Benicia, CA

Three familiar restaurants; two different outcomes

Clay Kallam

As a writer about restaurants and food, it’s easy to just focus on the new – but there’s more to eating out than following the trends. Sure, you can rush to SanDai and find out what “Nusantran” might mean, but who knows if SanDai will be here in a year?

On the other hand, those restaurants that survive have proven themselves in a cutthroat market, and found an audience. So here’s a look at some of those survivors, plus a second location for a five-year veteran.

Bella Siena (Benicia): We just decided that we’d head down to Benicia’s waterfront since we hadn’t been there in a while, and did the usual internet search to find a place that sounded good.

Bella Siena, after some digging and discussion, was the choice, and it was a clear winner. First, the location is great, and tables at the west end of the First Street restaurant have a great view of the water and the Richmond-San Rafael bridge.

And though the menu was pretty much standard Italian, the execution was excellent. (Just as with diners, there seems to always be a search for the unusual – but a lot of times something familiar done really well is by far the better choice.)

As we were leaving, we wondered why we hadn’t been to Benicia in a while … and we promised ourselves we’d be returning soon.

Vik’s Chaat House (Berkeley): I’d heard about Vik’s for years, and it pops up on various “Best Indian” lists so I convinced my friend to meet me there for lunch. Neither of us had any idea what to expect, but even our combined long years eating out prepared us for a most unusual experience.

First, you enter through a grocery store. There are no signs pointing the way, so you wander a bit and then stumble across a cavernous odd-looking room – at least to American eyes.

The first view is of a large L-shaped counter set back against the walls, and along the counter are several cooks and stations where food is waiting. To the right is the place to order, and don’t expect any help from servers, because there are none.

After the order, you turn and see a long series of unadorned metal tables where people are eating or waiting for their food – which is available for pickup at the stations we first encountered. And different items are prepared at different spots, so the samosas are over here, and the tandoori is somewhere else.

The food was good, but not great, and perhaps the charm is that Vik’s Chaat House is much more “authentically Indian” than the usual Bay Area options. If so, that’s fine, but if you don’t know what to expect, the experience is more than a little jarring.

In short, we’re unlikely to be back.

Andaman Thai (Walnut Creek): The first Andaman Thai, in San Ramon, opened in 2018, and the recent expansion, just across the street from the downtown Kaiser, is clearly justified. The food runs a familiar gamut, but the menu itself is worth a mention. It’s full of beautifully done color pictures of the dishes and is a far cry from the QR codes that pass as information at many restaurants.

And, like Bella Siena, the attraction is the execution of the familiar, not exploration of the unusual. In general, I’m not a huge fan of Thai food, but I liked Andaman Thai, and the next time my wife can talk me into a Southeast Asian dinner, Andaman Thai will be my pick.

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Photo byMaggi Brown


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Clay Kallam is a lifelong East Bay resident who spent several decades in local journalism -- and still writes for Diablo Magazine (among others). Over the years, he has covered just about every aspect of life in the Bay Area, from rock-and-roll to the arts to political coverage to food to sports. On the food front, he does not claim to be a critic, but rather someone who enjoys a good meal, a well-made drink and a nice red wine. As for sports, he has written for national publications (including Sports Illustrated and Slam) and covers girls' basketball across the nation for MaxPreps. He is a high school coach and a serious fan of the local teams -- and savored every minute of the Giants' and Warriors' championships. He graduated from Acalanes, UC Santa Barbara (ancient history) and Cal (philosophy). He lives in Walnut Creek with his wife Maggi, who takes many of the food photos. He appreciates his readers and is always happy to talk about anything he's written. His food experiences can be found at #dishdining on Instagram, and emails can be sent to claykallam@gmail.com.

Walnut Creek, CA
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