With its wide sidewalks and family-friendly restaurants and stores, Solano Avenue may be the small-towniest stretch of street in the East Bay. The surrounding hills of Albany, El Cerrito and North Berkeley are quiet and largely residential, populated by families and retired folks.
Part dog park, part homeless encampment, and part urban art gallery, the Albany Bulb (Buchanan St. and I-80, Albany) is one of those only-in-the-East-Bay gems that you have to see to understand. Located on a spit of land that juts out into the bay, the former landfill fell into neglect as governments squabbled about what to do with it. During that time it was claimed by homeless people, dog walkers, hikers, and artists, who have taken what is essentially a junkyard and turned it into an outdoor museum with large-scale paintings and industrial sculptures both bizarre and compelling.
Even in an area saturated with independent music stores, Down Home Music (10341 San Pablo Ave., El Cerrito, 510-525-2129, DownHomeMusic.com) manages to stand out. It's a neighborhood shop that offers a well-picked and perfectly sized selection of underappreciated oldies, rockabilly, Tex-Mex, country, blues, and world and roots music on both CD and vinyl. It's truly by and for music lovers, with a staff that's patient, passionate, and knowledgeable, plus a listen-before-you-buy policy.
Fonda (1501 Solano Ave., Albany, 510-559-9006) manages a rare combination of hip and comfortable with its take on upscale, stylish, Spanish-style small bites and cocktails. Brunch and lunch are good, and in honor of the recession, Fonda currently offers an all-day happy-hour menu that includes drinks as well as several appetizers, including their signature duck tacos with salsa crema. But it's best to go later at night for impossibly rich desserts, drinks like the citrusy-sweet Key Lime Caipirinha, and a loungey, low-lit vibe that's surprisingly lively for sleepy Solano Avenue.
Wedged between a Domino's and a dry-cleaning place, Gordo Taqueria (1423 Solano Ave., Albany, 510-528-8226) is a hole-in-the-wall with a heart of gold: The service is fast and no-frills, the portions are massive, and the prices are dirt cheap. Five bucks will get you a well-balanced, brick-sized super burrito filled with cheese, rice, beans, fresh pico de gallo, and surprisingly high-quality meat; guac is extra but entirely worth it.
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