Review: Chow is Danville's New Hangout
Contra Costa Times November 5, 2008
NOT THAT LONG AGO, Danville kids relished the day that they were old enough to ride their bikes downtown to Burger King. These days, however, it seems that kids have ditched the Whopper for the Burger Royale on baguette at nearby Chow. On a recent Friday afternoon, I sat next to a table of sixth-grade boys noshing on burgers and swigging Henry Weinhard's root beer.
The place was also jammed with a hodgepodge of businesspeople, ladies who lunch, retirees and tots. All of San Ramon Valley, it seemed, was eager to drop in on the new Chow.
Chow has been hopping since its September opening, when the former Blockbuster Video store emerged as an urban ski lodge of sorts, accented by old barn wood, a large fireplace, and even a couple of live trees sprouting through the carpet. A melange of cookbooks and a few chotchkies make the space homey. There is also plenty of outdoor seating with a fire pit.
Versatility is a key theme for both the decor and the restaurant generally, as if the goal is to create a place that feels welcoming to all types at all times. It's a tall order, yet Chow mostly succeeds.
The space is perfectly suitable for a big rowdy group, but equally comfortable for a single diner. Kids are happy here, yet the long bar is a big draw for adults. This flexibility extends to the kitchen, too, which serves three meals daily, with the last order not in until midnight on weekends.
CHOW TIMES FOUR
This is the fourth Chow for owner Tony Gulisano, who also has two locations in San Francisco and one in Lafayette. The Lafayette Chow has become an old friend to Lamorinda. After six years, it is still the perpetual go-to spot for casual birthday celebrations or a quick lunch.
Clearly, Gulisano's approach resonates with suburban living. He thinks harder than others about the psychology of dining out and the experience he wants for his customers. He relishes the noise and social energy of his restaurants. He says that other restaurateurs have underestimated the sophistication of people who live just outside urban areas. He's definitely onto something.
Chow's straightforward comfort food menu is conceptually strong, but mixed on execution. With more snacky items and appetizers, the Danville Chow varies a bit from the one in Lafayette. Pastas and salads fare particularly well in this kitchen. Both the wood-baked spinach lasagna with its crumbles of meat and spaghetti and meatball dinner are satisfying, though on my visit, the meatball inexplicably never made it atop my plate of al dente noodles.
Salads shine with especially fresh produce and gently dressed lettuce. The Cobb salad, for example, is a pretty composition with bitty tomatoes, blue cheese and photo-worthy avocado. The organic minestrone soup is another favorite, with chunky vegetables, fat croutons and a healthy dose of pesto. For carnivores, Chow offers plenty of options, including bistro-style steak frites with a generous slab of herb butter, quail, squab, pork chops and lamb rack chops.
Some dishes fall short, but don't offend. The stoned olives, a snack not available in Lafayette, surprised me with their saltiness. The three breaded fish tacos with salsa fresco and lots of cilantro are wonderfully colorful, but lack the zing of their more authentic brothers.
Kids like Chow's bustle and gravitate to the whimsically named drinks such as "Clean-Cut Kid" and "It's Monkey Time." The kids' menu is a half a step up from other spots. The mac and cheese, for example, is actually farfalle paired with a small forest of steamed broccoli.
The desserts are an unexpected standout. The pear-huckleberry cobbler is worthy of a state fair ribbon for its buttery top. Also memorable was a thick square of ginger cake surrounded by caramel sauce. I'd also give the apple pie another try, if only it were warmer.
Portions aren't huge here, making leftovers unlikely. The small salad, for example, is served on a saucerlike plate, and the cup of soup is really just that. Prices are a smidge higher than in Lafayette, but still quite reasonable.
Service at Chow is friendly, but pretty green. Twice, I left thirsty. Once, my appetizer arrived with my dinner. I missed my meatball. On the other hand, a generous, laid-back spirit compensates for missteps. Servers were patient with the kids, and we weren't charged for a second order of steak frites after drenching it in lemonade. I noticed managers checking on guests and hustling to keep the room moving.
Gulisano has good instincts for creating comfortable, approachable restaurants with wide appeal. Chow seems a good fit for the times and for Danville. Even the next generation of diners agrees.
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