10 local restaurants worth checking out in 2016

10 favorite restaurants to try in 2016 serving Concord, Walnut Creek and Pleasant Hill California

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Coming up with a list of 10 favorite local eating establishments is not an easy task.  The large number of quality restaurants combined with the ability  one individual to sample them, makes it impossible to be truly subjective in making  choices.

This top 10 is meant to be fun and based upon quality, value, price and  overall dining experience at individual places.

There are no major national chains used such as the Olive Garden and Red Lobster nor are restaurants located inside hotels mentioned. Also to be noted is that this list  is constructed  in no particular order.

Claudio & Daniele proudly display a couple trays of Italian pastries
Claudio & Daniele proudly display a couple trays of Italian of their pastries5
  1. 54 Mint 785 Oak Grove Concord (925) 969-9828 & 1586 Locust, Walnut Creek 925) 476-5844

In putting together the top 10 favorite places of mine, I was going to place at the top of the list 54 Mint in the shopping center on Treat & Oak Grove a few doors down from Trader Joes. Co-owners Claudio Ricciolini and Daniele Carsano have created arguably one of the best restaurants for fine dining in the region.  Their Nimon Ranch Porchetta (pork Belly), Risotto Al Funghi (mushrooms) and Scottadito, ((Roman style lamb chops) are part of seasonal fare that changes as fresh ingredients become available.

As the Restaurant in Concord is a bit expensive for my pocketbook, I often frequent their Bakery-Bistro on Locust Street in Walnut Creek. After taking over a small bakery a couple years ago, Claudio and Danielle have created a culinary wonderland that is constantly busy.  In the morning they make pastries, rolls, and focaccia bread on the premises. There is also a large collection of sweets including their famous tiramisu which is also served at their restaurant in  Concord.

For lunch 54 Mint offers pastas including Lasagna and a collection of Panini’s. Their Moderno which is a combination of Norwegian smoked salmon, arugula, stracchino cheese, and tomato is a show stopper. They also have excellent salad options.  I especially like the Caprese made with Farmer’s Market tomatoes and Burrata cheese from Italy.

If things could not get better, 54 Mint makes the best pizza anywhere I have ever been. They use custom dough made up of wheat, soy, and rice flour’s imported from Italy. The toppings all made with quality ingredients including Genovese, Calabrese, Campana, and Finocchiona, to name a few.  Rather than trying to describe them, it is best to come in and taste these delicacies yourself.  Recently, they added a small beer and wine list to make 54 Mint in Walnut Creek a true bistro.

  1. Zalla Afgan Grill 4743 Clayton Rd., Concord 925) 686-9923

Quality Mediterranean food is severely lacking in the area.  The closest we come to authentic Greek food is annual Festival held at St Demetrios Greek Orthodox Church each fall. As a runner-up, Afghan cuisine is much more in evidence locally.  Zalla is arguably the best of this genre.  Their Aushak which are dumplings filled with leeks and topped with a ground beef sauce and yogurt is not to be missed.

The Mantu which could be described as Afgan ravioli is a real winner as well.  For main course items, chicken, beef, and lamb kabobs are grilled to perfection.  The Zabzi Challow is lamb shank with spinach is my personal favorite.  Zalla also has a number of other original dishes ranging from stuffed grape leaves (dolmas) to Buranni Kado which is fresh pumpkin cooked in cardamom and topped with house made yogurt.

I have been to Zalla several times and there still are menu items that I would like to try but find it is difficult to do as I am hooked on some of their dishes and don’t often stray.

  1. Naan ‘n’ Curry 2068 Salvio Street, Concord 925) 825-6226

When this Naan ‘n’ Curry opened their doors on Salvio near Todos Santos Square, it was thought that serving spicy food of this variety would not work in this area.   Were the experts ever wrong!  This inexpensive high quality restaurant has been packed at all hours with their curry dishes, basmati rice, homemade Naan bread that comes plain and in several types including garlic and onion flavors.

They have a large menu with lamb, chicken, and shrimps providing much of the protein.  Naan also offers a large vegetarian selection for non-meat eaters.  For chicken main courses they offer various curry combinations including  Gobhi (Cauliflower) Cholay (garbanzo beans) Palak (spinach), and Tikka Masala.  Their lamb dishes offer similar ingredients.  I especially like their  Daal Gosht (yellow lentils) and Kuna (lamb shank)  they also offer tandori chicken and lamb combinations. The Biryani’s (fried rice) and Mango Lassi (yogurt drink) are not to be missed. Dinners are encouraged to share dishes at Naan ‘n’ Curry as there is much to be enjoyed in this inexpensive gourmet restaurant.

4. Sichuan House 2064 Treat Blvd, Walnut Creek, 925-932-3378chinese

Coming from San Francisco I have historically been disappointed over the years by the poor caliber of Chinese food served in local restaurants.  While it is understood they must cater to the Oyster beef, chow mein, and shrimp with walnuts crowd, most of what they serve is of the bland Cantonese variety which I don’t care for very much.

Just when I gave up finding a Chinese place that I really liked, a friend directed me to the Sichuan House.  Walking in the door I was pleased to see so many Chinese families present as historically this has meant good food was in store. In this case the old wives tale was true as we were in for a treat.

After an appetizer of peanuts and pickled cabbage they offer a choice of sweat & sour or corn chowder soups.

Then comes the main dishes which vary from cumin lamb to spicy chicken clay pot. Fish, shrimp, and duck are in abundance; all at good prices. Another good feature of Sichuan House is that they place next to each item on the menu a hotness level  post it so that the tastes of their guests can be catered to.

5.  DJ’s Bistro 1825 Sutter St., Concord  925-825-3277

If one was to think of any cuisine that should be on the local endangered culinary list, German food would be at the top. There are just not any places in the immediate area which serves quality sausages, Wiener schnitzel, Hungarian Goulash  spaetzel  red cabbage, homemade potato salad, meat loaf, and other German comfort foods.

This authentic European hang-out caters to ex-pat-soccer fans that congregate to eat and drink Bavarian style, while watching matches at the bar. Over the years I have sampled the entire menu and it is all good. The portions are huge and the prices reasonable.

My only complaint is that the Spaten and  Czech beers are so tempting that I inevitably break my rule of not drinking alcoholic beverages at lunch when going there. For those who like tripe soup, it is a specialty of the house.  The owner Jerry has specials every day catering to those who desire a bit of Germany and the Czech Rep. without the 11 hour plane ride.

Wence's signature macaroni & cheese hot from the oven
Wence’s signature macaroni & cheese hot from the oven

6. Wence’s 1922 Oak Park Blvd. Pleasant Hill (925) 566-8971

This restaurant a couple doors down on Oak Park from Kobe Japan in Pleasant Hill, has become one of my go to places in the area.  Everything this place offers diners is unique, freshly made, beautifully served, and provides excellent value.

Having been there several times, I try to order different things each time I go there to experience all they have to offer.  If one were describe the style of food  at Wence’s , it could  be termed gourmet café-diner food.  They offer a large variety of items from cooked to order burgers (medium-rare-rare please) to astounding high end sea food dishes.  One evening they offered fresh shucked  $ 1.00 Pacific oysters with sauces that were to die for.  A house specialty is homemade adult macaroni and cheese baked in its own caste iron skillet made with 3 cheeses with panko bread crumbs on top.  They also offer a lobster variety which is in a class all by itself.

Wence’s Cobb salad is a work of art. Their shrimp Louie’s are of Fisherman’s Wharf quality.  They can also grill a perfect steak and have a delectable desert menu.  Wence’s also serves cocktails and has a reasonable wine list to offer their guests. All of these factors go into making Wence’s one of the best local restaurants regardless of price.

7 . Tortilleria El Molino 1500 Monument Blvd, Concord Phone 925-687-7066

There are many really good Mexican Restaurants all over the place in Concord, Walnut Creek, and Pleasant hill.  In general the enchiladas, burritos, and taco’s they serve tend to be similar However, my favorite place to go is El Molino just off Monument at Regent in Concord.  They have a very small menu but almost  everything they serve is better than their capable competitors.

The tacos are served on corn tortillas they make in house.  The meat is fresh and never of the steam table variety that has been sitting around for long.  I especially like their carnitas taco’s that are served with hot sauce, cilantro, and onions.  This fare reminds me of food served in Rosarita Beach in Baja and La Tacarita in San Francisco.  But this is not all. El Mollino serves homemade papusas stuffed with cheese, meat, and/or beans.  This El Salvadorian staple is served hot with a pungent Cole slaw and red pepper sauce is a meal in itself.

Bionocos a tempting treat of fresh fruits and creams loved by all ages
Bionocos a tempting treat of fresh fruits and cream is loved by all ages

El Molino also specializes in Sopes which are a tostada like dish only a foundation of a thick masa mixture is used to hold in the toppings.  Another specialty of El Molino is their fruit drinks which are concocted using fresh ingredients. Their bionocos which is a fresh fruit cocktail with coconut flakes, granola, cream, and a combination of apples, papaya, strawberries, banana, raisons, and whatever is in season, can be considered kid and adult friendly.

8. Rocco’s Ristarante & Pizziera 2909 Ygnacio Valley Road, Walnut Creek 925) 947-6105

It might be surprising how this popular pizza joint in the strip mall at Oak Grove and Ignacio in Walnut Creek, would somehow get on my list.  Quite simply Rocco’s provides quality in everything thing they serve in a blue collar atmosphere that reminds me of similar restaurants I grew up with in San Francisco.

Rocco’s pizza is among the best in the area made in the Sicilian stele with freshly made dough, sauces, and quality ingredients.  As a regular to this place I usually stay on the main menu where they serve pasta, meat balls, polenta, calamari, minestrone, veal parmesan and other items that are served in a family Italian establishment style.

What separates Rocco’s from other places offered similar fare  is their consistent quality and use of fresh ingredients.  I especially like their salads which provide good renditions of Caesar, chopped, and spinach varieties which have plenty of goodies other than roughage in them.  They are also nice in bringing me extra anchovies that other patrons do not desire.

Rocco’s also has a lively bar with fair priced drinks and offers music on the weekends.  They are a good place to go after a ball game and are semi sports bar with Frank Sinatra serenading in the background.  A weird combination but it works.

9.  Korean BBQ Plus 1450 Monument Blvd (at Reganti) Concord 925 680- 9090

Tucked away in the Hispanic gourmet ghetto of Concord on Reganti, this restaurant in my opinion offers some of the best Korean food in the area.  At lunch time they serve cold glass noodles to get things started followed by a cup of soup.

When one’s entrée is served, they bring in approximately 15 small plates of goodies to accompany one’s meal. These Pan Chan’s consist of small portions of Kiamichi, cucumber salad, sea weed, Cole slaw, marinated potatoes, spinach, fish cake, and  bean sprouts to name a few.

Korean BBQ Plus is well known for their barbecued short ribs marinated in special house made sauce.  This consists of ginger, minced garlic, sugar and soy sauce and scallions. The Mae Un Doc Gu E (tender chicken marinated in a spicy sauce) is a popular choice for diners. They also serve several types of soups, vegetarian, and sea food dishes. I especially like their  Nak Ji Boke-Um (sautéed octopus & mixed vegetables with spicy sauce.)

All of the entrees are served with a large portion of white jasmine rice which soaks up all the spicy flavors of Korean cosine.  Another attribute of this diamond in the rough restaurant is that Korean BBQ Plus is open for lunch and dinner 7 days a week and does to close until 9:30 p.m.

10.Tower Grill 1950 Grant St., Concord 925 825-8768

Tower Grill across from the park at Todos Santos is never going to be granted stars from Michelin or be evaluated by some food snob from San Francisco.  But what they do have is excellent- well prepared food that has never displeased me any time I have gone there.

Especially good are their meatballs which are served with pasta or on a sandwich roll with grilled onions , peppers, and melted cheese. These meat balls are not over cooked and have pork, beef, and  a secret ingredient of pine nuts in their recipe.

All of Tower Grill’s sandwiches have large portions and come with house made Cole slaw, French or sweet potato fries. Tower Grills burgers are first class as well and can be prepared medium- rare-rare which is appreciated by me   when I dine with a friend we often split a sandwich dish and one of Tower Grills main course salads.

My favorites are their Cobb, Chopped, Spinach and Caesar salads.  They are all among the best in the area are fairly priced. In addition to sandwiches and salads Tower offers steaks, chicken dishes and a few specials each day.  With a full bar serving generous libations, this is a great place to visit often.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Pleasant Hill Sign Wars VII: The Saga Continues – UPDATED

Pleasant Hill’s battle over commercial signs at Diablo Valley Plaza continues.

pleasant hill city council gun store zoningAfter the Planning Commission approved the 67’-tall Diablo Valley Plaza shopping center sign last October, its decision was appealed to the City Council by Pleasant Hill Citizens for Responsible Growth (PHCRG), a good-government group.  After holding two hearings and soliciting new plans from developer Merlone Geier Partners, on December 14th Council finally denied PHCRG’s appeal and approved new plans for a slightly smaller 50’-tall sign.

Commission Rejects Proposal OK’d by Council

Three days later the City’s Architectural Review Commission (ARC) rejected the new sign plan on a 3-2 vote.  Commissioners rejected the sign because it is not consistent with the City’s sign design guidelines, General Plan and municipal code.  In fact, a majority of the Commissioners rejected the sign proposal for many of the same reasons stated in PHCRG’s appeal.

The Commission serves as the City’s professional design advisors and its members are architects and other design professionals.  According to the city’s website, the five-member advisory Commission reviews site plans, architectural character and signage for all new buildings in the City. Members “must have a demonstrated talent and interest in aesthetics and architectural design through experience, training, education or occupation” and need not be city residents.

At the December 17th meeting, Commissioner Jill Bergman shared that she worked in urban planning before assuming her current position as Economic Development Manager for the City of Danville. Bergman said she couldn’t find the proposed sign consistent with the City’s General Plan and design guidelines – because it’s not.  She emphasized that such consistency is necessary for project approval and of particular importance given her planning background.

The Commission’s vote follows its previous rejection of the earlier 67’-tall sign proposal on October 15th, on a tie vote (with Bergman absent).

Developer Appeal Likely

The developer has appealed the Commission’s decision to the City Council, which will hear the appeal on Monday, January 25, 2016.

During the previous appeal hearing Council failed to engage the substantial issues raised by PHCRG.  However, a new hearing this time around would require Council to make findings on the specific issues raised by the Commission.  For example, to overturn ARC’s decision Council must find the project consistent with the citywide sign design guidelines that specifically prohibit pylon signs of any height — quite a Jedi mind trick.

This saga is far from over.


UPDATE:  The Architectural Review Commission’s decision to deny the DV Plaza sign permit has been appealed by the developer, Merlone Greier Partners. The appeal is scheduled to be heard by the City Council on Monday, January 25, 2016.  The public hearing notice is available here:  CC Appeal Hearinag Notice 012516 CarMax Sign

 

 

 

 

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Fate of gigantic CARMAX sign in Pleasant Hill – UPDATED

The fate of a 67′ tall sign at a new CARMAX in Pleasant Hill will be decided by the City Council and Planning Commission December 14

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STORY UPDATE 12/11/2015 (below)

Residents Defend Pleasant Hill City Zoning Rules and Sign Design Regulations

City Council Bungles Appeal by Soliciting New Plans

Night+View+Sign+101315+PC+Meeting+PacketAs previously detailed on this site, owners of the DVC Shopping Center, Merlone Geier Partners, have spent three years planning a remodel at the former site of the old Safeway and K-Mart stores, to include new shops, restaurants, a dog park and a CarMax used car lot.  Last summer Merlone began signing tenant leases for the property, conditioned on providing shopping center signage of a type expressly prohibited by Pleasant Hill’s sign design guidelines.

Why would a developer take such risk?  Why would he proceed with signing leases contingent on providing signage that isn’t allowed in Pleasant Hill?  It’s a mystery.

The Fix Was In – Until Residents Spoke Up

In October the Pleasant Hill Planning Commission approved a 67-foot-tall illuminated pylon sign located adjacent to homes around Diablo Valley College, despite the fact such signs are expressly forbidden by city zoning rules and sign design guidelines.  The massive, lighted sign would be seen for miles and block some residents’ views of Mt. Diablo.

Following the Planning Commission’s approval, no Councilmember called for review of the Commission’s approval.  Instead, residents challenged the Commission’s decision to approve signage that grossly exceeds the City height and size standards for commercial signs.

Pleasant Hill Citizens for Responsible Growth (PHCRG), a good-government group, appealed the Commission’s approval of the 67-foot sign to be located off of Chilpancingo Parkway, just south of the In ‘n’ Out Burger/Toys R Us/Target shopping center.

  • Read PHCRG’s appeal here.
  • Download and view PHCRG’s PowerPoint appeal presentation here.

City Council Hears Appeal, Goes Off the Rails

The City held an appeal hearing on November 16th, at which the City Council invited the developer to present new plans at a follow-up hearing on Monday, December 14. This unusual move conflicts with municipal code requirements and raises concerns and questions.

Pleasant Hill Municipal Code Chapter 18.130 – APPEALS AND CALLS FOR REVIEW, states, in part:

At an appeal or review hearing the appellate body shall consider only the same application, plans, and related project materials that were the subject of the original decision. [Emphasis added]

At the November 16 hearing the City Council expressed concerns about the sign height (now they tell us!), but stopped short of making a decision to affirm, modify, or reverse the Commission’s decision. Instead, the Council invited the applicant to submit new plans for City Council review.  This action conflicts with city code requirements that require the City Council to “consider only the same application, plans and related project materials” available to the Planning Commission when its decision was made.  In addition, new plans require prior review by the City’s Planning and Architectural Review Commissions.

PHCRG President Michael Flake says the unusual move makes Council’s intentions unclear.  He states:

The City Council agreed with PHCRG’s objections to the sign’s excessive height.  Accordingly, it properly should have granted the appeal and invited the developer to submit new, compliant plans to the Commissions.  This is the procedure required by the municipal code, the city’s own rules.

In effect, the City Council has bypassed its own review process and placed itself in a dual role of both Commission and Council, thereby undermining the integrity of the appeal process.  It is unclear what the City Council will do with the developer’s new plans or what role, if any, City Commissions will play in their review.

Any preferential treatment the City extends to Merlone is likely to prompt requests for like treatment from others, which could bring more non-compliant signs to Pleasant Hill.

It’s hard to know what to expect at the December 14th hearing because the City appears to be making it up as it goes along rather than playing by the rules.

Special City Council Meeting 12/14

The special meeting of the City Council on Monday, December 14, 2015 is scheduled to begin at 7:30pm.  The meeting will be held in City Council Chambers located at 100 Gregory Lane, Pleasant Hill.

Strong attendance by Pleasant Hill residents is expected and flyers are circulating among neighbors.

Those unable to attend the meeting may share their views with City officials by sending an e-mail via the City website here.


UPDATE 12/11/2015:

The City is poised to affirm the Planning Commission’s approval of the developer’s proposed sign, as indicated by the December 14 agenda packet materials now available.

The draft resolution prepared for Council adoption rejects the appeal and accepts the developer’s plan for a downsized 52-foot-tall sign – essentially the same proposal the Planning Commission approved, but slightly smaller and without the city logo.

In addition, the staff report states: “Note:  Design review and consideration of the sign permit for the pylon sign is currently still pending before the Architectural Review Commission (ARC). The ARC has continued the matter to its December 17, 2015 meeting” – but neglects to mention the ARC rejected the sign permit on October 15, 2015 on a tie vote.

The Takeaway:

It is impossible for the City Council to make the necessary findings to approve this sign permit.  The proposed resolution selectively applies or, in some cases, ignores General Plan policies, the zoning ordinance and citywide sign design regulations — rendering them useless.

The plain intent of city policies and regulations is to prohibit freestanding, off-premises pylon signs of this extreme height and size.  The intent is borne out past land use decisions (such as the remodeled Safeway store and gas station December 14, 2010 PC Meeting, Partial Transcript 121015); and Planning Commission deliberations on commercial sign regulations (such as those here November 9, 2010 PC Meeting, Partial Transcript and here January 25, 2011 PC Meeting, Partial Transcript (1)).

Pleasant Hill residents have every reason to be concerned about their city government.

If laws aren’t followed they serve no purpose. 

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Pleasant Hill just can’t say NO to developers

Ignoring development standards could transform Pleasant Hill’s low-rise, suburban character into an ugly city characterized by sign blight.

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Do Developers Call the Shots in Pleasant Hill?  This Month’s Hearing May Reveal Answer

When Pleasant Hill Planning Commissioners recently gave the green light to a 67-foot-tall illuminated pylon sign located adjacent to homes around Diablo Valley College, despite the fact such signs are expressly forbidden by city zoning rules, community push-back was inevitable.  So it’s no surprise the controversial decision has been challenged.  Continue reading “Pleasant Hill just can’t say NO to developers”

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Challenge to Pleasant Hill gun law heats up

Pleasant Hill City Council consider their defense of its Pleasant Hill gun law challenged by City Arms East, LLC, and The National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF)

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city-arms-gun-store-zoning-lawsOn Tuesday, August 11 the Pleasant Hill City Council met in closed session to discuss the lawsuit filed last year challenging the Pleasant Hill law that regulates the city’s gun stores. City officials must consider next steps in defense of the suit filed by City Arms East, LLC, and The National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF). The case resides in Contra Costa County Superior Court, CASE No. MSN13-1922.

gun-sales-regulations-pleasant-hillIn July the plaintiffs filed a summary judgment motion with the court. A summary judgment motion asks the judge to find in the plaintiffs’ favor based upon the law and the facts. Such motions commonly are used to resolve a case quickly or narrow the issues that will proceed to trial.

In its motion, City Arms/NSSF asks the court to find the City’s firearms ordinance “invalid and unenforceable” and to repeal it permanently. The motion also asks the court to reimburse plaintiffs’ legal costs.

A hearing on the summary judgment motion is scheduled for October 23rd. The full trial is scheduled to begin on December 4, 2015.

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DVC Plaza: Cash-strapped Pleasant Hill sells out to developers again

On Tuesday, August 11th the Pleasant Hill Planning Commission will discuss major zoning exceptions for a proposed Car Max development at DVC Plaza (the former K-Mart site).

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On Tuesday, August 11th the Pleasant Hill Planning Commission will discuss major zoning exceptions for a proposed Car Max development at DVC Plaza (the former K-Mart site). The Commission’s meeting follows a study session of the DVC Plaza project by the Architectural Review Commission on August 6th.

Pleasant Hill staff recommends Commission approval of the developer’s signage requests which far exceed permissible size and height limits established by zoning laws.  The project developer, Merlone Geier Partners, seeks major exceptions to the City’s zoning rules at DVC Plaza so the Car Max development can be seen easily from the freeway.

The proposed signs are more than 8 times the height and 10 times the size permitted under City zoning laws.

Car Max, a Fortune 500 used car chain with more than 100 locations nationwide, is expected to generate huge tax revenues for the City.

The fact that staff recommends granting the developer’s wishes – which will make suburban Pleasant Hill look like L.A.’s concrete-and-asphalt sprawl — shows the City’s desperation for cash.

City zoning limits commercial signs to 8 ft. in height, but the developer proposes a 67 ft. tall sign.  Further, zoning rules limit commercial signs to 32 sq. ft., but the developer proposes a 326 sq. ft. double-sided sign.

Tuesday’s meeting will begin at 7:30pm and is designated as a study session, so no final decisions will be made on the DVC Plaza project.  Public comment will be accepted.

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