By Anneli Rufus
Gleaming stainless-steel fermentation tanks tower behind a brick-faced wooden bar. Like glowing pears suspended from the high, pipe-skeletoned ceiling on strings, Edison bulbs burn brightly. Patrons sip beer, nibble pork belly for dinner and panna cotta for dessert, admire framed artworks, and watch sports on TV. Its walls painted a subtly sriking hue at the hot-cold, industrial-rural confluence of moss and shamrock milkshake, this place is ever so slightly steampunk.
Welcome, friend, to the El Cerrito brewpub scene. It's not cool in the same ways as its Amish-bearded, barrel-furnished counterparts in Temescal, say, or the Tenderloin. But this difference is precisely what makes it cool, e.g., a deeply, genuinely, no-quotation-marks-around-it cool. Like pretty girls who know they need not flaunt it, Elevation 66 Brewing Company exudes an easy, savvy self-awareness that never becomes self-parody. Sporting plaid flannel shirts whose rolled-up sleeves reveal their rose tattoos, its regulars might have ridden the Google Bus today—or might have driven it.
In our let-them-eat-cronuts era of fetishized hay-balers and forklift operators, the very notion that one might eat and drink here alongside actual laborers is a thrill.
And because so few folks know that El Cerrito has a brewpub scene, you've got it almost wholly to yourself. Small pond, big beer-bolting frog. Cool 2.0.
David Goodstal was working as a field chemist for the University of Florida when he started craving a career change. UC Davis Extension's Master Brewers Program—which covers malting, mashing, brewing, fermentation, fluid flow, mass transfer, solid-liquid separation, and more—accepts only applicants with undergraduate science degrees. Goodstal qualified, and after completing the program in 2003, started working at Berkeley's Pyramid Brewery.
"One day the bartender and I both got off our shifts at the same time," Goodstal remembers. "Shooting the breeze over a beer—of course—one of us said: Hey, why don't we open our own place?"
Goodstal had long harbored the same dream with his architect wife, Esther. A partnership emerged, and Elevation 66 opened in 2011.
"We thought there was a big underserved population in this area," Goodstal explains. "Our initial goal was just to keep the doors open."
Three years later, in a space that Esther Goodstal designed, a seasonally rotating beverage menu includes a range of full-bodied, assertively individual ales, stouts, Kölsches, and IPAs brewed right across the room. Guest beers are also on offer; several brews are always on tap. Towering 20-ounce imperial pints sell for about a shockingly low sawbuck—even less during weekday happy hours. IPAs are the top sellers; Goodstal's personal favorite is his strong, orangey East Bay IPA, but he sagely helps patrons select brews to match their tastes: For example, Laurel Leaf Pale Ale's spring-breeze lightness conveys the taste and aroma of locally picked bay leaves, while white-gold Contra Costa Kölsch suggests crisp toast.
Outliers can order soft drinks, wine, Richmond-based Catahoula Coffee, and/or Oakland-based Numi Tea.
But while Elevation 66 is a secret to many of those who would love it most, Elevation 66 also has a secret, and it's one of the East Bay's best-kept. That secret is its executive chef, Joshua Steinberg, a Culinary Institute of America alum whose résumé includes gigs at Oakland's Bellanico and Lungomare, Healdsburg's Dry Creek Kitchen, and Napa's Restaurant at Meadowood. Visible from the brewpub's easternmost tables, Steinberg's pocket-size kitchen turns out beer-inspired and beer-inclusive savories and sweets so spectacularly sumptuous, satisfying, and sly as to render the phrase "pub grub" obscene. Duck tacos with tamarind, black tea and sikil pak. Hopped gravlax with rye crostini, capers, and sunchoke crème fraîche. Herb-crusted cardoon-and-celery-root cakes with harissa aioli and shallot jam.
Changing his menus every three months, "I try to make everything as local and seasonal as possible," and to use environmentally fragile ingredients sparingly, Steinberg says, "because even though we're small, I don't want to put extra stress on anything."
An avid homebrewer, he loves creating dishes that pair well with particular beers. For instance, rich, savory dishes such as fluffy-bunned crab sliders and plump Wagyu-beef baconburgers bring out the best in Kölsch, he says, while "the hoppy bitterness of an IPA goes really well with spicy items" such as Sriracha-sauce chicken wings and kimchi-sauce scallops.
"Beer and food are both passions of mine, so I read constantly about them and about how to pair them," says Steinberg, whose regular diners "really appreciate the fact that I try to incorporate actual beers and beer components into many dishes," such as beer-brine in the wings, hops in the gravlax, IPA remoulade over ale-corned beef, and malted barley in the dough for a chocolate-butternut-squash pasta dish that gained fervent fans after its February debut.
Dreaming up sudsy desserts "can be tough," the chef admits. "So I try to pick a beer first and then design a dessert to include it in or go with it. For example, IPAs possess floral notes, cocoa notes, caramel notes, and burnt-spice notes" that could pair with or be incorporated into everything from smoked-chocolate s'mores tarts to house-made sorbets and ice creams in seasonal flavors such as avocado, pumpkin, curried stone fruit and—so creamy-rich! so stand-a-spoon-up-in-it thick!—vanilla caramel.
Michelin, meet this guy.
Steam swirls nostalgically from a golden palisade of beer-battered fish and chips. Classic bar fare, synonymous worldwide with "cheap," but Steinberg's paprika-dusted fries are slender, al-dente ambassadors for farm-fresh, well-considered produce. And his hand-sized slabs of delicate white melt-in-the-mouth fish are swathed in magnificent crispy-outside, light-as-a-cloud-inside batter that borders on pancakes and which could easily be a meal unto itself. Sweeter-than-sour house-made bread-and-butter pickles provide crunchy contrast.
A roasted-kohlrabi-and-cauliflower gratin with Gruyère and broccoli slaw and a grilled-goat-cheese sandwich (whose bread, like all breads used here, is Berkeley-based Acme) served with frisée salad are further exercises in contrast: Smooth. Crisp. Salty. Semisweet. But so is beer. This beer-paired fare mirrors the many-mooded, all-things-in-one-beverage, friendly complexity of beer itself, the unpretentious luster that has kept it populist and popular since Neolithic times.
Which leads us from "The Epic of Gilgamesh" through Proverbs 31:6 to the "Beer-Barrel Polka" to Steinberg's Kölsch—white cheddar soup, a sunny yellow cup of fried-parsley-topped liquid glory with a life-changing whisper of tang. Worthy of blazing buzz from Pinole clear to Concord, Fremont and beyond, this soup speaks volumes of the dawning of a culinary genre which, intelligently elegant, infuses glamour into one of history's most basic, equalizing actions: swigging brew.
And where better to celebrate this than San Pablo Avenue, our own Appian Way, a rolling thoroughfare on which just about everything has happened at least once? Its El Cerrito passage is The Street That Time Forgot: On certain sunny afternoons, it could so easily be 1957. Only Joshua Steinberg's smoky house-made sausages with wake-up-call curry-miso sauce suggest that it's not.
10082 San Pablo Ave.,
El Cerrito, 510-525-4800,
Open Mon.–Wed., 3–11pm
$–$$ Accepts credit cards.
Good together: David Goodstal mans the tap, while chef Joshua Steinberg turns out tasty Kölsch–white cheddar soup. Photos by Kristan Lawson.