Thursday, December 11, 2008

Wally's Cafe

Wally's Cafe in Emeryville is one of my favorite restaurants, and I highly recommend going there if you're in the area and like Middle Eastern (Lebanese in this case) food. Wally's is a mom-and-pop joint which has a totally different atmosphere and style, but still reminds me of the sadly defunct Bistro E. Europa with Gypsy Flavor in San Francisco. Both restaurants were run by immigrant couples making traditional, delicious, and not-at-all-fancy dishes. And in both cases, the friendly owners are as much of a draw as the food.

You won't find anything at Wally's made with organic whole kale with extract of ginseg root, or that sort of thing. There are no special light, Atkins, vegan, macrobiotic, raw, or whole options (though a vegan could happily eat the Hummous and Babaghanouj with pita, or the excellent Lentil Soup). No, this food is traditional style Lebanese comfort food. I was in fact introduced to the restaurant by a Lebanese colleague who, rarely able to find food that reminds him of home, discovered Wally's the week it opened.

My favorite dish is the Pomegranate Chicken, which is done in a style which I've never had anywhere else, and I consider to be up there with the best dishes of much fancier Middle Eastern restaurants in the area. The Gyros, Kafta, Shawarma, and other dishes are also excellent, and the Baklava and Hibiscus Iced Tea are both must haves.

Ejected from his homeland by war, Wally has come to the U.S. to try to have a better life, like my own family after WWII. Restaurant work was not his first career, but this is his third restaurant, and the experience certainly shows in the excellent food. At least one review has called the Yelp kudos for Wally's Cafe "overly enthusiastic given the category." What I think this reviewer is missing is that the category itself is part of the positive vibe around the place. Wally and his wife Angelica are friendly and unpretentious, and so is their restaurant. Given the sometimes obnoxious tone found in the abundant hipper-than-thou Bay Area restaurants, Wally's is a lungful of fresh air.

Located behind a dingy bar (The Bank Club) with which it shares bathrooms, Wally's is very much in the style of what New Yorkers affectionately call a local dive. It's the kind of place that you're not sure if you should let people know about. I want Wally to have as much success as possible, but on the other hand I don't want a bunch of schmucks to start showing up and ruining the place for the rest of us. I'll err on the side of drumming up business for him, though, and say that in these tough economic times small businesses like Wally's really need your support. So when you're in the Emeryville-West Oakland area and are thinking about grabbing lunch, go grab it at Wally's. You won't spend much more than at, say, the nearby Denny's or IHOP -- but the food and atmosphere are 1000 times better.