On Labor Day only a handful of restaurants were open on Solano Avenue. A parking place opened up in front of Rivoli, a sign it was time to try it.
Open since 1994, there are currently about 90 one or two line mentions on Chowhound, but no details that I could find. Sometimes I wish people would write about old favorites and not just the new kids on the block. I could probably tell you the names of the bus boys children at A16 at this point.
All I knew about Rivoli is that some people think it is French, some Italian, the tables are close together, there are raccoons in the garden in back, lots of people like the hot fudge sundae and the style of food is similar to Chez Panisse.
What impressed me most about Rivoli was the wine list. The bottle prices are reasonable with most falling into the $30 - $40 range and a good selection of half bottles averaging $15 - $30. There are organic and bio-dynamic wines. The web site mentions that many of the top-price wines are offered at nearly retail. Care is taken with temperature.
The only nit I have is the wine glasses which are once size fits all. The wines by the glass are a little pricy, but the large glasses are filled, equaling two glasses in most restaurants. This doesnt allow for playing with the wine like swishing, etc.
Dishes change every three weeks except for the signature dishes - the portabella mushroom fritters, caesar salad and hot fudge sundae. They also earn kudos for soufflés, lamb shank and pot roast. The website menus are kept up to date.
The dishes I liked best were the appetizers. In order of preference, on two visits I tried:
Maytag blue cheese soufflé with black mission figs, grilled pancetta and toasted walnuts
Portabella mushroom fritters with lemon aïoli, parmesan, arugula and caper vinaigrette
Slow braised pot roast with warm heirloom tomato and bread salad, white zucchini and fontina gratin and pine nuts
Mascarpone cream with figs, raspberries and honey syrup with thyme
Strawberry/plum and nectarine sorbets with snicker doodles
House smoked salmon salad nicoise (already off the menu)
Dinners come with crusty Acme levain sourdough and a small crock of butter and one of salt.
The soufflé with figs is a memorable dish that is highly recommended while it is available (it just started its three week guest appearance).
A bravo for the perfectly ripe Kadota and Mission figs. Combined with the top notch and generous pancetta, wonderful toasted walnuts and a reduced balsamic, each bite was exquisite. The small soufflé, about the diameter of a CD was as light and airy as possible with a golden brown blue cheese top that didnt overpower the eggs.
The mushroom fritters do deserve their signature status and acclaim. Large, thick juicy slices of portabellas have a crisp coating and are married perfectly with the generous shaved parmesan and caper vinaigrette. Im not a fan of aioli, but the lemon version was so perfect with the mushrooms, it was practically inhaled.
One person on Chowhound mentioned that the fritters were not so special. I can only think they let the fritters cool. This is not a dish to let sit while you chat, the hotter the better. As soon as that dish hits the table, dig in. This is a big appetizer. It could make a light dinner for one, a shared appetizer for two and even 4 people could share the dish, everyone getting a large slice of mushroom.
I liked the pot roast but it didnt rise to the level of the two appetizers. One of the most fall apart tender pieces of roast in a pool of pan juices, it was topped with chopped garlic and pistachios. Zucchini with melted fontina was just that, as was the vinegary cubes of bread and tomatoes.
While the figs were again perfect, six halves were arranged around a too big blob of marscapone and some raspberries. They syrup was too sweet. This did come with two outstanding cookies.
The sorbets were nice, light, tart and adequately flavored with the fresh fruit. The cookies were fine.
There was nothing I liked about the salmon nicoise. Having recently been spoiled by an elegant smoked salmon from Tokyo Fish, this was tasteless in comparison. Thinner than paper slices of salmon covered the plate topped with chopped egg, olives and potatoes all mixed together like some sort of egg salad along with some baby blue lake beans. The drizzle of a thin aioli (I think) didnt do a thing for this. There is something different now with the smoked salmon, but I would skip any dishes that had it in the future. The slices are so thinly sliced any flavor there might be is lost.
The staff is efficient, professional and a little too reserved bordering on frosty. They are a little friendlier with regulars. The holiday staff was far from the A-team and service was much better today.
The décor is minimalist. There is a front bar area with five bar stools and a banquette with three small tables.
To get to the main dining room you walk through a long hall that is part of the kitchen, which is a little bit of an odd design.
The main dining room is cozy with tables no more than a foot from each other. As mentioned, when making reservations, request a table next to the window which overlooks the green garden which is the decorative focus.
Banquettes run along two walls. The website has pictures (the one below looks into the dining room from the garden. This link to citysearch has an excellent picture of the dining room.
Someone on Chowhound mentioned that there were fewer tables now and more room. Not true. There are still 57 seats. It would not be possible to fit in another seat. Beside the window seat, perhaps the best seats are the corner banquette seats. Cozy and as private as it gets. Worst seats - cramped center tables and the two top next to the kitchen.
This is really a Cal-American restaurant as French or Italian as Chez Panisse, in other words, not very. It incorrectly gets compared to Chez Panisse, IMO.
The website says the menu relies on what is seasonal, local and fresh, using mostly organic produce, sustainably caught fish and naturally raised meats and poultry. The menu changes every three weeks in order to take advantage of the seasons. Wendy uses individual farms and ranches as much as possible and shops daily at local markets for the best available produce.
Well, yes, but I would say a more reasonable comparison is to Zuni or Boulevard than Chez Panisse. The website has a little history and the reason for the restaurants name.
Rivoli gets a lot of national attention and there are many references on the web. There is probably a fifty/fifty ration of tourists to locals.
IMO, this is one of the better general guidebook recommendations for visitors This restaurant wont shame the Bay Area when out-of-towners stop by. It does Berkeley proud and is a good mirror of the local dining scene for this class of restaurant.
There are a lot of restaurants making excellent and very good food in the Bay Area. Too few of them have even one memorable dish.
While only some dishes fell into the memorable catagory, there were no actual failures or poor preparations, just some that fit my personal tastes better.
1539 Solano Ave. Berkeley, CA
phone: (510) 526-2542
toll free: (866) 496-2489
Monday Thursday: 5:30 pm 9:30 pm
Friday: 5:30 pm 10:00 pm
Saturday: 5:00 pm 10:00 pm
Sunday: 5:00 pm 9:00 pm