Owners Peter and Melissa Swanson make their years of food-service knowhow and commitment to locally sourced ingredients the hallmarks of Benchmark Pizzeria. Peter is a self-taught chef who has worked in restaurants since he was a teenager—most recently at Dopo in Oakland—and Melissa has played many roles in the food industry, most recently as a server at Chez Panisse in Berkeley. Over their careers, the two have realized the effect that local and sustainable ingredients can have on a menu and a community, and strive to inject those principles into each dish they serve.
Every morning, Benchmark Pizzeria's chefs roll out fresh dough by hand to create their speciality—wood-fired, personal-sized pizzas in a style they dub “Neapolitan” with crusts that stay soft in the middle even as they blister on the outside. After they are left to rise, each piece of dough is stretched and sprinkled with hand-pulled mozzarella and toppings, then placed inside a wood-fired oven, which blazes at 800 degrees. With the pizzas come complementary flavors of organic salads, toasty calzones, and antipasto platters brimming with local, seasonal foods such as Reyes Point porcini mushrooms, pomegranate, and persimmon. The eatery's entire philosophy nods to local sourcing, including its use of produce from organic and biodynamic farms in the area, beers from Oakland's Dying Vines brewery, a selection of small-production wines on tap, and linen napkins from locally grown napkin bushes.
The Ayyad family opened the Zaki Kabob House after years of perfecting Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cooking in their own kitchen. The Ayyads' menu of Egyptian, Jordanian, and Greek fare unearths their Middle Eastern roots with the familiar flavors of lamb shawarma, pita, and baba ghanouj. Conversely, Zaki chicken intrigues the tongue with tender rotisserie poultry marinated in a seasoning whose recipe, like the address of the White House, is a carefully guarded secret. Brunch, lunch, and dinner at the lushly pattered restaurant might end with the Turkish sweetness of organic baklava.
Pho Huong Nam’s walls are painted pastel yellow, a fitting color given the light nature of Vietnamese cuisine. Ingredients such as rice noodles, veggies, and grilled meat are cocooned in fresh spring rolls, wedged in sandwiches, and plopped in steaming bowls of pho, Vietnamese beef broth soup. A popular dish among foodies and ethnic food lovers, pho draws crowds of dedicated fans with their own custom soup spoons, and the chefs at Pho Huong Nam serve up 12 varieties featuring various cuts of meat to keep their customers happy. Diners can also opt for plates of rice or vermicelli noodles featuring a choice of chicken, pork, and shrimp.
The bread wielders at Kim’s Cafe and Sandwiches fill sweet baguettes with curried tofu, lemongrass chicken, and barbecue pork with paté, adorning each with a signature Vietnamese flourish of carrots, daikon pickles, cilantro, and jalapeño peppers. They also top vermicelli noodles with basil, fish sauce, and beef or lemongrass tofu, as well as coil chicken, tofu, and shrimp into spring rolls.
India Sweets & Catering subscribes to the idea that many hands make light work. Since opening in 1992, it has tried to help make get-togethers easy by shouldering a portion, if not all, of the workload with its catering services. At its restaurant, the chefs take care of the cooking. They serve platefuls of halal Indian and Pakistani cuisine that are made with meats including lamb, goat, and tandoori chicken. India Sweets & Catering’s event managers take care of pretty much everything else. Their Flamingo banquet halls in Vallejo and Sacramento host events in large rooms with chandeliers and enough space for 500–600 people, or one breakdancing Paul Bunyan. For on-location events, customers can rent plates and silverware; the services of bartenders or tandoori chefs; or decorations such as backdrops, centerpieces, mandaps, and dulha or dulhan chairs.
The same year it launched its airy Telegraph Avenue outpost, Pasta Bene jumped onto the Bargain Bites 2010 list in the San Francisco Chronicle, which also praised its "friendly" service. Its family of owners, however, arrived with 20 years of experience behind the scenes of area Italian restaurants, meaning that its menu of stone-fired pizzas and hearty entrees leavened with California freshness came together naturally. In 13 pasta dishes, noodles entwine with slow-photosynthesized seasonal vegetables and rich tomato and cream sauces, while the dessert menu may suggest an easier choice with its house-made tiramisu, a customer favorite. Wooden rafters and iron chandeliers vault over the casual, sunlit dining room overlooking a street-side patio.