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Walnut Creek Magazine

Great Vibes and Great Value at Benchmark Oakland

Jan 15, 2019 08:21AM ● By Fran Miller

 BY FRAN ENDICOTT MILLER

There are plenty of pizzerias and Italian restaurants in our ‘east of the tunnel’ neck of the woods, though few mimic the vibrancy of newly opened Benchmark Oakland. Located at 9th and Washington in the heart of the revitalized ‘Old Oakland’ district, this Italian-California eatery, sister restaurant to Kensington’s Benchmark Pizzeria, serves some of the best wood fire oven pizzas and creatively crafted (and named) cocktails you’ll find anywhere. Add to this the energetic vibe of its up-and-coming host neighborhood and Benchmark is a place to return again and again. 

Benchmark makes its home in an historic 1876 building that features sky high ceilings, an original mosaic tiled floor, and large picture windows that overlook the urban scene just outside. Across the street – Steph Curry’s Under Armour pop-up store, Swan’s MarketRatto’s Italian deli, and The Trappist Belgian beer bar. The vitality and verve of these few blocks between Broadway and Washington, and 8th and 10th Streets, with their completely renovated Victorian style buildings and exquisitely restored architectural detail, is inspiring. 

Further inspiration arrives once inside Benchmark (or outside, on the welcoming sidewalk patio, weather permitting), with a peek at the amusing cocktail list, curated by Tamir Ben-Shalom of Bull Valley Roadhouse. Locally distilled spirits – such as those from St. George or OSCO – are utilized in drinks such as the ‘Rube Goldberg Number 5’ or ‘The Molly Ringwald’ – a pale pink concoction of tequila, lemon, crème de violette, and rosemary – no doubt named for the starlet’s turn in the movie Pretty in Pink. The provenance of the ‘Crispin Glover,’ with mezcal, grapefruit, lemon, elderflower, and wormwood bitters, is more mysterious. A humble yet incredibly delicious ‘old-fashioned’ is elevated by the use of Wright & Brown Rye.

Most notable is Benchmark’s small yet varied Italian-centric wine list featuring three sparkling choices, three roses, and several whites, and reds. Bottles are priced in the ‘unheard-of these days’ mid $30 range, with a couple a bit higher and lower – yes, lower. A Tenuta La Pergola 2017 Barbera from Piedmont sells for a mere $29 – per bottle. Most of the wines are offered by the also-well-priced glass. A selection of beers and a few creative non-alcoholic options is also available.

The dishes are equally affordable. No item exceeds $20. Executive Chef and co-owner Peter Swanson, formerly lead line cook at Oliveto and sous chef at Dopo, is assisted by Chef de Cuisine Jennifer Moffatt formerly of Boot & Shoe Service. Melissa Swan (Peter’s wife), also an Oliveto vet and former server at Chez Panisse Café, serves as operations manager. A southern native, she’s provided the recipe for one of Benchmark's star items – Fried Chicken & Buttermilk Biscuits ($18). Served with braised kale and sausage gravy, this fantastic entrée is a one-off amongst the mostly Italian-centric offerings and is alone worth a visit.

Additional highlights on the seasonally changing menu include a small plate of pickled red beets served with creamy goat cheese, chervil, and tarragon - so straightforward yet bursting with flavor. (Benchmark’s local purveyors include Riverdog, Star Route, Full Belly, and Dirty Girl.) Nine pizzas (priced between $15 and $19 and easily serving two) include a variety of inventive toppings, such as fried sage with brown butter, lemon, and shaved garlic, or potato & Castelvetrano olive. The deceptively simple ‘Benchmark’ is a traditional margherita style pie, with fresh tomato sauce, mozzarella, Sicilian oregano and EVOO. Whatever the toppings, each is served with perfectly blistered crust out of the 800-degree wood fire oven.

Also on the menu: two always changing house made pasta dishes. On this visit: Strozzapreti Bolognese with traditional Bologna-style meat sauce, and a rich Spaghetti Carbonara with smoked pancetta, egg yolk, black pepper, and Pecorino & Grana cheeses. Benchmark Meatballs and another one-off Fish & Chips dish round out the entrée offerings. 

Benchmark’s vibe is warm and friendly, the crowd an urban mix of young families, professionals, and singles who line the bar to catch the latest sporting event on the unobtrusive, overhead television screens. Astute diners will recognize the photographs displayed on the walls as namesake round metal benchmark survey markers – a nod to Swanson’s geologist father. 

Benchmark Oakland, 499 9th Street, Oakland on the corner of Washington Street. 

Open daily, Monday through Thursday from 11:30 a.m. to 9:00 p.m., Friday 11:30 a.m. to 10:00 p.m., Saturday 5:30 to 10:00 p.m., and on Sunday 5:30 to 9:00 p.m.