Thirty years ago, few people counted downtown Walnut Creek among the gems of the East Bay. While home to a handful of national retailers, the city’s center was better known for its comparatively quiet pace and mom-and-pop operations.
Walnut Creek upped the ante considerably, however, in the years following the 1990 opening of the Dean Lesher Regional Center for the Arts. With three performance spaces and art gallery, the Lesher has played a vital role in remaking Walnut Creek’s downtown into one of the busiest and most fashionable in Northern California. Today, its streets are home to upscale brands such as Tiffany’s and Nordstrom.
Downtown is the place to be in August as the Lesher Center presents its annual Walnut Creek Jazz series. The lineup features the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra (August 1), Dick Hyman Quintet (August 8), Cyrus Chestnut Quintet (August 22) and Martin Taylor and Bucky Pizzarelli (August 29).
If you’re looking to make a night of it in Walnut Creek, direct your feet to Locust Street. In the few blocks stretching away from the Lesher you will find dozens of great restaurants and bars, no shopping around required.
Massimo Ristorante, 1604 Locust St., has roots dating back to 1977, making this Italian restaurant a staple of downtown. Trouble getting a table? Even the separate bar menu is impressive. Just down the street you will find Kaiwa, 1534 Locust St. Taking its name from the Japanese word for conversation, Kaiwa offers tasty sushi in a tasteful but not stuffy atmosphere.
Walnut Creek also has emerged as one of the East Bay’s prime craft beer destinations. Pyramid Brewing, 1410 Locust St., is one of the largest brewpubs in the region, with great beer brewed right on the premises. In addition, you can expect a welcoming vibe, extensive menu, live music out back on the patio and brewery tours. Also don’t miss OL Beer Cafe and Bottle Shop, 1541 Giammona Dr. Taking its name from the Danish word for beer, this is a no-frills brew experience in which connoisseurs sample, a wide range of beers from around the region and the world. If you need a bite as well, you’re right next door to Skipolina’s, 1535 Giammona Dr., a fine regional pizza chain.
You’ll find no televisions at OL – the emphasis is on conversation and other forms of interpersonal contact. By contrast, Crogan’s, 1387 Locust St., wears its sports-bar credentials proudly. There you will find cold beer, fine pub grub and ample opportunity to argue over your team’s past, present and future. Upscale diners gravitate toward Lark Creek, 1360 Locust St., which specializes in farm-fresh American fare and boasts a 125-vintage wine list. It also is the best place to dine al fresco downtown.