Restaurant News & Reviews

December 7, 2012

Counter Culture: Day-tripping in Walnut Creek

Somebody noticed the advertising insert in The Bee, the one that read, "Enjoy the holidays in Walnut Creek."

Somebody noticed the advertising insert in The Bee, the one that read, "Enjoy the holidays in Walnut Creek."

Somebody else said, "There's a street near the downtown shopping area there that's lined on both sides with restaurants."

A third somebody suggested we day-trip to the upscale East Bay town of 65,000 and grab some bites.

That's how we found ourselves on Highway 680, driving by a few not-so-grand vistas of oil refineries, their tall stacks gushing steam.

Soon we were parked at a meter at Broadway Plaza, a strikingly well-maintained shopping and strolling mecca with an impossible number of stores and boutiques. It's home to such high-end players as Neiman Marcus, Nordstrom and Sur la Table, the not-so-high-end As Seen On TV (Slimming Sauna Shorts for $25), and chain restaurants that include California Pizza Kitchen and P.F. Chang's.

The surrounding area – block after block, street after street – is jammed with hundreds of other retail outlets, including Tiffany. On walkabout, sculptures and other artworks unexpectedly delight the eye.

For context, Walnut Creek is a banking, business, medical and dining hub for Contra Costa County, with a $2 billion retail economy, said a spokesman at the Better Business Bureau. Not surprising, then, that the per-capita annual income hovers around $55,000.

Another thing Walnut Creek is known for is its open spaces. Next time we're ready to hike, we'll head to Diablo Foothills Regional Park. Its 1,060 acres are "an imposing gateway to the beautiful parklands of Mount Diablo State Park and Walnut Creek Open Space," says the East Bay Regional Park District website (

We wondered if there is an actual Walnut Creek that flows through or near the town. Yes, there is – sort of.

"Walnut Creek is created by the confluence of two other creeks," explained Andrew Smith, a senior planner for the city. "Where that occurs is now underground (because of past construction), but it's marked by a fountain in Liberty Bell Plaza. Then (the creek) flows through an above-ground stretch of Civic Park, enters a concrete channel that follows the creek's original path and eventually dumps into San Francisco Bay."

Good to know, but we reminded ourselves we were in town to eat. It didn't take long to find the right place: North Main Street.

As we explored the autumn-leaf-strewn byway, a Ferrari Testarossa rumbled past, followed by a couple of whispering Mercedes-Benzes. Bringing up the rear was a pack of Harley-Davidsons. Their roar startled the dog-walkers and the new parents pushing baby strollers along the lovely tree-lined sidewalks.

Restaurant-wise, we found a United Nations of cuisines – Indian, Italian, Thai, Mexican, Greek, Japanese, Chinese, Vietnamese, European, American.

We sat at a tiny sidewalk table in front of Vanessa's Bistro, offering "Vietnamese tapas with a French twist."

We were tempted by the ahi carpaccio, honey-marinated quail and duck confit lettuce wraps, but settled for two other small plates (choose from 12, each $8). Crisp-tender salt 'n' pepper fried prawns found zing with spicy lime dipping sauce. For a change-up, the chicken-vegetable pot stickers were "oven roasted," not deep-fried, and served with ginger and ponzu, the Japanese citrus sauce.

"I was a regular customer before I started working here, so I have to try everything," our server remarked. Lucky her.

Vanessa's Bistro, 1329 N. Main St.; (925) 891-4790,

After a long walk to burn off the appetizers (as if), we found a table next to an open door inside Prima Ristorante. Its dinner specialties include game hen roasted in a wood-fired oven and braised lamb shank with saffron and tomato.

As we cruised the lunch menu, we asked ourselves, Does rustic bread dipped in buttery olive oil get any better? Answer: No.

A bean-filled minestrone soup arrived, the silken broth made better with freshly ground black pepper and shaves of Parmesan cheese ($7).

It was followed by one of the best pizzettas we've found. The delectable super-thin crust ("I can see my fingers through it when I hold it up to the light," said one lunch pal) was weighty with sweet chiodini mushrooms, perfectly caramelized onion and fresh mozzarella ($13.50).

Next was a platter crowded with slices of salty-sweet prosciutto, salami, speck and pistachio-studded mortadella, complemented by pieces of luscious Parmigiano-Reggiano ("assetati assortiti," $14).

Afterward, we took a casual look at the hundreds of wines in Prima's adjoining wine shop, and left feeling somewhat dizzy.

Prima Ristorante, 1522 N. Main St.; (925) 935-7780,

For dessert, we resisted the imported chocolates at Cafe Leonidas in favor of handfuls of sweet fruit jellies (cherry, fig, pear, tangerine, pineapple, peach and apple). They're hand-crafted at Leonidas in Belgium, a company that will turn 100 next year. Cost: $40 a pound, but each piece averages about $2.30.

Cafe Leonidas, 1397 N. Main St.; (925) 932-6666,

Leaving Walnut Creek, our only regret was not having had the time for a beer (14 on tap) at the fish-out-of-water Dan's Irish Sports Bar. It opened in the early 1970s and "hasn't changed in 30 years," said bartender Connie Christiansen on the phone later.

A jukebox plays by day, bands play at night, she said. The scene: pool tables, big-screen TVs, a "social gathering with a lot of regulars."

"It's a fun, funky place, the last of the small, homey bars in Walnut Creek," Christiansen said.

How long has she been on site?

"Twenty years," she said. "I'm part of the furniture, hon."

Our kind of place.

Dan's Irish Sports Bar, 1524 Civic Drive; (925) 932-1331,

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