Cafe Upgrade Creates Cozy Upscale Bistro
For all the diversity of restaurants on its two major arteries, the Grand Lake area lacks a great neighborhood bistro, the kind of place that’s fancy enough for a Saturday night date but homey enough to serve a good burger and fries when you only need a quick bite.
When DiBartolo opened two years ago, I thought I’d found just such a spot. But when I stopped in for dinner about a year ago, the food and service let me down. The restaurant’s great looks and the cool hideout of a bar in the back weren’t enough to convince me to come back.
But a few months ago I heard they’d hired a new chef and things had turned around.
So I decided to give them another try. I’m glad I did. When I went back, I witnessed DiBartolo’s evolution into the casual but refined neighborhood joint I’d been looking for. The place still has a few kinks to work out, but it’s a welcome addition to this restaurant-challenged part of Oakland.
Inside, the exposed rafters in the ceiling, big windows, open kitchen and brick wall give the place a hip urban edge. The black-clad servers add to the downtown vibe. Chef Troy Hayes came to the restaurant via San Francisco’s Fog City Diner and brought an upscale comfort-food sensibility to the American- and Mediterranean-inspired menu at DiBartolo. Hayes left in late October, after just a few months on the job. After his departure, another chef came and quickly went, and now the restaurant says the existing kitchen staff will handle the chef duties. But Hayes put the restaurant on a strong footing, and a subsequent visit proved the kitchen was still on its game.
You could easily make a meal at DiBartolo from the list of 10 or so small plates. Soup ($7) is one of the strengths. On one visit, it was a rich and flavorful potato leek, and on another it was a superb white bean and prosciutto.
I loved the platter of black figs filled with goat cheese and prosciutto, drizzled with balsamic syrup ($9). Good, too, were the sizzling mussels and clams ($15), roasted and deglazed with a soy sauce, basil and white wine sauce. And you can’t go wrong with the garlic- and herb-flecked frites, thin fries served with lemon-tarragon aioli and chipotle ketchup ($7).
Salads—such as Fuji apple and endive ($9), Caesar with white anchovies ($9) and warm spinach salad with shaved fennel, oranges and balsamic vinaigrette ($9)—were lively and fresh but overdressed. Next time, I’ll ask them to go easier on the dressing.
Other than the disappointing desserts (more on that below) the only real flop at DiBartolo were the pizzas ($14-$15). While the kitchen aspires to create Neapolitan-style, thin-crust pizza, what came out for my first two meals there were pies with hard, cracker-like crusts that lacked the chewy, light goodness of a first-rate pizza. On a third visit, however, the pizza crust showed signs of improvement.
Entrées are quite good. Chicken is usually a bore, but here the hearty pan-seared half chicken with cherry balsamic syrup ($18) was the perfect dish for a crisp night. Grilled salmon with late-season corn, squash and snap pea succotash ($19) was another winner. The grill marks on the fish yielded to a wonderfully moist and rich interior. The drizzle of spicy bourbon-orange-blossom-honey glaze that ringed the plate provided a flavorful bridge between the fish and the vegetables.
A good neighborhood restaurant has to do a hamburger right, and DiBartolo does. Topped with a slice of Point Reyes blue cheese, the half-pound Niman Ranch beef burger served with herbed fries ($13) is just what I want in an upscale burger—juicy, meaty and just this side of decadent.
Service can still be rocky. The staff is uniformly friendly and aims to please, but things can fall apart when the restaurant gets busy. On my visits, dirty dishes were left to clutter the table for too long, and gaps were long between courses.
Even if you don’t sit in the speakeasy-like bar, try one of DiBartolo’s cocktails. I usually avoid martinis made with anything but gin and vermouth, but the rosemary martini ($10) won me over. Made with Ketel One vodka, Triple Sec, orange, lime and house-made rosemary syrup, it’s a refreshing drink that doesn’t murder your palate with sweetness. The same goes for the Drop of Gibraltar ($10), a delicious blend of Ketel One Citroen, cracked pepper, house-made ginger syrup and fresh lemon.
DiBartolo’s short but sweet wine list trots all over the globe with prices ($17–$60) that are in line with a neighborhood-friendly place.
As good as many of the entrees and starters were, desserts were a let down. The blackberry-and-vanilla-infused crème brûlée ($8) was curdled. The apple, blackberry and rhubarb cobbler ($8) was leaden and doughy, and the dark chocolate torte ($8) tasted like a limp and grainy chocolate pudding. The cheese plate, featuring petite Basque sheep and Point Reyes blue cheese ($12), is a better way to go.
Better yet, retire to the bar and order a glass of sherry or Port to toast what will hopefully be DiBartolo’s continuing evolution into a solid neighborhood restaurant.
DiBartolo. American. Serves dinner 5:30 p.m.–9:30 p.m. Tue.–Thu. and Sun., 5:30 p.m.–10:30 p.m. Fri.-Sat. 3308 Grand Ave., (510) 451-0576. Credit cards accepted, full bar, reservations accepted for six or more, wheelchair access, $$.
—By Stett Holbrook
—Photography by Lori Eanes
—Photography by Lori Eanes