Now, customers are eagerly awaiting a new restaurant, Table at 7, by Singapore’s oldest cafe chain. It promises to present modern Singaporean and Indonesian flavors while highlighting produce from local farms. Walnut Creek is also getting a new matcha cafe by Berkeley’s wildly popular mochi outfit Third Culture Bakery later this summer. And the East Bay city’s first food hall, the Foundry, is in the works.
It’s been a gradual, but pointed, change for the small suburban city. Ambitious restaurateurs in the Bay Area tend to eye cities such as San Francisco or Oakland, not comparatively quieter locales farther east like Walnut Creek.
“(Table at 7) is going to be incredible,” said Brian Hirahara, a real estate developer, Walnut Creek resident and self-proclaimed foodie. “Seeing more interesting options and diversity as opposed to more of the Cheesecake Factory — that’s been a big shift.”
There are several reasons Walnut Creek is suited for development and new restaurants, according to BH Development’s Hirahara, who was behind some of the city’s most exciting restaurant openings in the past 20 years. It’s located at the confluence of two freeways. It has multiple theaters and the Lesher Center for the Arts, which puts on plays, dance performances, outdoor concerts and gallery exhibitions. There is a ton of shopping, from major retailers like Nordstrom to indie boutiques. Several new residential developments promising more than 500 units are on their way.
And with its warm weather and many downtown restaurants taking advantage of outdoor dining, the city became a bustling destination throughout the pandemic, Hirahara said.
“Obviously San Francisco has a great dining scene, but maybe people just want to get away,” he said. “We’re becoming more urban but we’re less congested, a little more charming.”
Leading up to the pandemic, restaurants were booming in Walnut Creek. Between 2015 and 2020, downtown added about 30 restaurants, according to the city. While Walnut Creek saw several close due to the pandemic, openings have been swift since last fall, with 15 additions. And there are plenty of people ready to support the restaurant boom: The city’s roughly 70,000 residents have a median household income of $105,948, compared with $73,691 in Oakland, according to American Community Survey data.
Yet for years, the dining scene felt underwhelming and suburban. Driven by a desire to dine at an exciting restaurant without driving to San Francisco, Hirahara began a mission to open restaurants in Walnut Creek with eight-time Chronicle Top 100 pick Va de Vi in 2004. Now, he is working on re-envisioning the Foundry in a post-pandemic landscape, delaying the opening by a few more years.
Other restaurateurs have followed due to the energetic downtown area. Lila Owens opened a new Walnut Creek location of her hit cupcake shop Cupcakin’ earlier this month — her first outside of Berkeley. It was an easy sell for Owens.
While she used to associate Walnut Creek with high-end shopping like Tiffany’s, Owens said she’s appreciated seeing more affordable tenants move in. The city has become a draw for local independent chains like fried chicken purveyor Starbird and vegetarian fast-food spot Amy’s Drive-Thru, though the City Council rejected the latter because of traffic concerns.
“People are out. It’s lively,” she said. “I think it’s evolving to be a little more approachable and not so upscale, and we want to be part of that evolution.”
Walnut Creek’s dining scene is also still growing and not as competitive as San Francisco’s, meaning there’s opportunity for newcomers to stand out. Richard Reyes, the former developer for the Singapore company opening Table at 7, said that’s one reason he picked the city.
“I studied the area. I looked at what they had,” Reyes said. “What we bring to the table is completely different.”
Plus, the combination of a dynamic downtown and easy parking was something that he’d never find in San Francisco, he said.
During the pandemic, Walnut Creek has seen an influx of new residents from San Francisco, a demographic that may influence dining tastes in the years to come. Nearly 4,000 San Franciscans decamped for Contra Costa County, according to postal data.
Other slices of Contra Costa County have been seeing more attention from Bay Area restaurateurs too. San Ramon’s new shopping development, City Center Bishop Ranch, nabbed locations of San Francisco’s famed Vietnamese restaurant Slanted Door, hip Italian spot Delarosa and popular bubble tea chain Boba Guys. Popular Filipino-Mexican outfit Senor Sisig and Jewish deli Wise Sons headed to Lafayette this year through a new ghost kitchen.
Looking ahead, Hirahara sees more diversity developing in Walnut Creek’s restaurant scene and, he hopes, some permanent outdoor dining. About 70 restaurants used Walnut Creek’s pandemic program to create new outdoor dining patios, according to city worker Collette Hanna. The plan is for the City Council to formally extend the program through the end of the year on July 20.
“We’re looking at figuring out a way to keep street dining on a permanent basis,” Hirahara said. “I think that’s going to change the way the street feels as well as how operators feel about Walnut Creek.”
Janelle Bitker is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: email@example.com Twitter: @janellebitker