Rumor has it that the creators of WALL-E may have been inspired by delicious meals at Wally’s Café, the unconventional Lebanese restaurant located just blocks from the Pixar campus in Emeryville. As is well noted, the animation studio loves hiding Easter eggs in its films that reference East Bay spots. And, adding further credence to the theory is a poster of the loveable robotic trash compactor that hangs up at Wally’s. It was a gift from Pixar employees to the restaurant’s namesake owner, Walid “Wally” Matar.
“To be honest with you, I’m not sure,” said Wally’s Café manager (and Wally Matar’s cousin), Jad Matar, when asked about the possible correlation. “The movie did come out a little after we opened the restaurant and some of our first customers were from Pixar.” Wally’s Café opened in 2007; WALL-E came out in 2008. But Matar said neither he nor Wally knew if the rumor was actually true because they never asked.
In any case, Wally’s Café doesn’t need to claim the WALL-E reference for its fame. The 11-year-old restaurant has made a name for itself, defying the odds by becoming an unlikely dining destination for locals and out-of-towners alike despite circumstances that would have hindered many others.
For one, Wally’s is attached to and in back of longtime locals bar, Andy’s Bank Club Café. A narrow walkway on busy San Pablo Avenue leads past Wally’s side patio and finally, a door to the restaurant itself. There are a couple small signs out front, but they’re all too easy to miss, even if you’re looking for them. According to some, finding Wally’s is a sort of badge of honor for those who take pride in knowing all the hidden gems; perhaps the type of diner who would gleefully call themselves a foodie. You know the type.
Fortunately, being around for more than a decade means the hipster-hype is low. The customer base at Wally’s these days is mostly repeat-diners, locals who live and work nearby. Still, Matar said that in a day, he could easily count 20 new faces — some coming from as far as Hayward, Fremont and San Jose to get a taste of Wally’s.
Another thing about Wally’s that may have killed any other restaurant is its unapologetic old-school, no-frills vibe. A horseshoe bar counter with swiveling wooden stools takes up most of the space. A restaurant that opened these days would play up this feature, maybe by adding faux-vintage details, replacing the brown quartz countertops with white marble and making it oh-so-precious. Not at Wally’s.
The decor is not cool, current or cute. There are large paintings and photos of European buildings and streetscapes hanging on the walls, clunky fluorescent light fixtures and a pair of frumpy ceiling fans hang above the bar, and the food is served on plasticware — the kind you see at Chinese restaurants. If you hear music inside Wally’s, it’s most probably emanating from the Bank Club through the interior doorway connecting the two businesses, which serves as a convenient portal for the watering hole’s regulars whenever they want to emerge from the dark dive bar to get a bite between drinks.
Upon seating, diners are immediately presented with a bowl of Lebanese lentil and rice soup. This is just one of two lagniappes you’ll get at Wally’s. The second is a piece of crispy, honeyed baklava topped with bright green crumbles of pistachio. These little rectangles of goodness ensure every meal here ends on a sweet note.
Matar, who’s worked in the dining industry for years, got the idea for the freebies from working at his first restaurant in Fremont — one he co-owned with his mother. There, he’d bring out samples of Middle Eastern foods for customers to taste.
“He’d walk around to their table and say, ‘Try this.’ He’s always been like that,” said Jad Matar. “He saw that his generosity really does work. The customers appreciate it.”
The fare at Wally’s is mostly Middle Eastern, with some classic American diner offerings and a couple off-menu specials, too. The most popular dishes are the chicken shawarma, beef-and-lamb gyro and falafel — offered as wraps or as generous plates served with rice and salad. Another draw? The prices at Wally’s are pretty affordable, with wraps going for $9 a piece and plates priced from $16-18.
Given that customer faves are the Middle Eastern dishes, it might seem weird that Wally’s dabbles in eats like burgers and cheesesteaks. Why bother? Matar said it’s because Wally’s wants to offer something for everyone. “We want to give a little variety for those who aren’t big on Mediterranean food. We have options for those who are hesitant to try, or for kids,” he said.
As for the off-menu items, they’re also not Lebanese. Regulars know they can always order chicken or steak quesadillas when they get a hankering. And another lesser known offering here is the Turkish coffee. Like espresso, it’s strong and condensed, served black to highlight the coffee’s flavor and natural sweetness.
Things haven’t changed too much at Wally’s Café in its 11 years in Emeryville. Except for one thing — Wally himself. Once a ubiquitous fixture in his namesake restaurant, Wally moved to Rocklin, a small city in Placer County close to Sacramento, leaving his cousin Jad to manage the Emeryville location. Last May, he opened the second Wally’s Café in his new town.
Wally’s Café is open 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., Monday through Saturday; closed on Sunday. It’s cash only here, so make sure to hit up the ATM before you visit.