This year I channeled the advantage of living near Livermore Valley wine country. A week before my actual day, I invited some fellow oenophiles to McGrail Vineyards and maintained the birthday spirit for two weeks.
I chose McGrail for the expansive South Livermore vineyard views, excellent wines and the friendly, civic-minded McGrail owners. For food, I ordered charcuterie boards created by The Cheese Parlor in Livermore and brought sandwiches.
Many of the McGrail bottlings are named for family or reflect their heritage. Among others, I selected Kylie Ryan Rosé and Peyton Paige Sauvignon Blanc for the party. I invited McGrail winemaker Mark Clarin to take my friends behind the scenes for a few minutes while I set out the dessert of mini-cupcakes, aka "bundtinis," from Nothing Bundt Cakes in Dublin.
When we reconvened, I placed a candle on a red velvet buntini. Since it was too windy for the traditional blowing-out routine, I toasted everyone with McGrail Tree of Live and asked them to think of their own wishes.
During my birthday week, I read a Facebook post by a friend who celebrated his big day at a restaurant and was surprised that three other people were also blowing out candles. His words and free sherbet dessert prompted me to recall birthdays past in restaurants that specialize in celebrations.
Last year I partied at Cattleman’s Steakhouse in Livermore for the first time. After we wolfed down our bottomless salads and demolished our steaks, four singing servers suddenly materialized and delivered a candle-lit sundae—plus a hat which promptly transformed me into a birthday-happy cowgirl.
Known for fun times and birthday celebrations in Dublin since 1984, Hana Japan restaurant was the venue for my memorable party several years ago. I invited seven friends for teppanyaki, a traditional Japanese style of cuisine with many appetizers, steak, seafood and veggies cooked on the iron grill in front of guests. The teppanyaki chef put on a show at the grill with a cleaver for dramatic chopping and cooking with a flourish including a “flaming vodka” shtick.
Nowadays the website highlights the “Birthday Club” page to register for the special offers. I talked with Jeenee Yoon, the owner of Hana Japan in Dublin and Berkeley, about the current birthday policy: Reserve for a minimum of four guests, show your ID, and receive $35 off your dinner; birthday kids 10 and under also get a discount. Yoon calls the free birthday dessert a “pineapple boat’ which is packed with the fruit.
New flash! You don’t have to dine on your birthday. If you are very hungry, gather four others and enjoy the offer once or multiple times during your birthday week.
I queried another classic Tri-Valley restaurant about birthdays. Brass Door, the iconic San Ramon steakhouse and community hub, has served corn-fed Midwestern beef, chicken and seafood since 1946. I learned that unlike most other restaurateurs, owner Shahla Azad has maintained pre-pandemic prices. As a result, she does not offer free birthday desserts. Kudos to Azad for keeping prices stable, and after devouring a prime rib dinner, I may not want dessert, birthday or not.
After my winery party, a friend asked where I wanted to dine for lunch. Desiring more R&R in wine country, I chose Garre Café at the Garre Winery. I eyed the turkey Reuben and carbonara but ordered my usual Garre entrée, Nonna’s Gravy with meatballs. I asked owner Gina Cardera about the allure of the popular specialty. “This is my great grandmother Rose Garre’s special recipe, with porcini mushrooms, meatballs, Bolognese sauce and penne pasta.” The dish pairs well with Garre Sangiovese or Primitivo (Zinfandel).
My friend and I were so engrossed catching up during lunch that we forgot to mention my birthday. Less absent-minded birthday folks receive three free cannolis for dessert.
Restaurant digital loyalty programs are rolling out more birthday treats to boost repeat visits. For example, El Pollo Loco has a tiered loyalty program with the second tier offering a $5 reward and the third tier, a $10 reward.
This research influenced me to check my Habit Burger app. Lo and behold, I had a free charburger or veggie sandwich offer for up to one week after my birthday—and this was the last day, making the two-week celebration official.
On my birthday, I ate Zachery’s takeout pizza on the back patio by the lovely rose bush that always blooms in May. Belatedly, I learned that Sauced in Livermore offers birthday fried Oreos with ice cream.
With so many options and 12 months to decide, I may pursue the fried treats as a precursor taste of Alameda County Fair food, quietly dig into frozen yogurt from the freezer, or eat cannolis while enjoying vineyard views.