Bargain hunters and appreciators of prix-fixe dining, take note: This week, Oakland and Berkeley are each hosting their very own Restaurant Week. In other words, your favorite dining establishment might be one of a few dozen restaurants that will offer special two- or three-course set menus, priced at a slight discount, during the promotional period.
First up is Berkeley, whose inaugural Restaurant Week is already in full swing and will run until Sunday, January 20. Meanwhile, Oakland's week-and-a-half-long Restaurant Week kicks off this Friday, January 18, and won't end until January 27.
The promotions were organized by Visit Berkeley and Visit Oakland — each city's respective tourism bureau — as part of a statewide celebration of California's culinary scene that is taking place this month.
Berkeley kept things simple for this first year: Each of the city's twenty participating restaurants will offer essentially the same deal: $30 for a three-course prix-fixe meal, available for dinner only.
Meanwhile, 42 restaurants will participate in Oakland's third annual Restaurant Week, which makes this year's iteration the biggest one yet. The promotions are slightly more varied than Berkeley's, with participating restaurants offering either $20, $30, or $40 prixe-fixe menus. Some restaurants will offer a lunchtime prix-fixe, too, in addition to the dinner option.
This year, Visit Oakland will also sponsor a panel discussion featuring various movers and shakers in the local food and beverage industry on Friday, January 18, from 3 to 5 p.m., in Hearing Room 3 at City Hall. So far, the list of confirmed speakers includes Linden Street Brewery's Adam Lamoreaux, Numi Tea's Reem Hassani, Peerless Coffee's George Vukasin, and UC Berkeley geography professor Richard Walker (author of The Conquest of Bread). The event is free and open to the public, but space is limited — RSVP to firstname.lastname@example.org.
The problem with Restaurant Week in a city like, say, New York is that the list of participating restaurants is always overwhelmingly long and mostly mediocre. In contrast, both Berkeley and Oakland have manageable lineups that include many of the area's newer and often-buzzed-about dining establishments: Comal and Gather in Berkeley; B-Side BBQ, Hopscotch, and Nido in Oakland, just to give a few examples. Meanwhile, longtime favorites round out each list: Cafe Rouge, Camino, Rivoli, and so forth.
Strategic diners will want to aim for restaurants that might normally be out of their price range — places where the frugal customer would rarely splurge and order three full courses. A few that caught my eye: $20 for lunch or dinner at Plum Bar; $20 for a three-course dinner at Nido, the farm-to-table Mexican spot I reviewed this week (see page 20); and the $20 lunch and $40 dinner at Picán. Likewise, FIVE Restaurant is a $25 entrée kind of place, so $30 for three courses seems like a deal.
You can see the full list of restaurants — many of which have their promotional menus posted — at the Visit Oakland and Visit Berkeley websites. Of course, if you've got your heart set on a certain place, reservations are a good idea.
Cafe V (2056 San Pablo Ave.), a trendy Vietnamese fusion restaurant in West Berkeley, opened last summer, but the restaurant just re-opened with new management and a new head chef (Yvonne Thi). The menu is heavy on fusiony items like jalapeño popper egg rolls and pork belly banh mi, but the restaurant has now started serving traditional pho (the classic Vietnamese noodle soup) as well. Owner Hamei Hamedi said he'll be launching a "Pho Twenty" happy hour special next week: From 4:20 to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday, a bowl of pho will only cost $4.20. So there you go: One more indulgent activity you can partake in at 4:20.
Perhaps it's too early to declare 2013 the Year of Ramen, but it's starting to look that way, what with Rockridge's Ramen Shop (5812 College Ave., Oakland), with its Chez Panisse pedigree, packing in the crowds from day one. Here's another newcomer: Ippo Ramen has been popping up at Linden Street Brewery for several months now. This Sunday, January 20, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., chef and proprietor Steven Yee will be doing his first ramen pop-up at CommonWealth Cafe & Pub (2882 Telegraph Ave.). Yee said he fell in love with the noodles after eating at a wide range of ramen joints in Osaka.
Finally, Inside Scoop brings news of a new late-night deal at Chez Panisse Cafe (1517 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley): $25 for a grass-fed steak, onion rings, a salad, and a glass of zinfandel. The prix-fixe is available from 9:30 p.m. until closing, Monday through Thursday.