The Chez Panisse legacy — culinary whiz kids trained in Alice Waters' kitchen who then went on to open restaurants and artisanal food companies of note — stretches far and wide. Three thousand miles away, there's the Red Sage restaurant in Washington, DC (a favorite of Bill Clinton's). Closer to home, in San Francisco, there's Zuni Cafe, Greens, Foreign Cinema, and Quince. Not to mention Cowgirl Creamery, Acme Bread Company, Michael's in Santa Monica, Campanile in Los Angeles.
And: Hidden City Cafe in Point Richmond.
Sure, it may lack the national name recognition — and high prices — of some of these others, but Hidden City still has the pedigree. Located right in the middle of Point Richmond's main drag — on Park Place, just off Washington — it's presided over by Shellie Bourgault, who studied with Jeremiah Tower and Wolfgang Puck at the California Culinary Academy shortly after the school opened its doors in 1977. Then came a stint at Chez Panisse, where she worked first at the appetizer station, then at the grill, and finally as an overall kitchen supervisor. In '89, she left to start her own venture: a small, diner-like establishment with organic, gourmet overtones.
Which makes Hidden City that rare California eatery that's stood the test of time — going on two decades — with the same hands-on owner at the helm. And Bourgault is hands-on: on one of the mornings I visited, she was serving tables right along with her waitstaff, and the restaurant's back room was filled with a group of regulars who went to high school with her father. No surprise, because everything about this place screams local — down to the fresh flowers that grace each table in delicate glass vases, courtesy of Richmond's Verde Elementary School.
Given a choice of where to sit at Hidden City, stay in the front room. It's infinitely warmer than the back, with walls covered with original art, small tables and booths, and a view of the bustling kitchen. A French flag hangs over the kitchen's entry way, and a chalkboard bearing specials and a brief wine list is propped over the bar, upon which sits a large piece of quartz and a few Santos candles. Distressed wood cupboards hold glasses and dishes, completing the overall effect of eating in a cozy flea market. The less-finished back room is where a group of us sat for a Saturday brunch, due to the fact that the front room isn't (yet) high-chair friendly and we had a very patient nine-month-old in our party. Service was slow this day; we arrived just after a larger group and had to wait more than thirty minutes for our food.
Our wait was an unfortunate distraction from a menu that follows the Chez Panisse tradition of simple goodness: breakfast and lunch offerings (the lunch menu changes weekly) including pancakes and egg dishes; soups, salads, and sandwiches, pasta, a pork chop, and a glorious burger. Two of my companions ordered the carne asada and found the beef just a little sparse — but the accompanying eggs were fluffy and moist, and a side of black beans happily lacked the overly salty flavor to which this dish often succumbs.
The breakfast combo was sublime: "small" portions (I can't imagine "large") of cornmeal or buttermilk pancakes with two eggs any style and a choice of breakfast meat. Fluffy seems to be a buzzword at Hidden City — my cornmeal pancakes delivered that quality as well, and were delicious. Next time I might go for Hobb's ham or bacon, though — the housemade chicken sausage patty I requested tasted like burnt chicken, with no detectable spice.
No complaints, however, about my Swiss cheeseburger — perfectly done, juicy without trending toward mealiness, with a side salad (homefries or soup are the other options) that served as a virtuous complement to the decadence of the beef. The sesame bun could have been just a tad more toasted, but I tend to like things charred to a crisp — so for most folks this would have been just right.
For vegetarians, breakfast at Hidden City should be easy to navigate — stick with pancakes, French toast, or baked goods. Lunch features more innovative meat-free creations, such as a fresh fava bean falafel burger with raita, served on whole grain bread, and an herbed cream cheese sandwich with fennel marinated in lemon vinaigrette.
Later this summer Hidden City will close for about four weeks for renovations. The plans include updating the kitchen so that it can accommodate more baking, and expanding the bar area where locals often pop in for a quick coffee and scone to go. Bourgault would like to hold cooking classes in her improved space — she already teaches at the Verde School and is passionate about introducing children to local, home-cooked, and organic culinary options.
"They aren't really eating a lot of food," Bourgault comments — with obvious echoes of Michael Pollan — of the children she's met through her work at Verde. She's determined to sell local youth on the value of setting aside the processed, packaged foods they're used to in favor of more wholesome options. A better messenger there isn't. After all, this is the woman who started Richmond's recycling program back in the day — and as she herself wryly admits, "I was shopping at the El Cerrito Natural Grocery before it was cool."