The rolling hills and cozy towns east of the Caldecott Tunnel offer micro-enclaves of city chic and pockets of country charm. Take Armando's (707 Marina Vista Ave., Martinez, 925-228-6985, ArmandosMartinez.com). You know that perfect little music venue that exists only in your dreams? Where the smiling crowd loves the dependably good jazz, blues, and alt-country acts, and the owner greets you by name? It used to exist in Ray Jeans' dreams, too. In 2005, the amateur musician/professional housepainter opened this 65-seat club (artily hand-painted seats, that is). Now, the beloved, homegrown music venue bills top-notch acts at a rock-bottom cover charge, typically $8. And Roy really will greet you by name at the door.
From outside, Canetti's Bookshop (39 Moraga Way, Orinda, 925-258-9076) looks potentially dated and claustrophobia-inducing, but don't judge this book by its cover. Inside, it's a cheery, track-lit wonderland of hand-picked literature that feels as neat and serene as a brand-new library. The Ikea-style shelves are competently stocked with ample but concise collections of every genre you'd expect from a great little book purveyor. Owner and book-buying veteran Jeff Koren is a refugee from the now-closed Bonanza Street Books, Walnut Creek's long-standing favorite indie bookseller.
Not much has changed since the Molino family started selling rich, handmade ravioli and fresh-simmered sauce from their Pleasant Hill home in 1951. Even though it's a quick jaunt from the 24 and 680 freeways, a trip to the now-legendary Molino's Ravioli (2150 Pleasant Hill Rd., Pleasant Hill, 925-934-7075, MolinosRavioli.com), still feels like a country drive. Molino's rich, pillowy ravioli are still the region's favorite take-home dinner.
Lafayette has been a mini-mecca for boutique shoppers for as long as anyone can remember, but this is the first time cotton-candy-pink Burner wigs and sequined lingerie have hit the scene. At the Nonconformist Eco-Boutique (996 Moraga Rd., Lafayette, 925-284-5422, LafayetteNonconformist.com), owner/dance instructor Dianna Rowley and her friendly staff stock a hand-picked selection of retro and vintage clothing and inspired dancewear.
Mt. Diablo State Park (96 Mitchell Canyon Rd., Clayton, 925-837-2525, Parks.ca.gov/?page_id=517) is an easy day trip, but with fossil hunting, boulder climbing, tucked-away picnic spots, and epic views, you might just want to stay all night. You can! Three spacious campsites offer your choice of shelter from the wind or unimpeded glimpses of low-lying fog and summer meteor showers.
Don't miss: Early reports say the creative Vietnamese fusion dishes, indulgent cocktails and sleek lounge atmosphere at just-opened Élevé Restaurant & Bar (1677 N. Main St., Walnut Creek, 925 979-1677, EleveRestaurant.com) will make it a keeper. ... The new Fuz (3707 Mt. Diablo Blvd., Lafayette, 925-299-9930, FuzRestaurant.com) serves up sushi and related fare (halibut-mango ceviche!). ... For indecisive hikers, trails that start at nondescript turnouts on Pinehurst Road in the town of Canyon, nestled inconspicuously between Oakland and Moraga, ascend through a few different ecosystems, from a deep, mushroom-studded redwood forest to bald, sandy, manzanita-covered summits. Trailheads are marked vaguely, if at all, so consult a map before you go.
Culture Spy - February 19, 1:45 PM
Seven Days - February 18, 5:00 PM
Seven Days - February 17, 4:09 PM
Seven Days - February 16, 3:24 PM
What the Fork - February 15, 2:00 PM