Natural wine is having more than a moment in the East Bay, cropping up more and more at standalone natural wine bars and as pairings at restaurants. And as heads of one of the first natural wineries in the area, sprouting up in North Berkeley back in 2008, Broc Cellars founder Chris Brockway and his wife Bridget Leary have taken note. Back in 2008, Brockway’s attention to using organically farmed grapes in his wines wasn’t de rigueur; but these days, the natural wine movement has gained more of a footing with incoming wine bars in the East Bay. And with Leary joining Broc Cellars as general manager in 2015, the twosome has embraced some of the more interesting spots to enjoy wine alongside amazing bites throughout their home territory of Berkeley and Oakland.
In this Tag Along, the couple visits four of their favorite restaurants that feature plentiful — or at least carefully curated — wines and share their favorite dishes for eating (and drinking) their way through the East Bay’s neighboring cities.
1788 Fourth Street, Berkeley
First stop is Pollara Pizzeria in Berkeley, which serves Roman-style pizza and opened in the fall of 2019 on busy Fourth Street. It’s just a stone’s throw away from Broc Cellars and features a food menu — and notably, a very good wine list — that drew Brockway and Leary in. There’s the pizza, of course: rectangles of pizza al taglio that sit behind a glass case, which the couple often bring back to the winery for a meal. (Tip: For at-home dining, back at their El Cerrito home, their move is to order the pizza cold for easy heating.) Pollara’s pizza lineup changes according to seasonal produce, but Leary points to a kale lemon ricotta slice as her current favorite: “It’s kind of like a nice salad on it that makes you feel better and has really bright, lighter flavors,” she says — while Brockway favors the Diavola, loaded with fresh mozzarella, diavola salami, and a spicy tomato sauce.
Beyond the pizza, Pollara’s sandwiches have become a favorite for the couple and their family, particularly the porchetta sandwich, which Leary says is excellent but perhaps lesser-known. “We love the pizza so much and then we saw that they did sandwiches,” Leary shares. “Now it’s everyone’s go-to.” The stellar wine list was also a later revelation — and eventually a serious draw — for the couple. “It’s kind of an unusual wine list, especially for Fourth Street,” Brockway says. “When this popped open, we didn’t really know about it until a little bit later, and then all of a sudden you notice the wine list — the Radikon, Donati, and sparkling [options] — and we just started grabbing bottles and taking them home.”
4935 Shattuck Avenue, Oakland
After a brief drive to the Temescal neighborhood, we walk into Snail Bar where Brockway is greeted by Jake Michahelles, co-owner and wine buyer for the establishment. Snail Bar can command lengthy wait times, but we arrived early and slid right in, and within no time Brockway and Michahelles are wrapped up in a conversation about the available bottles. Brockway lands on a Chablis, perfect for cutting some of the heaviness of the food, he says, such as the requisite plate of snails served with cashew-miso sauce and garlic confit and topped with thinly sliced kumquats. “I mean, you always feel the pressure to get the snails, right?” Brockway says. “It’s kind of an obligation.” That evening, the snails were accompanied by an order of crudites served with savory mayo, as well as a confit butterbean tartine with boquerones and salsa verde.
The couple enjoys the relaxed feel of the Oakland wine bar, and as fans of the now-closed Verjus, they both relish that another natural wine bar has opened up closer to their East Bay home. “Having something like this in the East Bay has been great and it seems like something that’s been missing a little bit, you know?” Brockway says. “It’s just a nice addition … it’s nice to see things expand here because there’s always been a few natural wine bars — a lot compared to how many years ago — but Snail Bar ties it all in with food and how wine is supposed to be enjoyed, which is pretty cool.”
420 40th Street, Oakland
For a more casual meal option, Brockway and Leary lead the way to Tacos Oscar. The restaurant, with its chic and brightly colored shipping containers, is their go-to when they want a break from their usual taquerias, where it’s all about carne asada and carnitas. Here, the couple opts for a chicken tinga taco, a charred broccoli taco, and a third taco filled with summer squash. “They always cater to vegetarians with vegetable-based tacos that are beautiful but also delicious,” Leary says as they sit on the back patio.
Tacos Oscar doesn’t have your typical wine list, heavy with bottles, but instead focuses on a small, rotating canned wine menu, which has at times included Broc Cellars’ canned wine collection. Today, Broc Cellars’ wine is on the list, as well as cans of Una Lou rose, alongside a selection of beers from local brewers like Temescal Brewing and Fort Point.
2311A Magnolia Street, Oakland
The last stop is Soba Ichi, a spot special to Leary, Brockway, and their extended family. They’ve known Shinichi Washino from his days as bar manager at Ippuku; now Washino runs the sake and shochu program at Soba Ichi. Washino expanded the program to include wine, with Leary praising the pairings: “He has a sense of palette and what could work with this Japanese menu and aesthetic.” The couple has been going to the Oakland restaurant since it opened in 2018, and with the peaceful open-air front patio, it became a relief to dine there with their family during the pandemic. The restaurant was also essential to Leary and Brockway during the shutdown when the couple would order Soba Ichi’s to-go home cooking kits. “It was almost like something that you’d buy at a store with pictures of what to do with cooking it,” Leary says. “I think its Kyoto-inspired pressed sushi in these beautiful gift boxes is like something you would find at a train station in Kyoto to give somebody.”
Their move is to share bowls of the soba, with its balanced broth and noodles made in-house, while also working their way through the appetizer menu. This means orders of homemade tofu and salmon-pressed sushi, alongside plates of corn tempura served with matcha salt for dipping, grilled asparagus, and mochi for dessert. “I think that it’s so special because the items change weekly,” Leary says of the restaurant. “It’s just thoughtful.”