myself, in more indoor-friendly times, taking a seat at the bar and splitting that cake with a friend as we unpack after an evening on the town. I can’t wait.

Beyond

Alamanac Taproom’s new backyard beer garden. Credit: Almanac

Almanac Taproom
651 W Tower Ave. (near Pan Am Way), Alameda
Taproom: noon-9 p.m. Monday-Thursday, noon-10 Friday-Saturday, noon-8 Sunday
Backyard and lounge: noon-10 p.m. Saturday, noon-8 Sunday

Almanac Taproom opened in 2018, part of a massive redwood naval hangar turned brewing facility that boasts 30 handles of barrel-aged beers, IPAs, lagers and pilsners. That taproom isn’t tiny, but the business just opened two new spots within their property for drinkers, an outdoor spot for family fun and a new indoor area for grownups, only.

The outdoor area, which opened late last month, is just across from Almanac’s main structure on Tower Avenue. It’s called “the backyard” and it’s a grassy, 8,400-square-foot area dotted with picnic tables and punctuated by an Airstream bar (vintage: 1967); there’s a rotating selection of food trucks or folks can pack a picnic from home. When I visited, it was sunny enough that I needed one of the spot’s shade structures to avoid a scorched nose, but the kids playing throughout the space seemed fine with the sun. It’s a gorgeous, scenic place to enjoy one of Almanac’s excellent brews, and I plan on heading back as long as the weather allows.

Inside they’ve launched a funky spot called “the lounge,” a high-ceilinged and antique-packed space brimming with plants. (An Almanac rep promised a “100-million-year-old dinosaur skull” will also adorn the space, but it had yet to make the trip from Vernal/Nic Cage’s/whatever when I visited.) Unlike the rest of Almanac’s front-facing areas, the lounge is for folks 21 and over, but with 15-foot-tall sliding doors that open to the garden, you can still catch a glimpse of the kids even while seated in front of the lounge’s electric fireplace. That just might be the best of both worlds.

The whole trout at Bierhaus is less intimidating (and more delicious) that you might expect. Credit: Eve Batey

Bierhaus
1360 Locust St. (near Cypress Street), Walnut Creek
3-9 p.m. Wednesday-Thursday
Noon-10 p.m. Friday-Saturday
Noon-8 p.m. Sunday
Closed Monday and Tuesday

Bierhaus has shuttered its Oakland outpost, but after a few weeks of limited service it fully reopened its Walnut Creek location after a lengthy pandemic shutdown.

With a vast outdoor dining space (“just like what we have at home,” my German dining companion said) the spot is a solid pick for any Octoberfest-ing you have in mind, with umbrellas to block the sun and heating elements for after sundown. The beer list is a nice list of local faves (Moonlight’s Death & Taxes, two Ghost Town IPAs) and surprises (Hen House’s half-day sour, for example), and you could easily make a night of it on brews alone.

Owner Mike Finley has pared the menu way, way down to just a few Cal-German dishes. I thought the house spatzle was great, but purists might blanch over its presentation on a bed of whipped ricotta. I almost didn’t get the whole Mt. Lassen brook trout, as I’m bad at deboning, but it was fine — whole, in this case, just meant that there was a lot of excellently prepared fish, not a lot of tableside butchery.

The farro salad might be the best example of how Bierhaus so deftly merges NorCal and Deutschland, though, its soft-cooked grains and a mushy egg married to the sharp pickled tastes of kraut and radish. “We wouldn’t have this here,” my German friend said as he gestured toward the grains and soft-cooked egg, “but the whole thing together tastes like home.”

A Cafe Mei breakfast sandwich (left) and breakfast burger (right). Credit: Cafe Mei

Cafe Mei
43761 Boscell Road #5125 (in the Pacific Commons Shopping Center), Fremont
8 a.m.-2 p.m. Wednesday-Sunday
Closed Monday-Tuesday

Cafe Mei’s opening in Fremont this summer was big news to anyone who pines for fast-casual icon Mei Er Mei, a Taiwan-based chain known for its savory-and-sweet breakfast sandwiches.

Cafe Mei might be as close as we get to that company, as owner Kandy Wang says she’s using Mei Er Mei’s recipes to make her menu of egg and cheese crepes, triple-layer breakfast sandwiches and a pork patty breakfast burger topped with an egg.

Wang’s sandwiches are a comforting reminder of home for some, while those new to Mei Er Mei might decide that the dishes are their newest craving. While the sandwiches are the draw at Cafe Mai, don’t look over the black pepper teppan noodles, a umami party of pork and mushrooms in a bowl.

Dumpling Hours’ pig ear salad. Credit: Dumpling Hours

Dumpling Hours
1389B N. Main St. (in the Phillips Building), Walnut Creek
11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. and 4:30-9:00 p.m. Monday-Saturday
11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. and 4:30-8:30 p.m. Sunday

Dumpling Hours might be Walnut Creek’s worst-kept secret, a packed inside-and-out spinoff of San Francisco’s wildly popular Dumpling Home.

Their made-to-order dumplings — boiled or pan-fried or soup — have been gobbled up by multitudes of the Bay Area’s self-appointed dumpling insiders since it opened in August. But though the dumplings are made on the spot (not frozen or otherwise pre-made), you won’t be waiting hours for your order — sit-down diners’ XLB will arrive with haste, steamy and perfect.

You really can’t go wrong with any of the dumplings, but the other menu items are equally strong: There’s a truffle Brussels sprout plate that deserves praise, and the tongue-numbing pig ear with spicy sauce is a snappy surprise. Dumpling Hours’ owners say that online ordering for takeout is coming soon, but for now you’ll have to walk up or call (925-933-8888) to place your order, if waiting for a table isn’t for you.

Eve Batey is Berkeleyside's interim Nosh editor. Email: eve@berkeleyside.org.