The Solano Avenue business district stretches 26 bustling blocks through Berkeley and Albany. It is one of the area's oldest business districts and it is still characterized by mom-and-pop-owned boutiques, shops, and a wide array of restaurants, cafes, and bistros. Upper Solano, which is in Berkeley, is considered to be more up market, but the higher rents have resulted in numerous "going out of business" signs and empty storefronts while Lower Solano's businesses seem to be economically sound.
One of the newest players on Lower Solano is Little Star Pizza (1175 Solano Ave., Albany, 510-526-7827, LittleStarPizza.com), which offers a pleasant alternative to everybody's favorite Zachary's on Upper Solano. Little Star's interior is more like a restaurant than Zachary's with wooden tables and chairs, handcrafted at the East Bay's Wooden Duck, which specializes in reclaimed wood. The menu is simple and offers both deep-dish and thin-crust pizzas made with cornmeal crust and a chunky, fresh tomato sauce.
Just up the street is the Rendez-Vous Cafe-Bistro (1111 Solano Ave., Albany, 510-527-4111, RendezVousCafe Bistro.com), which somehow manages to offer a street cafe atmosphere without any sidewalk seating. The menu is standard bistro complemented by daily specials. The restaurant also does a brisk to-go business for dinner.
For the classic bistro experience, Nizza La Bella (825 San Pablo Ave., Albany, 510-526-2552, NizzaLaBella.com) is just a half block from Solano on San Pablo Avenue. The restaurant is a hybrid of Italian pizzeria and French bistro, which are very popular in southern France. Once inside, it feels like you have found a hidden treasure on one of the narrow alleyways in the older sections of Nice. You can either take one of the restaurant's cozy semi-private booths or sit at the zinc-topped bar to eat or just have a drink.
Bowl'd (1479 Solano Ave., Albany, 510-526-6223, BowldSolano.com) has a reputation for being one of the best Korean restaurants in the East Bay. The menu offers traditional rice bowls served in both the bibimbap and dolsot styles. You can mix and match your entrée from a variety of rice, meats, poultry, and seafood. You can also choose the style of serving: bibimbap, which comes on a bed of spinach, mushroom, julienned carrots, and bean sprouts; or dolsot, in which the food is served in a stone bowl that's so hot it creates a crispy rice shell within the bowl. There is also a selection of soju drinks made with Korean rice vodka and are served by the glass or carafe.
Renee's Place (1477 Solano Ave., Albany, 510-525-2330, ReneesPlace Restaurant.com) offers fresh Chinese cuisine with all-organic ingredients. The produce comes from local suppliers, and meats and poultry are raised using sustainable methods. Abueg Morris Architects designed the interior, which has a wood and bamboo theme. The effect is at once casual and elegant. The menu is a mixture of light Szechuan and Hunan, although the entrées are regularly swapped depending on seasonal availability of ingredients.