Chow Fun

One restaurant brings folks together in three different neighborhoods

"I screwed myself," I thought, fondly, when I couldn't stop thinking about German food long after I'd written my column last week. I'd eaten so well at the four places I'd gone to (the smoked pork chop at Speisekammer! the German frankfurter at Top Dog! the meatloaf at Schroeder's! the schnitzel at Walzwerk! and three kinds of herring, and three different takes on potato pancakes, and tangy sauerkraut and sharp red cabbage ...) that I hadn't really left any space to confront the reason, I think, that many people respond to my affection for Teutonic fodder by wrinkling their noses and saying, "I don't like German food. It's too heavy."

You don't have to be Dr. Freud of Vienna to know that many of my friends are conflating the food of a country with its history. I was doing something similar while touring the August Sander show at SFMOMA that inspired my meals. I love Sander's work -- an ambitious, not to say quixotic, lifelong attempt to document the German people of the 20th century -- almost as much as I do Eugène Atget's similarly obsessive attempt at chronicling every corner of Paris. "We can tell from appearance the work someone does or does not do; we can read in his face whether he is happy or troubled," Sander wrote.

But whether I was looking at the well-known photograph of the burly-armed pastry cook holding a whisk and a copper bowl or a fashionably attired secretary with a cigarette held negligently between her fingers, I found myself thinking the same troubling thoughts: "Whose side were they on? What did they know, and when did they know it?" Even though the Nazis banned the portraits in 1934 because, according to the Getty Institute, "the subjects did not adhere to the ideal Aryan type," I saw plenty of "ideal Aryan types," as well as the non: suspect bohemians, epicene students, and gypsyish circus performers, many of whom would vanish from Germany soon after they were photographed, their portraits by Sander perhaps the only record of their existence.

Chain of Jewels: The three Chows (including Park 
Chow, pictured) share an eclectic menu and a 
philosophy of freshness and generosity.
Anthony Pidgeon
Chain of Jewels: The three Chows (including Park Chow, pictured) share an eclectic menu and a philosophy of freshness and generosity.

Location Info


Chow (Lafayette)

53 Lafayette Circle
Lafayette, CA 94549

Category: Restaurant > California

Region: Lamorinda


Spicy chicken wings $4.95

Focaccia stuffed with prosciutto, Gruyère, and peppers $7.50

Steamed black mussels $6.95

Fennel sausage pizza $7.50

1/2 grilled chicken $9.95

Pork chops $10.25

Ginger cake $4.95

Chow, 53 Lafayette Circle (at Mount Diablo), La Fiesta Square, Lafayette, (925) 962-2469. Open Monday through Thursday from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m., Friday from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m., Saturday from 8 a.m. to 11 p.m., and Sunday from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. No reservations, but you can phone ahead to be put on a "courtesy call-in list." Wheelchair accessible. Parking: easy. Noise level: moderate.

Park Chow, 1240 Ninth Ave. (at Lincoln), 665-9912. Open Monday through Thursday from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., Friday from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m., Saturday from 10 a.m. to 11 p.m., and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. No reservations, but a "courtesy call-in list." Wheelchair accessible. Parking: difficult. Muni: 44, N. Noise level: moderate.

Chow, 215 Church (at Market), 552-2469. Open Monday through Thursday from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m., Friday from 11 a.m. to midnight, Saturday from 10 a.m. to midnight, and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 11 p.m. No reservations, but a "courtesy call-in list." Wheelchair accessible. Parking: difficult. Muni: 22, F, J. Noise level: moderate.

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I remembered my own woeful evening with an almost comically "Aryan type," the friend of a friend who joined us for dinner one night in the wonderful Alsatian restaurant Storch in Berlin. He was straw-blond, with pink-flushed cheeks and cornflower-blue eyes, already running a little to fat, and probably more than a little drunk when he greeted us in the tavern attached to the restaurant with the news that the place was fully booked and we'd have to eat in the bar room. I couldn't tell if he was irritated by the fact that we'd made a reservation and therefore swept aside his complaint as we swept through the velvet curtain into the main room, or if he would have unloaded his scorn for America onto me all night anyway, through the savory tarte flambée, the faultless rabbit stew, the amazing array of cheeses. That evening I found him at first silly, and eventually annoying, but I knew that he had no power over me, and that I never had to see him again. He was stupid, and mean, and scary. Yet I enjoyed my meal despite his presence and the invisible presence of his spiritual ancestors. (Why does it not surprise me that Hitler was a vegetarian? Note: I do not say that all vegetarians are Hitler! I like vegetables. I even like some vegetarians.) Food is good, and it should bring us together rather than separate us.

Which (and here comes a whiplash transition!) is what it did over the last couple of weeks as I enjoyed several meals at a small chain of restaurants that fed me dependably and deliciously. I was thrilled that my parents were willing to join me in a spontaneous jaunt to the new Chow in Lafayette -- and so were they, though my mother was surprised when she scanned the eclectic menu, including as it does warm marinated Greek olives; tamarind-glazed squid with Thai cucumbers; Rose's home-style spaghetti dinner with meatballs; smiling noodles with shrimp, chicken, coconut, and fresh yellow curry; and char-grilled flat iron steak with caramelized onions, mushrooms, and blue cheese. "I thought we were going to a Chinese restaurant, as in Chow Fun," she said.

"Why not Italian, as in Ciao?" I said. The room was large and high-ceilinged, and we'd entered through a small market in which you could purchase the same kind of produce and meats that were being used to make dinner. We ordered the soup du jour, spicy chicken vegetable, and steamed mussels to start, followed by grilled pork rib chops for my mom, a daily special of a Niman Ranch rib eye steak for my dad, and Thai-style noodles for me. My mother tried a sip of my tangerine-ginger cooler, pronounced it delicious, and then confounded me by ordering a glass of white wine-and-mango sangria over the mango smoothie ("too thick, too filling") she'd been considering. But the little diced bits of rather unripe mango had done nothing to improve the wine, so, with filial devotion, I traded my excellent beverage for her boring one. (I more than made up for it on subsequent Chow visits. I do love fresh tangerine juice.)

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