Right now all tendrils on the grapevine are pointing toward Solano Avenue. Just as I was finishing a review of Albany's Thep Naaree, I got word of another new eatery in the area. I went back to the files, and found that in the past several months I've reviewed five restaurants within spitting distance of the Berkeley-Albany stretch, almost as many as in Rockridge and the Gourmet Ghetto combined. And while some have been affordable, none serve cheap eats.
The newest entry: The owners of Lalime's and Jimmy Beans have taken over the space that used to house Christopher's, at 1501-A Solano. Their new project, tentatively called Fonda (after the Mexican eateries, not the actors), is slated to open in mid-December. David Rosales, the former sous chef of Lalime's and chef de cuisine at Via Centro, will take over the kitchen, overseen by Lalime's executive chef Steve Jaramillo, who previously ran the kitchen at Café de la Paz.
Rosales and Jaramillo will call upon their Mexican and South American roots to serve pan-Latino food -- "not Nuevo Latino with French technique," says Jaramillo. Fonda will offer a full bar, "César style," and homey smaller plates -- Brazilian seafood and coconut-milk stew, Mexican melotes and sopes filled with shredded chicken -- made with high-quality, seasonal ingredients.
What has brought the intensified gourmetification of this formerly sleepy neighborhood? According to Ann Ritzma, assistant city administrator of Albany, the city "has been making an extra effort to get more restaurants in Albany" by walking new business owners through the planning process, cutting some of the red tape they would find in bigger East Bay cities, and slowly making improvements to the Solano-San Pablo area to encourage people to feel comfortable strolling around the neighborhood, dining and window-shopping.
Evelyne Slomon of Nizza la Bella, 825-827 San Pablo, concurs. "There are a lot of regulations in Berkeley and we don't have those [here]. Rents are -- used to be -- cheaper, too, but it's off the beaten path." Ritzma noted that Albany's new interest in gourmet restaurants may also be tied to the changing demographics of the city. Housing prices have skyrocketed, bringing in more affluent young families, UC Berkeley staff, and young professionals.
Monier Attar of the Persian deli Zand (1021 Solano) has seen her business increase and her customer base expand significantly beyond a predominantly Middle Eastern clientele since she moved up from below San Pablo onto the main strip. Slomon says that on the weekends people are starting to make the rounds of the bars on San Pablo and Solano -- Club Mallard, Club Muse, the Ivy Room, and Nizza la Bella. The lack of parking meters on the Albany end lets drivers take their time shopping and dining.
What impact does this gourmet boom have on the older restaurants? Says Rivoli's Roscoe Skipper, "I'm all for opening restaurants [on Solano]. We have a good presence here. Having other restaurants in the neighborhood is a wonderful thing -- people will be more likely to travel." Slomon puts it more succinctly: "The more the merrier."