Allen Pierleoni

Counter Culture: New Cafe Bernardo serves up taste and tradition

A cartoon in The New Yorker magazine’s recent Food issue recognizes a problem increasingly found in too many restaurants – decibel shock. The scene is a jammed restaurant dining room. A server stands at one of the many crowded tables, addressing a couple who have food and drink in front of them. The server asks, “Can I get you any more deafening loudness?”

Which is why two lunch pals and I carefully chose a roomy, comfortable booth (under a heat lamp and with drapes that open and close) on the outdoor patio of Cafe Bernardo at the classy Pavilions shopping center. Inside, the din roared on from diners who occupied every table and booth in the main and bar-area dining rooms. Good for the restaurant, not so much for anyone wishing to have a conversation that does not require shouting and/or hand signals.

Though the cafe and bar are handsome and hip, the noise level is enabled by high ceilings, concrete floors, and wood and glass surfaces. Short of covering the walls with quilts, there’s not a lot a designer can do to soften the ruckus. But some diners like loudness at lunch, mistaking it for a sense of excitement.

The cafe opened at the end of September, the fifth Cafe Bernardo under the Paragary Restaurant Group umbrella. Four are in Sacramento, one is in Davis. The first Cafe Bernardo debuted nearly 20 years ago, and the brand has become a reliable player on the local restaurant scene, delivering large portions of fresh and imaginative dishes.

The new Bernardo occupies hallowed ground. Until 2008, the redesigned space had been occupied by food-and-wine expert David Berkley for 25 years and was called David Berkley Fine Wines & Specialty Foods. The bon vivant businessman and avid fly fisherman was a wine adviser to the White House through several presidential administrations. His clientele was well-heeled and loyal.

In 2008, Berkley sold his store to two business partners. It kept the name the first year of operation, and then became the Market at Pavilions, which filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection and closed its doors in 2011.

“Not just any restaurant could have come in here,” said lunch pal Tom Hedtke, a David Berkley lunchtime regular for the 13 years he managed the neighboring Borders bookstore, until the chain closed in 2011. “This place still has a David Berkley kind of feel.” Out of respect to Berkley, the cafe bar is named after him, a smart move.

“It’s open and inviting,” said lunch pal John Lescroart, the Davis-based author of 24 legal-thriller novels, the latest of which is “The Ophelia Cut.” “The Keeper” is due in May.

Is there a point where reading and eating merge? I asked.

“Novels are just an excuse to write about food,” said Lescroart, whose former favorite restaurant was Boulevard in San Francisco, which he mentioned in his 2011 novel “The Hunter.” His new go-to is Cafe des Amis on Union Street in San Francisco. “It’s just like being in Paris,” he said.

And Hedtke’s favorite restaurant? Before he could answer, Lescroart said, “My house is not a restaurant, Tom.” The night before, Lescroart had served muffuletta sandwiches, which had gone over well with a group of friends that included Hedtke.

We paused to study the diverse, to-the-point menu, which looked familiar. That’s because it’s the same one featured at all the Cafe Bernardos. “We didn’t always do that, but it’s consistent, makes people’s experiences similar and makes my job easier,” said Kurt Spataro, executive chef and partner of the restaurant group, with pioneering restaurateur Randy Paragary and his wife, Stacy. “Seasonal cooking is the primary driver (of the menu),” Spataro said. “I use the ethnic influences to add color, variety and balance.”

The Bernardo lunch menu ($3.75 to $12) showed soups and salads, sandwiches (grilled salmon BLT, turkey breast), burgers (beef, turkey and black bean), entrees (stir-fry noodles, penne pasta, quesadilla), pizzettas, sides (roasted fall veggies, mac ’n’ cheese) and desserts.

We ordered a salad sampler of Thai noodles (too much peanut sauce, not enough heat), chop (tasty salami bits) and arugula-spinach (beautiful produce, but not a lot of taste); a banh mi, the Vietnamese street-food sandwich (pricey at $10 and needful of more delicious hoisin-roasted pork, but multiflavored with cilantro, pickled jalapeño and tangy aioli); expertly blackened rock fish on great bread (dill pickle mayo was the perfect spread); Niman Ranch habanero burger (packed with flavor and juice, and crunch from bacon); and al dente stir-fry noodles with chicken, broccoli and mushrooms (best dish on the table, with ideal heat).

Sweet potato fries are no longer a novelty item in restaurants or on food trucks, and their quality is all over the table. Bernardo’s are tops – shoestring-cut, not too sweet, crisp, dashed with salt. Better than its plain fries.

The excellent breads are from the Paragary bakery, which supplies all the group’s restaurants.

Before the lunch pals parted, I asked Lescroart why he thinks his novels are consistent best-sellers. “I try to avoid concretelike prose,” he said.