ALAMEDA -- On a Tuesday night, 40 people dined at four restaurants for $45 each on the Island. The best part? Nobody knew where or what they were going to eat.

The premise of the online phenomenon Dishcrawl appeals to culinarily adventurous foodies, who sign up en masse to visit undisclosed restaurants within walking distance of each other. The program has spread quickly, with events now hosted throughout the United States and Canada.

This particular Dishcrawl set its sights on Alameda, and at 7 p.m. April 9 people of all ages arrived at Angela's Bistro and Bar -- a meeting site that was revealed to participants only two days before.

Forty of so Dishcrawlers who signed up for the Alameda tour of four restaurants listen as Dishcrawal ambassador Jose Fernandez describes PS Eatery, which
Forty of so Dishcrawlers who signed up for the Alameda tour of four restaurants listen as Dishcrawal ambassador Jose Fernandez describes PS Eatery, which serves classic American recipes. The Dishcrawl event in Alameda was held on April 9.

Although Dishcrawl is new to the East Bay, some people have already found the events addictive. Sipping a glass of wine with two close friends in the lounge of Angela's, Cathy Wadford exuded the confidence of a pro. This was the Alameda dental hygienist's third Dishcrawl, and for her the mystery is an enticing element.

"You never know what to expect," Wadford said. "I've eaten (at Angela's) before, but I always get the same dish. This lets me try things I would never try."

As more people arrived, some with children, some with dates, the host led all 40 participants into a backroom where the tables were preset and the service was quick and efficient. Unless someone has a predisclosed food allergy or limitation, everyone gets the same dishes. On the menu at Angela's: meatball sliders, lobster arancinis and a salad.

Newly introduced strangers and old friends discussed the best ratio of bread to meat in a slider and agreed that the lobster arancinis were the favorite. Conversation was lively, considering that most people had just met. After about 30 minutes, first-time Dishcrawl organizer and ambassador José Pablo Fernandez gathered the troops for the next stop: newly opened PS Eatery, one block away.

Owner and chef David Le was born in Vietnam, raised in the Bay Area, and has a passion for classic American recipes. He served the group macaroni and cheese, chicken wings with buffalo sauce, and drunken beef and noodles, with the option of a $5 beer flight. The chicken wings in particular were a hit: appropriately gooey and spicy.

Even the couple across from me, who seemed to be on a moderately awkward first date, found things to talk about, no doubt inspired by the constant change and chatter around them. On a Dishcrawl, there is no time to find your partner boring. Just like that, we were on to our next restaurant.

The three-block walk between PS Eatery and Sidestreet Pho was decidedly slower, as Dishrawlers began to feel the results of the macaroni and cheese and meatballs. Mumbles of fullness bubbled around the small dining room of the newly opened Vietnamese restaurant. Unless you have a bottomless pit for a stomach, pacing yourself is key on a Dishcrawl.

"It's going to be hard to eat at the last place," stated José Guzman, a first time Dishcrawler and IT tech from San Francisco as he looked at his full plate of food.

The Sidestreet Pho menu is inspired by Vietnamese street food that is usually cooked by women using the freshest ingredients. The light minced shrimp on a sugar cane stick, seafood salad and wok-fried noodles with pork were nice departures from the heavy American cuisine of the previous restaurants, even though most people left a bit on their plates to save room for dessert.

The final stop was Café Q, fortunately just two doors down lest the "crawl" in Dishcrawl become literal. Somehow, there is always room for dessert, although chef Jesse Bransetter (a founding partner at Oakland's Chop Bar) challenged that by producing three rich dishes. Each person got their own bacon caramel bread pudding, while orange panna cotta and caramelized banana cake were served family-style.

Except for Angela's Bistro and Bar, Dishcrawl ambassador Fernandez chose recently opened restaurants for his first Dishcrawl event. All the other three had been opened within the past year.

"I wanted to feature newer restaurants that people hadn't tried," he said.

Participants seemed to appreciate the newness, and many folks expressed interest in returning to the new spots. The new restaurants benefit, Fernandez explained, because Dishcrawl offers promotional opportunities. The marketing aspect is important because many places won't make a profit from the night. For example, Sidestreet Pho had to turn away normal diners for a few hours to make room for the 40 people. Owners said it was worth it if the participants return and spread the word.

"Dishcrawl allows restaurants to showcase their specialty and get feedback," Fernandez said. "It's a great way to market their food."

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