New development could replace one of Walnut Creek’s first foodie temples

It’s now a dusky  looking building that appears empty, except for a shelf of file folders visible through one of the darkened windows. But back in the day, the late ’80s and early ’90s, California Cafe on North California Boulevard was the hip place in town to dine. It showcased what was becoming known as “California cuisine,” the informally haute style of food preparation and presentation popularized by Alice Waters and Chez Panisse.

The term now seems rather quaint and commonplace, as does the cuisine, which is characterized by fresh, seasonal ingredients, Mediterranean or Mexican-style combinations and stylish presentations. There was a time before this foodie revolution when Americans didn’t eat what was in season, all past was “spaghetti” and tacos were as “ethnic” as most people would get.

I remember being taken out to dinner on dates to California Cafe. I don’t remember the interior but I’m sure the restaurant was trying to achieve a look that would pass for sleek and sophisticated in the late 1980s. I was living in Walnut Creek and think of a place like California Cafe as trying to give the suburbs a taste of what it would be like to dine at Stars in San Francisco or Santa Fe Bar and Grill in Berkeley.  Also operating at the time was Spiedini’s, spanning the ground floor of an office building on Oakland Boulevard. It had white table cloths and open kitchen, announcing that it was trying to achieve the look of a hip  new South of Market eateries — when South of Market was undergoing its gentrification — and bring to the suburbs a new urban feel to dining.

A developer hopes to knock down that dark and dusky former temple of fine dining at 1540 North California Boulevard. On this lot next to the Lesher Center for the Arts, and on an adjacent lot that holds the Scotts Valley Bank and a surface parking lot along Bonanza and Locust streets, the developer wants to construct a five-story mixed-use residential and retail project.

The City Council is conducting a preliminary review tonight of the project that would require several land use approvals, including a General Plan Amendment to increase the building height limit from 50 feet to 70 feet and a conditional use permit to allow a multi-family residential development in an area zoned for pedestrian retail. 

9 thoughts on “New development could replace one of Walnut Creek’s first foodie temples

  1. It seems to me that residents would have to vote to overturn the building height limitation. That building has been an eyesore for a long time. I've seen waist high weeds on that lot. The owner may have let it go to pot in hopes that the city would be desperate to have it developed and thus create some sort of loophole to allow a 5 story building there. Whatever the case, the owner has not been the kind of neighbor that deserves special consideration.


  2. California Cafe was our favorite place to take out-of-state guests in the early 90s. I'm looking forward to seeing this parcel developed intelligently. Given that it is next to the north Locust parking garage, I don't have a problem with a five-story solution if height setbacks soften the effects. I'm also happy that the Coop site project is underway. Both projects create needed jobs now and in the future. Therese, general plan regulations are state laws and voter approval is not required for variances, which can occur 4 times per year, if I remember correctly.


  3. The building that housed California Cafe was originally an ice house that provided ice for fruit cars traveling along the Sacramento Northern Railway which is where California Blvd is today. The building had an agreement (NOT an easement for its utilities) with the neighboring property that was terminated. The cost to bring utilities to the building is prohibitive and that is why it has sat vacant for so long. It is definitely time for redevelopment of the site.


  4. 5 stories? How much more are they going to try and cram this poor city with? the people who live around here dont want anymore people coming to this town! its too damn packed!


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