The long-term San Leandro stalwart offers a haven of familiarity and high-quality food that comforts.
The San Leandro neighborhood around Paradiso restaurant, with its epicenter at Dutton and Bancroft avenues, feels like a comfortable community of tidy single-family, one-story and split-level houses occupied by a mix of long-term residents and recent arrivals. Paradiso counts as a long-term resident. When he opened it in 1996, owner Michael Wiesner brought an upscale touch to a tiny commercial district distinguished by a Safeway, shops selling uniforms, hats, hardware, and doughnuts, and small businesses such as Thomas Moore accounting and tax preparation, where my wife, Robin, worked from 2004 to 2017.
Although it debuted well before the likes of À Côté, Flora, and Wood Tavern jump-started Oakland’s now exploding dining scene, Paradiso didn’t exactly spark a San Leandro boom. But, along with Zocalo Coffee, which opened the same year on the same block, it gained well-earned institutional status in a neighborhood that has recently generated a culinary buzz with the addition of Top Hatter’s Kitchen & Bar and As Kneaded Bakery. (And Moussaka Mediterranean Kitchen seems to be succeeding in a space known as a black hole for restaurants.)
Wiesner drew up a winning blueprint and hasn’t veered much from it over the past 26 years. Very much of — and in some ways ahead of — its time in 1996, Paradiso’s extensive California-Mediterranean menu is a cornucopia of steaks (rib eye, New York, filet mignon), prime rib (on Saturdays and Sundays), braised short ribs with polenta, lamb (shank, petite chops, rack), pork (scallopini, chops), roasted chicken, seafood (crab/shrimp Louie, deep-fried calamari, garlic prawns, lobster tail, cioppino, salmon, seared ahi), pastas (penne Bolognese, linguini with clams, duck risotto, seafood fettucini, ravioli, tortellini), and thin-crust pizzas.
It’s all very classic, as is the ’90s juxtaposition of formal, fine dining details with modern casualness. The formal details include white table cloths (not topped with white paper!), servers in black shirts and aprons, solid and comfortable chairs and banquettes, substantial flatware, and a list of high-end wines by the bottle (ask to see it). Among the casual components are high ceilings with exposed beams and ducts, a large open kitchen with a wood-burning oven and a wood-fired grill, and a short list of good bottled beers and well-priced wines by the glass. Giant modern-art canvases — boldly colored abstract Impressionist paintings in the current rotation — create a classy gallery feel in the main dining room.
Adaptations to current trends have been seamlessly folded into the steadfast Paradiso identity. The cocktail list features Classics (Manhattan, Paper Plane, Corpse Reviver #2, Margarita) and Signature inventions like a Basil Martini and a Winter Bloom (pomegranate-infused Carpano Bianco, Lillet Blanc, and lemon). There’s a kale salad with fried Brussels sprouts and crispy quinoa, Wagyu beef in the burger at lunch, kobe beef sliders among the starters, and gluten-free pizza dough and pasta upon request. And the expansion into a next-door storefront added two intimate bars, with TV screens.
Wiesner’s ambitious formula — which also includes panini, a lamb burger, and a gyro platter at lunch; and French toast, enchiladas verde, short rib hash, and omelets at brunch — obviously works. Robin joined a friend for a weekday lunch and was smart to have made a reservation. On our two weekend night dinner visits, the place was packed, with crowds as demographically diverse as any I’ve seen in Oakland’s many new hotspots.
We started off each dinner the same way: a cocktail for me (an excellent Maker’s Mark Manhattan, $13, and a smoothly balanced Paper Plane, $12), a glass of J. Lohr petite syrah ($11) for Robin, and a plate of complimentary bread and focaccia with olive oil and balsamic vinegar. The first night we shared the Wedge salad ($10), and the second night the Caesar ($10). The kitchen kindly divided them for us. The Caesar, with anchovies and croutons, was fine, but the Wedge won out with its chunks of blue cheese in the creamy dressing, generous scattering of crisp bacon, and medium-boiled egg; only the small, hard, refrigerated tomatoes detracted.
After both meals, we took home ample leftovers from our generously portioned main courses. Robin’s “Creative” salmon ($27) was grilled perfectly, cooked through but still moist. It sat on roasted potatoes and was garnished elaborately with a caper vinaigrette-dressed jumble of watercress, red onion, and fennel. My braised lamb shank ($28) didn’t need a knife to coax the buttery meat from the bone. I dragged forkfuls of the “rustic” potatoes (a combination of mashed and roasted) through the rich gravy of juices, and felt more virtuous alternating bites of meat with al dente broccoli florets and carrot slices. From the many dessert choices (pecan pie, pumpkin pie, tiramisu, molten chocolate cake, crème brûlée, affogato, biscotti, sorbet, and gelato), we went with the “classic” sundae ($9): two scoops of ice cream, dark chocolate sauce, lots of candied pecans, and a pair of pirouettes. Coffee cocktails, cognac, grappa, limoncello, port, and other liquid desserts beckoned in vain.
From our second dinner, we took home almost half of our margherita pizza, with a light, crisp crust and nice proportions of tomato sauce, garlic, fresh basil, and fresh mozzarella ($16). Other available toppings included pepperoni and mushrooms, sausage and mushrooms, smoked salmon with goat cheese and capers, and a primavera combination of tomato sauce, caramelized onions, basil, bell peppers, mushrooms, yellow squash, spinach, and garlic. We also had the kitchen box up some of the super dense oven-baked ravioli (steeply priced at $30). At the table, piping hot, the basil sauce, a thick layer of melted and browned mozzarella, and shavings of Parmesan overwhelmed the delicate filling of lobster, shrimp, and crab meat. At home, slightly cooler, the seafood stood out. When I shared that information with Robin, she said, “What? You finished off the ravioli and didn’t tell me it had gotten even better?”
As San Leandro changes slowly around it, as many restaurants of its size and scope succumb to the business climate’s daunting pressures, and as fast-casual service becomes the norm, Paradiso stays its old-school course. With incremental creative adjustments, it offers faithful diners the chance to try something different on repeated visits and persists as a haven of familiarity and high quality food that comforts.