Like many of you, we here at team Nosh are happy to see the end of 2016. Yet, given all that has happened since Nov. 8, it can be easy to forget that there was some good news this year. We covered the expanding brewery scene, created the Nosh Dining Guide, visited a life-changing bakery, and ate some pretty damn good food.
What is sticking with us as we close the door on this tumultuous year? Excellent pastas at Belotti. Buttery croissants at Firebrand. Funky, delicious natural wine at The Punchdown. Elegant omakase at Delage. Weird beers at Ale Industries and killer coffee at Algorithm.
Beyond these bites and sips, we also continued to explore the ins and outs of everything East Bay food and drink, whether it was fair wages for people who work in the food business, or the closures of local food and drink spots that have played significant roles in our community.
And so, without further ado, our top stories of the year:
Premier Cru owner was running a Ponzi scheme
While the first lawsuits were filed in 2015, we’re counting our exclusive coverage of John Fox’s Ponzi scheme at his wine retailer Premier Cru as our top Nosh story of 2016. The story began with a series of lawsuits: several customers, who had ordered wine “futures” (wines that are currently aging and have not yet been bottled) and never received it, sued Premier Cru for over $3 million. These lawsuits led to an FBI investigation, which revealed that Fox had been running a Ponzi scheme for years. “This was a long-running empire of deception that Fox carefully tended to for years at the cost of thousands of victims and tens of millions of dollars,” said U.S. District Court Judge James Donato during sentencing on Dec. 14. “It was thought-out. It was deliberate. Even though some of his clients were wealthy, this is not a Robin Hood story. This is a man who defrauded whoever walked through his door.”
Nosh reporting also revealed that Fox had a penchant for expensive, fancy sports cars, which he paid for using embezzled company money, as well as women he met online. These dates often took place at West Berkeley’s Artis Coffee; café employees reported seeing Fox with a rotating cast of young women. ” You never saw him with the same girl twice,” said one employee.
Fox was sentenced to six and half years in prison, and he will be required to pay $45 million in restitution once he is released.
Old and new favorites say goodbye
It was a sad year for fans of some of the East Bay’s longest running cafés and eateries. Earlier this spring, Temescal’s historic Genova Delicatessen made its last Italian combo sandwich while crowds packed its specialty goods market. In December, we witnessed the closure of both Café Rouge and Caffe Med in Berkeley. Caffe Med was long a home to the Berkeley beatnik culture, and ‘Med-heads’ are still mourning the loss of the 60-year-old café. The Med had been up for sale for years, but Café Rouge’s closure announcement sent a jolt through the restaurant industry. It had been a training ground for all kinds of pioneering chefs and butchers who have now made names for themselves in the Bay.
Newer restaurants were also not immune to closure. We watched Oakland’s elegant, novel Grand Fare Market open and close twice in less than a year. “We tried many things … to make it viable, but in the end, [the model] wasn’t financially sustainable,” co-owner Doug Washington told Nosh in November. Over in the Elmwood, the equally ambitious restaurant The Advocate decided to call it quits in late October. The second project for Comal owners John Paluska and Andrew Hoffman, The Advocate simply wasn’t able to make it through multiple chef shuffles and waning business.
And just a couple weeks ago, we heard of a flood of closures across the East Bay — Victory Burger, Actual Café, alaMar, Grocery Café, Le Petit Cochon and Jack’s Oyster Bar have all shut their doors. alaMar, fortunately, has plans to reopen around the New Year as a fast-casual version of the restaurant, and Grocery Café will also, hopefully, reopen after upgrading its kitchen after health inspection violations.
The reasons behind all of these closures are complex. Restaurant owners have told Nosh that issues around increasing labor costs, as well as staff shortages, play a large part, but we expect that’s not the full story. Look for a more detailed investigation in the coming months.
Downtown Berkeley and Telegraph Avenue undergoing change
This fall, we published not one, but two stories about the changing faces of two Berkeley neighborhoods.
Downtown is undergoing a physical facelift, as construction on the new BART plaza continues, but that’s not the only thing changing. The city center is poised to be one of the East Bay’s destinations for Italian food when Radici and Gio’s Pizza and Bocce join recently opened Agrodolce and Lucia’s Pizzeria. Sweetgreen, which opened in the former Oscar’s restaurant this spring, will soon get some more salad competition when LA-based Tender Greens opens around the block in February. And more drinking options have (re-)opened up as the new Berkeley Social Club and the renovated Triple Rock greet new (and old) customers. Soon to come will be Draw Billiard Club, Ippudo, Maker’s Common and more.
Over on the Southside, Telegraph Avenue is also seeing transformation. Two Bay Area fast-food chains are planning to make their mark on the Avenue — Super Duper Burger, which will open in the former Smart Alec’s space in June, and The Organic Coup, a certified organic fried-chicken joint that just opened in the old Pacific Cookie Company space. Joining these in January will be the Bay’s second Taco Bell Cantina, a slightly more upscale iteration of the chain featuring alcoholic beverages and an expanded menu including “shareable” home-style nachos, beef taquitos, and chicken tenders with buffalo and avocado-ranch sauces. In addition, we’ll soon see the re-opening of neighborhood favorites Raleigh’s and Café Intermezzo, which are both slated to start serving in March, plus more poke, coffee and bubble tea.
Rubicon Bakers changing lives in Richmond
This spring, regular Nosh contributor Alix Wall visited Richmond’s Rubicon Bakers and came away with quite a story. The large commercial bakery provides a first stop in the workforce for those who are rebuilding their lives after drug addiction or a prison sentence. And for many employees, that first stop becomes permanent; several of those in our story described Rubicon as a family, and said they had no desire to work anywhere else. Wall spoke with owner Andrew Stoloff, who has grown Rubicon Bakers from a struggling non-profit to a bustling business with over 100 employees that sells its goods at numerous local and national grocery chains, such as Berkeley Bowl and Whole Foods. She also got perspective from long-term employees like Fred Earl, who has been at the bakery for 20 years. The piece tells a powerful story of success and good work.
Soda taxes take hold
This year’s election marked a turning point for soda taxes in the Bay Area. This year Oakland and Albany, in addition to San Francisco, joined Berkeley in taxing distributors of sugar-sweetened beverages. Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Laura and John Arnold and The American Heart Association, among others, spent over $12 million to support the passage of soda taxes on the November ballot. (Bloomberg spent heavily to support the Berkeley soda tax too.) However, this number paled in comparison to the $30.8 million the American Beverage Association spent in opposition. Money raised from the taxes will go to public-health programs, allocated by community advisory boards.
Even more breweries head to the East Bay
This spring, we took a closer look at the three newest breweries to enter the East Bay’s quickly growing craft beer scene. Novel Brewing was born in co-owners Brian Koloszyc’s and Teresa Tamburello’s garage and has since grown into a favorite watering hole in Oakland’s Golden Gate neighborhood. The brewpub has a book and printing theme, and it serves a rotating selection of beers from its small, three barrel brewing system. Temescal Brewing focuses on what it calls “sunny day” beers — low-gravity, easy to drink, food-friendly brews. It built an expansive beer garden next to its taproom, complete with giant Jenga and food truck nibbles. In Berkeley, Gilman Brewing is set to open its taproom any day now. Founded by home brewers Sean Wells and Tim Sellmeyer, Gilman is creating small batches of “funky, interesting” beers, including both Belgian and American styles. While we wait for the final touches on the taproom, we’re enjoying Gilman beers on tap at nearby bars and restaurants like T-Rex BBQ.
We released the Nosh Guide
This spring, we took a giant leap forward and created an East Bay dining guide. We developed the Nosh Guide to be a carefully curated list of our favorite haunts, a shorter, easier to manage guide than a Yelp filter. We asked our readers for help, and you came to our rescue in spades, giving us a greater understanding of your most-visited breakfast, lunch, dinner and drink spots around. As the calendar turns to 2017, we plan to continue to update and improve the guide by adding new restaurants and bars, as well as new features (a map, perhaps) and photographs. At its core, we hope that the Nosh Guide will continue to be a helpful way to navigate our dining scene, no rankings necessary.