After working at Michelin-starred and trendy New York City restaurants, Matt Greco relocated west as executive chef of the former white-tableclothed restaurant at Wente Vineyards in Livermore nine years ago.
In 2018, he opened a dining venue near his Pleasanton home named Salt Craft in honor of the tiny yet mighty ingredient. Salt Craft quickly became known for lamb pastrami, house made pasta and Texas-influenced barbecue.
But the rosy future for restaurateurs such as Greco dimmed as dining out was abruptly halted in March 2020. The Tri-Valley lost longtime favorites such as Campo di Bocce, Sweet Tomatoes and the English Rose Tea Room, to name a few.
In the past 18 months Tri-Valley businesses found diverse ways to continue satisfying those who craved chef-prepared food.
From family-run eateries to multiple-location restaurants, here's a snapshot of dining and drink venues that thrived, transformed and opened in the area amid the health pandemic.
Salt Craft, Pleasanton
Greco quickly adapted to the changing environment by offering takeout meals. Salt Craft's design for patio-dining only appeared fortuitous. But corporate dining disappeared and downtown foot traffic near the Saint Mary Street location declined.
Greco began baking more baguettes, sourdough and burger buns to sell wholesale to restaurants and grocery stores and advertised takeout meals. He also started "social bubble dinners" as a sell-out of the restaurant for friends with distanced tables.
Having furloughed several staff, Greco became exhausted: "I was the chef, baker, graphics designer and maintenance person. Things had to change."
By May 2021, Greco reorganized Salt Craft as a bakery and caterer and ramped up online retail ordering. Salt Craft bread is sold at Meadowlark Dairy and Gene's Fine Foods, and Greco recently joined the San Ramon Farmers Market.
The launch of the Saturday Bake Stand on the Salt Craft patio has drawn customers for breads, pastries and mini pies. "Our lemon meringue, key lime and seasonal fruit mini-pies cost less than full pies, are more fun to eat and result in fewer leftovers," Greco said.
Pastries such as Mom's sour cream coffee cake are popular. On the savory side, Greco offers packaged lamb pastrami and breakfast sandwiches with egg, house-smoked bacon and cheese on oversized English muffins, which sell out quickly each weekend.
Since 2013, guests have arrived hungry at Posada for Southwestern cuisine such as King Ranch enchiladas, watermelon salad and mahi-mahi tacos.
"When COVID-19 arrived, we had to create a new business model," owner Eduardo Posada said. "How can we create fine dining takeout meals for home?"
Along with his son Alexis, the chef de cuisine, Posada changed the kitchen layout and increased their social media presence.
When indoor dining returned, Posada hired Jorge Tinoco, the former wine director at Wente Vineyards' restaurant. "While searching for a new job, I talked to many restaurateurs who sounded down about the business impact of the pandemic," Tinoco said. "When I met Eduardo, he wanted to upgrade the food and drink experience."
Tinoco ordered more food-friendly wines, designed creative cocktails and trained the servers on beverage pairings. After reviewing the menu, the Posadas and Tinoco removed entrees such a crab enchilada and carne asada dish, which had too many components to pair well with beverages.
The team created new popular dishes such as OG Aguachile Ribeye. This "original-style" ribeye is bathed in a light aquachile broth. Tinoco pairs it with a Bordeaux grand cru red wine from St. Emilion.
The upgrades to the wine list and library wine program led to a Wine Spectator Award of Excellence this summer -- one of only 30 restaurants in the Bay Area to win. Posada presents special wine education dinners too, such as paella with Spanish wines to sample.
Urban Plates, Dublin
With an in-house chef and everything made from scratch except bread and potato chips, the Urban Plates formula stands out among chain restaurants.
With 16 California locations, Urban Plates opened Dublin in 2016 with a cafeteria-style service model. Guests now order at the register, or with the app, they can order through the QR code on the tables.
To oversee the scratch kitchen, chef Ilya Yakubov applies his professional culinary skills. He graduated from restaurant school in New York City and worked at venerated restaurants such as Nobu.
There are no frozen items in Yakubov's kitchen. His staff trims free-range chicken breasts by hand for the tenders. Then the preparation takes two days including a buttermilk marinade. The fresh beef is grass-fed and grass-finished for flavor and tenderness. Sausages are made in house, and vegetables, mostly organic, abound in salads such as the antioxidant. Healthy sides include organic red and white quinoa with tomato pesto and roasted Brussels sprouts.
Subscriptions have become popular for many products and services. Urban Plates utilizes a unique, monthly Plate Pass subscription, which offers reduced prices on unlimited orders of plates and bowls. Since the program began, general manager Lee Walters said, "We get to see our regular customers more often."
Experience Burma, Pleasanton
Though Burmese food is not top-of-mind or readily available in the U.S., Myat Mon opened Experience Burma in 2017 to share her native food.
"Formerly named Burma, Myanmar borders India, China and Thailand. We have some culinary traditions in common, but our food has unique flavor and ingredient combinations made-to-order by our Burmese chef," Mon said. As a bridge to other cuisines, she labels some dishes as Burmese-style pad Thai and chicken curry with Burmese sauce.
A typical Burmese dish, tea leaf salad is made with cabbage or lettuce, peanuts, fried garlic and sesame seeds. "This salad is our signature dish. We ferment the tea leaves and mix it tableside for freshness," Mon said. Another favorite is platha layered bread served with coconut chicken or vegetable curry for dipping.
A resident of the Tri-Valley with her husband and daughter, Mon also owns takeout restaurant Burma Grub in San Francisco and is president of the One Myanmar Community, a Bay Area community and cultural center.
Over the years Mon has developed a broad customer base at Experience Burma. Takeout orders have remained steady, and guests enjoy dining on the front patio and the dining room decorated with Burmese figurines and artifacts.
"We made the right decision to open in Pleasanton," Mon said. "I enjoy working here with people who support our small business and are curious about our cuisine."
Gilman Brewing, Pleasanton
Board-certified by the American College of Veterinary Surgeons, Sean Wells takes his job giving orthopedic care to animals seriously.
He also has a serious passion for brewing beer.
His hobby evolved into opening Gilman Brewing in 2015 after purchase of a former auto body shop on Gilman Street in Berkeley. A brewpub in Daly City followed, and the Pleasanton taproom opened in October 2020.
Why target the Tri-Valley? "We envisioned a ring around the Bay to deliver fresh IPAs, farmhouse-style saison and sour beers to our customers. I bought the 706 Main St. building knowing it was a former mortuary and staple of the city's Ghost Tours. A positive feature was the alleyway for outdoor seating," Wells said.
This former pathway for hearses now attracts guests sipping beer at bistro tables. Board games are plentiful on the indoor communal table.
The Pleasanton taproom serves 16 rotating draft beer and a cooler with cans and bottles. In addition to the popular Autoshop Double IPA, Bad Tattoo Hazy IPA, lagers, saisons and sours, Wells also creates experimental beers. Though without a kitchen, the taproom is located near to Brava, with Oyo and other restaurants nearby for ordering. Caterer-prepared charcuterie boards are also sold from the cooler.
"When a new boardwalk is installed in the alleyway," manager Jake Weden said, "we expect it will bring an urban beach vibe. We look forward to DJs on Saturdays, and at Oktoberfest we may celebrate craft beer with plenty of skeletons hanging around."
Da Boccery, Livermore
Da Boccery offers it all -- food, beverage and entertainment. Revamped from the former Campo di Bocce and reimagined with brightly colored design elements and new activities in July 2021, Da Boccery is already rolling along.
Da Boccery, a play on "debauchery," is designed for social gatherings. Indoor and outdoor bocce courts, though no longer regulation sized, are rented with a table for dining from the diverse menu. Ax-throwing is available after safety orientation within caged lanes. There are also floor shuffleboard courts and foot pool.
Da Boccery is the latest venture from the Livermore-based restaurant group founded by cousins Brenden Scanlan and Barrett Gomes who opened the first Sauced BBQ and Spirits in 2012 in Livermore; now five locations serve house-smoked barbecue and an extensive selection of spirits. In 2018, Pleasanton opened as the first of three Plucked Chicken and Beer quick-service restaurants with fried or grilled chicken sandwiches.
With the former Campo di Bocce chef heading the kitchen, the menu includes longtime favorites such as wood-fired pizzas and shrimp and grits along with Sauced-style house smoked meats, fish and chips, Wagyu beef sliders, the Rabbi sandwich with Angus beef pastrami and jumbo soft pretzels. Beverages include craft beers on tap, local wines and creative cocktails such as the Hippie Juice with vodka and kombucha.
Catering manager Courtney Poppel summed up the ambiance: "Da Boccery is a place to have youthful fun with an adult palate."
Lucky Innovation Lab, Pleasanton
Shopping at a supermarket with an in-house chef is not an everyday experience. But Pleasanton is home to the flagship Innovation Lab store of Lucky California. After extensive renovations, the Lucky store reopened in May 2021 with new chef-driven options from "The Eatery" and "The Entertaining Island" for takeout or dining at "The Drinkery" bar area or expanded patio.
The former chef-owner of a restaurant in Campbell, chef Ally Afortunado is the food and beverage manager for the Eatery, Drinkery and hummus and guacamole bars at the Entertainment Island. At the Eatery, Afortunado's staff prepares the smoked meats and grills selections such as seasonal hatch chile burgers. The Eatery also serves customizable burritos, ramen or curry bowls, ceviche and poke and "comfort foods" like house-made macaroni and cheese.
Another Lucky Pleasanton innovation is the Meat and Seafood Grill. With a purchase of meat, poultry or seafood, trained staff grill with selected sauces or rubs at no extra charge. At the Entertainment Island, guests can purchase whole fruit and staff will cut it for free.
The Drinkery serves up coffee, smoothies and freshly squeezed juices such as jalapeno lemonade. Local craft beer and local wines are served on tap along with cocktail specialties including mimosas and house sangria. Alcoholic drinks must be consumed at the bar or on the patio.
General manager Mario Guerrero acts on the store's role as an Innovation Lab. "We organized a pop-up Oyster Bar with the standard option of grilling at no cost. The oysters sold out, and customers want another one and offer many ideas. We will try new things," Guerrero said.
The Tasting Lounge at Wente Vineyards, Livermore
Wente Vineyards opened The Tasting Lounge on Arroyo Road in August with new wine and food experiences. The Tasting Lounge replaced the winery's decades-long era of fine dining at The Restaurant and the brief appearance of The Vineyard Table from mid-2019 until March 2020 in the same building.
"We have transformed the way we present Wente Vineyards wines with food at The Tasting Lounge," said Aly Wente, vice president of marketing and customer experience. "Designed for both enjoyment and education, the two curated tastings offer wine flights paired with seasonal food."
The Reserve Tasting, held indoors, comprises four Wente small-lot and nth Degree wines paired with four courses prepared by chef Tony Glanville who was previously sous-chef for the winery's catering division. The Chardonnay pairs with butter-poached prawn and crab; Cabernet Sauvignon pairs with pan-seared filet medallion and lamb slider.
The Classic Tasting, served inside on high tops or on the patio, presents a flight of four small lot wines with shareable bites such as wood-fired pizza. The two curated tastings are served once a day, Fridays through Sundays for 90 minutes.
Another option is The Seated Tasting on the weekend with wine flights, bottle service or wine by the glass. Snacks such as spiced nuts and seasonal tapas boards are sold a la carte. Local musicians play during Seated Tastings on Thursday afternoons.
For those seeking a casual meal, The Grill with a full bar is open to the public in the golf course building across from The Tasting Lounge from Thursdays to Sundays. Moderately priced food such as burgers and fried chicken sandwiches are served.
The pandemic has changed many aspects of life, including dining out. As fall approaches, Tri-Valley residents who crave restaurant food and special beverages continue to discover a panoply of local options.