Home & Garden Columns

Strolling Down Solano Avenue

By Marta Yamamoto, Special to the Planet
Friday September 08, 2006

Ever dream about living in a neighborhood where spreading trees shade well-tended bungalows? Strong neighborhood school, small attractive parks and retail choices just down the street. Enough variety to satisfy every whim so a day can be enjoyed without requiring a car. Wake up on Saturday morning, feed the pets, throw on some clothes and stroll down the street for coffee and pastries or a full breakfast. 

Dreams become reality in Thousand Oaks. 

Not far removed from Main Street, U.S.A., Thousand Oaks lies along both sides of Solano Avenue from the Arlington to the Albany border. Resembling a split personality, four blocks of Solano are divided down the center, between Albany and Berkeley. Regardless of city, it’s all a charming, eclectic mixture of ethnic businesses, antiques, used books, coffeehouses and specialty shops perhaps not present on the Kansas plains. 

No one seeks to benefit from natural disasters but the fire and earthquake of 1906 resettled many San Franciscans in Berkeley’s burgeoning neighborhoods. John Hopkins Spring, vast landowner, is credited with starting the business end of Solano. Gone now, but adding spice to Thousand Oaks’ history were commuter trains that once traversed light rail through the Solano Tunnel. 

Perhaps the first Berkeley activists were the women of Thousand Oaks, armed with two shotguns and a rifle, holding off garbage trucks that rolled down Solano on the way to Albany Hill dumping grounds. 

Along with attractive neighborhood homes and varied commercial choices Thousand Oaks is home to four small public parks. Between the Arlington and the Alameda, two “stone” parks offer sweeping bay views and climbing practice. Neighbors gather at Great Stoneface Park to turf-run their dogs and children, picnic and try new handholds on the massive bolder. At Contra Costa Rock Park carved steps lead the way to impressive Bay-wide views. 

Thousand Oaks School Park is a magnet for tots and their caregivers, occupying the lush lawn and brightly colored play equipment. Toddler-size slide, swings and sandlot echo with gleeful sounds, while picnic tables under towering conifers beckon for a peaceful snack. Solano-Peralta Park could easily be missed. Resembling a mini urban plaza, the small enclosed playground and sidewalk benches are ideally placed for people watching. 

Thousand Oaks’ main artery is Solano Avenue where the shopping is varied and interesting. A pleasing harmony of historic buildings and recent additions blend easily into an enticing retail district. Offerings run the gamut from attire and gifts to delicacies. 

Women searching for fall wardrobes need look no further than Persimmon and By Hand where lovely outfits grace the front windows. Fall floral skirt, lime green corduroy vest, brick knit jacket and multi-strand beaded necklace preview the coming season. For matching shoes, Ideas 4 Elements will keep you fashionable without pinching your toes. 

A Child’s Place seems to specialize in pint-size comfort-clothes – Skivy Doodles soft P.J.’s in both truck and ballerina themes as well as fuzzy hooded terry towels and bath-time ducks and frogs. For that first haircut there’s Snippety Crickets, its wall of fame photos and toy-laden shelves rewards for not crying. 

Ready to pursue a new hobby? Stash’s wall of boldly beautiful wool yarns from Uruguay will have you imagining a warm ocher scarf or azure sweater. At New Pieces, color again greets the eye; quilting fabrics are arranged in prints, stripes, plaids and solids from yellow and orange to blue and green. A good selection of instruction books and wall-hung quilts serve as inspiration. Any trouble with a trusty sewing machine can be easily remedied at Jim’s Sewing Machine Center, the oldest Singer outlet in the United States. 

Need to stock up on gifts? Pegasus carries new and used books and CDs, across the board in terms of subjects. The Cabinet of Natural Curiosities, Hockney’s People or Forest of the Pigmies – take your pick. Soap Sisters’ scented soaps from France and Moroccan Mint body wash will vicariously send you across the seas. Silver and turquoise jewelry and pottery from Santo Domingo and Zuni Pueblos reside at Gathering Tribes, also offering intriguing Hopi Ant Pots. Fill them with honey and slowly move the ants away from your home. The Bone Room is in a class by itself stocking Nile crocodile skulls, scorpion paper weights, bug bracelets and human artifacts. Have an unoccupied corner awaiting a complete skeleton or just an empty jar for carpals, phalanges or teeth? 

Peet’s and Starbucks fill the need for java. Scharffen Berger Chocolate Mocha Freddos, Ethiopia and Las Hermanas coffee beans and Ancient Trees tea perfume the air at Peet’s. Fall offerings at Starbuck’s center around pumpkin, from spiced lattes to scones and cream cheese muffins. For exceptional bakery treats, La Farine will tingle your taste buds for hours. A morning bun, wheat levain bread for lunch and gateau au citron for afternoon coffee—these barely break the surface. 

All varieties of Solano eateries lure customers with their open-door policy, allowing delicious aromas to waft out the door. Comfort food is the ticket at Barney’s Gourmet Hamburgers, home to teriyaki and Russian burgers and spicy curly fries. Walker’s Restaurant and Pie Shop satisfies at breakfast, lunch and dinner, as well as anytime you’re in the mood for fresh apple or coconut cream pie. 

When the Far East beckons, choices abound. Boran and Sweet Basil Thai Restaurants serve red, green and yellow curries, satay, Tom Yum Soup and the well-loved pad Thai. King Tsin Restaurant offers dim sum on top of twice cooked pork, lemon chicken and spicy prawns. Miyuki Japanese Restaurant does brisk business with sushi combos, udon, donburi and sashimi. 

Potato tikki, chicken briyani and lamb aloo perfume the air at Khana Peena Indian Cuisine. Humus, tabouleh, babaganoush and tahini await at Jerusalem’s Organic Kitchen. For pizza lovers Zachary’s Chicago Pizza satisfies both thin crust and stuffed aficionados; Cugini’s lures in those favoring pizza from a wood burning oven. 

You can’t go wrong with a good taqueria. Cactus is always crowded and with good reason, their complete menu makes decisions difficult. No less popular, Gordo can seldom contain its customers; the line usually snakes down the sidewalk. 

To experience Thousand Oaks at its most exuberant, join the celebration this Sunday, Sept. 10, for the 32nd Solano Stroll, the biggest block party in the Bay Area. In a few hours you can sample 50 cuisines, listen to 50 bands, watch 100 entertainers, admire juried crafts and find out what 200 community organizations are doing. Learn circus arts, envy the fun in Kid Town and cool off in the dunk tank. 

Thousand Oaks serves as a welcoming home and favored foray. Without pretense it offers a relaxed atmosphere to play, peruse and partake. Sample life in Thousand Oaks, it may figure in your dreams.