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Restaurant Guide

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Rio California Cafe 1233 Preservation Park Way, Oakland, 415-235-4746. This Brazilian lunch spot, located on the first floor of a restored Victorian that sits within spitting distance of I-980, is one of Oakland's best-kept secrets. Ney Araujo, the Rio California's gregarious chef-owner, opened the cafe in the late Nineties, offering an affordable lunch option for employees of the dozens of nonprofits in Preservation Park — and for whoever else cares to come. Araujo's mayo-heavy salad-based sandwiches are classic Rio de Janeiro beach fare, while his impeccably grilled jerk chicken offers an unexpected taste of Jamaica. Don't miss out on the feijoada, a black-bean stew that is Brazil's national dish — for good reason, you'll conclude, after tasting Araujo's complex, savory version. Meanwhile, the sprawling, shady outdoor patio makes for as peaceful a lunch spot as you'll find in Downtown Oakland. $-$$

Cajun/Creole

Angeline's Louisiana Kitchen 2261 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley, 510-548-6900. Modeled after the neighborhood places founder Robert Volberg researched in New Orleans just before Katrina hit, Angeline's feels small-parish authentic. Chef Brandon Dubea, a native of Baton Rouge, offers surprisingly manicured versions of dishes too often blown up into caricature. The jambalaya is restrained, and Dubea's gumbo (thin, swampy-black from long-cooked roux, a weedy undercurrent of filé) is nice and homey. Order anything cornmeal-crusted — the kitchen's sauté skills are solid. $-$$

California Cuisine

Chez Panisse 1517 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley, 510-548-5525 downstairs or 510-548-5049 cafe. The little house in Berkeley where Alice Waters served her first French prix fixe back in 1971 is still the epicenter of Northern California's local foods movement. The nominally more formal downstairs dining room serves a nightly menu that, as always, is like a GPS locator for the current season. Meanwhile, the upstairs cafe feels a bit like a museum devoted to California Cuisine. Wood-fired pizzas still wear unorthodox toppings (sorrel and anchovies, say). Then again, baked goat cheese with garden lettuces has been around so long it feels familiar in the way the best things are — the way that constantly delights. $$$-$$$$

Flora 1900 Telegraph Ave., Oakland, 510-286-0100. Situated across the street from the Fox Theater in the ornate cobalt-blue Floral Depot building, Flora lures in a happy-hour and dinner crowd with its long glowing bar and ample menu. The cuisine is standard Californian, more predictable than revolutionary — which might surprise fans of its owners' other establishments, Doña Tomás and Tacubaya. Still, Flora has nailed the classics — particularly the grilled strip steak (dinner). (California Cuisine, New American) $$-$$$

Lalime's 1329 Gilman St., Berkeley, 510-527-9838. One of Berkeley's most Berkeley spots. Each month's menu highlights what local farmers have on hand. The building, a converted house, is a little cozy and a little tony, while the attentive service shows just why Lalime's has lasted 25 years. The predominantly older clientele looks to have been visiting since the restaurant opened; one senses the appeal is in the familiarity. $$$

Nomad Cafe 6500 Shattuck Ave., Oakland, 510-595-5344. A sunny cafe filled with laptop-surfers, all tuned to free wireless Net access. Nomad serves a small menu of enlightened cafe food: Cal-Med sandwiches, hummus plates, and freshly whizzed smoothies. Perfect for those days when a stale bagel or reheated piroshki won't do. $

Pappo 2320 Central Ave., Alameda, 510-337-9100. Pappo's simple, true California cuisine may lack for surprises but is full of delights. The long brick-walled room has felt like a neighborhood favorite from its first month. Chef-owner John Thiel tailors the menu to the moment, such as a pumpkin-apple soup with sage crème fraîche and pecan dust that tastes like a love note to autumn. If you spot roast duck, don't pass it up, and end the meal with a Pappogato, a root beer float with class. $$$

Westside Bakery Cafe 2570 Ninth St., Berkeley, 510-845-4852. This longtime West Berkeley cafe/bakery/hangout is now open for dinner with a full bar, an upscale (yet affordable) California-cuisine bill of fare, and a kitchen that often lives up to the menu's aspirations. Begin with the extra-comforting Aztec hominy-avocado soup, try the tender leg of lamb or the marvelous spicy-creamy pulled pork with polenta at entrée time, and finish things off with the simple yet satisfying fruit oatmeal crisp. Brief wine list; perfunctory surroundings. $$$

Wood Tavern 6317 College Ave., Oakland, 510-654-6607. Wood Tavern aspires to be the perfect little neighborhood bistro and, in a part of town that can afford entrées in the twenty-dollar-plus range, it works. The handsome storefront embraces the woodsy semiotics of masculine comfort — the perfect setting for the food, which packs hunky flavors into dishes revealing solid technical chops. Wicked Good Seafood Stew is a sprawling, cioppino-like concoction with the salty wallop of linguiça, and the pan-roasted chicken is tasty enough to make you want to make this place a weekly habit. $$-$$$

Caribbean

Sweet Fingers Jamaican Restaurant 464 E. 14th St., San Leandro, 510-553-9869. Several delectable examples of Jamaica's spicy, supple cookery are prepared and served at this unprepossessing San Leandro hole in the wall. The jerk chicken is juicy and jazzy; the fried plantains are creamy; the escovitch-style snapper, curry goat, brown stew chicken, and braised oxtail are uniformly rich, spiky, and tantalizing. The curry shrimp and the rice and beans are nothing special, but save room for a slice of navy bean pie. Friendly, helpful service; lively bar scene; live music Fridays and Saturdays. $$


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