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Charles Avenue Café: Quality Lunches at the Pinole Senior Center

By Vickie Lewis

Are you tired of spending upwards of $20 for lunch at a restaurant, or grabbing fast food because it costs less (even though you know it isn’t really healthy for you?) Or do you sometimes skip lunch because you’re tired of eating the same old thing every day? What if I told you that you can get a four-course, freshly-cooked hot lunch every weekday in Old Town Pinole for just $5.50 (and you don’t even have to pay tax!) If this sounds too good to be true, read on to learn more about this hidden gem right here in our community.

Charles Avenue Café operates out of the Pinole Senior Center, serving hot, healthy, and balanced meals for the nominal price of $5.50 to anyone who comes through the doors hungry. Although many of the regular patrons are seniors, the café welcomes all members of the community, including families, students, and local employees who may have limited time for lunch breaks. The four-course meal is served cafeteria style and includes soup (made fresh daily); green salad with choice of dressing; entrees complete with vegetables and rice or potatoes; and your choice from several desserts. Meals are often also served with bread or rolls, and also include coffee, tea, milk, or fruit juice. Where else can you purchase such a hearty meal for under $6.00?

Early in the mornings, teams of community-minded volunteers arrive to begin preparation of the day’s lunch offerings. Under the expert supervision of professionally trained chef, Tara Shaia, the teams prepare the daily meals with love and care. The Pinole Senior Center/Charles Avenue Café is generously provided with food donations from local grocery stores and businesses, as well as the Farmers Market, which help the center to continue to offer nutritious meals at an affordable price. I heard amazing stories about how Chef Tara and her volunteers are able to make efficient use of the donated food, even though it is not known from day to day what items will be donated, and in what quantity they will be available. For example, one day the crew received a case of artichokes, which Chef Tara turned into a savory Creamy Artichoke soup. On another day, a large quantity of bananas became a scrumptious banana pudding dessert! Chef Tara and her teams of volunteers prove their resourcefulness on a daily basis.

The Pinole Senior Center has been serving lunches for many years. When the previous cook left late last year, Chef Tara was hired and began her work at the Charles Avenue Café in January. Chef Tara has been in the culinary arts field for her entire professional career and has attended several culinary schools in the United States as well as abroad. Since coming to the center, Tara has introduced some new and exciting menu items to the delight of the patrons. Every month, there is a pre-determined menu detailing which lunch entrees will be available each day. This gives patrons the opportunity to plan ahead to dine at the Charles Avenue Café on the days that their favorite entrees are served. The most popular meals bringing in the highest lunch attendance include pork chops, BBQ spare ribs, turkey with all the trimmings, and meat loaf. When these meals are served, it’s important to arrive early, as it is not unusual for the lunch line to extend out the door!

On my first visit to the Charles Avenue Café, my guest and I arrived just before noon. I was totally surprised to see that the entire parking lot of the Senior Center was full, as was the street parking! Overflow parking is available in a lot up the street from the center, and even that lot was over half full. I had no idea that the venue I was about to visit was so popular and well attended. We entered the center and passed through the lobby into the “dining room”—a large, open multi-purpose room with plenty of windows to provide natural light. Many round tables each with eight chairs were set up on the left side of the room. On the right side of the room, a long line of hungry customers holding blue trays formed a line to pick up their meals at the cafeteria-style opening of the kitchen. In the center of the room towards the front, a baker’s rack held small plates with green salads to accompany the main meal. Coffee, tea and drinks were available on a table set up against the right wall so that diners could get their drinks before picking up their meals. Lunch service was in full motion with a line of smiling volunteers standing behind the counter, each serving up their contribution to the meals.

My guest and I had limited time to visit that day, so we had come prepared to purchase our meals “to go.” I had been informed ahead of time that the meal of the day was available to take out for only fifty cents more--$6.00. This allowed us to use our limited time to visit with the chef, volunteers, and guests to learn more about the café. On that day, Chef Tara was featuring a new lunch entrée--Country Fried Steak, served with mashed potatoes and gravy, and fresh vegetables. The entrée was so popular that they almost ran out before we got our meals. But we lucked out, and our meals were prepared in to-go containers, complete with rolls, cups of freshly made chicken vegetable soup, and two salads. For dessert, my guest chose home-made chocolate cake and I chose banana pudding topped with miniature cookies. Everything was neatly bagged and ready for us to take home to enjoy.

As our lunch was being prepared, I observed the diners eagerly enjoying their lunches and visiting with each other. One of the volunteers, Joann, assisted a few diners who needed help carrying their trays to their seats. I watched the team of volunteers welcoming each guest with a row of smiles as they placed the meals on their trays and made sure they had everything they needed. I was very impressed at how smoothly the entire operation worked—just like a well-oiled machine. We left soon after the last customer was served, promising to return another day when we could sit and dine with the guests.

Arriving home, I eagerly opened my Country Fried Steak meal and enjoyed my lunch. The generously sized steak was lightly breaded and fried and was very tender. The gravy over the steak and potatoes was rich, smooth, and delicious. The mashed potatoes (made from real potatoes—not from a box) were excellent! The cup of soup and the steamed broccolini were also enjoyable accompaniments to the meal. My guest and I were both very full after eating our meals and saved our desserts to enjoy later. The very moist and not-too-sweet chocolate cake was a hit with my guest, and I happily savored the banana pudding, one of my all-time favorites! We found the value and the quality of the meals for a mere $12 to be extraordinary.

My subsequent visit to the Charles Avenue Café was on a Friday when lunch service begins one half hour earlier, at 11:30 AM to accommodate a 1:00 Bingo game. I arrived early enough to get a parking spot in the lot (although there were only a few spaces remaining!) As before, the round tables were set up for lunch on the left side of the room, and the right side of the room was set up with long rectangular tables in preparation for the bingo event. I peeked through a window near the kitchen and observed that the chefs and volunteers were still busily preparing the meal. I chose a seat at a table with Sal, Dave and Irma, who are regular diners for the weekday lunches. Everyone who was seated had already gotten a blue tray and utensils, and some had already gotten their drinks as well. There is definitely an unwritten protocol for dining at the center, but the regulars are happy to help newbies (like myself!) I found everyone to be very friendly and welcoming. While we waited for lunch to be served I visited with a few of the “regulars” who were more than happy to share with me why they enjoy coming to Charles Avenue Café for lunch.

One gentleman I spoke with, Armando, explained that the Pinole Senior Center is the only center in Contra Costa County (except for Rossmoor) that has an on-site chef who prepares fresh lunches every day. He explained that the meals served at most other centers are prepared offsite and shipped to the locations. He also shared that he likes that there is no need to call ahead to reserve a place for lunch like at most other senior centers—here, one can just show up and be served any day of the week. In addition, all of the meals are prepared with fresh ingredients, are well-balanced and nutritious. The accommodations are clean, spacious and air-conditioned and there is good parking available. Another gentleman said that he appreciates that the cafe is open to everyone in the community and that families can even bring children in for lunch. Several others said that they come because of the value--they can usually make the very large meal portions last for two meals. Also, having a hot meal at lunch sometimes eliminates the burden of cooking a full meal in the evenings. Some guests shared that they have diabetes or other health conditions that require consumption of nutritious and well-balanced meals. For others, it is simply the convenience and affordability, and the opportunity to eat a variety of delicious freshly prepared meals in the company of others.

Periodically, Chef Tara invites guest chefs to come and prepare a specialty meal at the Charles Avenue Café. On that Friday, guest chef, Jennifer Teoh, had been invited to prepare a special Chicken Chow Mein lunch. As 11:30 approached, the lunch line began to form, extending from the lunch window nearly to the back of the very large room. I grabbed my tray and my lunch ticket (courtesy of Sal) and joined Irma in line. The window opened and a mostly new group of smiling volunteers welcomed the diners and began serving up heaping plates of steaming hot chicken chow mein. Each plate included two crisply fried egg rolls and several fried wontons which were hand-made by guest Chef Jennifer and the volunteers over the previous couple of days in preparation for Friday’s luncheon. Each plate also received a fortune cookie, as well as a cup of home made egg flower soup. Diners had their choice of several delicious desserts that were neatly arranged on trays, and I chose a slice of chocolate cream pie.

The food was absolutely delicious! Plentiful pieces of chicken were mixed among the tender and flavorful chow mein noodles. I didn’t notice whether condiments were available, so enjoyed my chow mein sans soy sauce. A sweet and sour sauce was served for dipping the egg rolls and won-tons, which was very good. But both items tasted great even without the sauce—crisp and crunchy and filled with a perfect blend of vegetable and meat fillings. The portion of chow mein served was so large that I couldn’t eat it all. My table mates informed me that the center provides to-go boxes for only twenty-five cents extra, so I purchased one for my leftovers. I even purchased a second lunch “to go” for my daughter’s dinner. She agreed that the food was excellent and especially raved about the fried wontons!

For those who are interested in lighter fare, soup, sandwiches, and fruit are also served daily. Soup can be ordered individually by the cup or bowl. Sandwich options may vary, but include a variety of lunch meats and cheeses, as well as tuna salad, egg salad, or chicken salad made by the kitchen volunteers. A sandwich order includes a small fresh fruit cup and a pickle. These items may also be purchased “to go” if desired. All “to go” meals (hot meals, sandwiches, or soup) may be pre-ordered for pick-up by calling 510-724-9805. This is a convenient option for those don’t have time to stand in the lunch line and/or sit and enjoy their meal at the center. The monthly menu is available on the Pinole Senior Center website at

On Mondays and Thursdays, the Pinole Senior Center offers a special outreach service to home bound individuals so that they, too, can come out to enjoy the wonderful Charles Avenue Café lunches and socialize with others. A free bus service, courtesy of the Pinole Area Senior Foundation (PASF) is available to pick up those who have pre-arranged for pick-up. Bus driver, Karen, travels to their homes and brings these individuals to the center; after lunch, she returns them to their homes, providing loving care and assistance. Again—this is a no-cost service that is available to home bound residents of both Pinole and residents of other local surrounding cities.The individuals only pay for the cost of their lunches.

I am quite impressed with the food and the services offered by Charles Avenue Café. If my schedule permitted, I’d visit the café nearly every day for lunch. What a great way to meet new people and enjoy scrumptious food at affordable prices. The monthly menu offers a wide variety of meals from good old American comfort food to delicious meals with an ethnic flair. Each day of the month the lunch entrée is different--plenty of variety for the regulars and something to suit everyone’s taste buds. I’m told that the special event celebration meals for holidays such as Valentine’s Day, Halloween, and Christmas to name a few are culinary masterpieces which also include entertainment. When you visit for lunch, you may want also visit the “bread room” where you can select from among donated breads and other items available for a small donation to both center members and non-members.

Remember, you don’t have to be a senior, a Pinole resident, or a member of the Pinole Senior Center to dine at the Charles Avenue Café. Stop by any weekday and meet Chef Tara and her wonderful team of dedicated volunteers who work so hard to prepare and serve up delicious hot meals—always with a SMILE! You will not be disappointed!

2550 Charles Avenue (at the Pinole Senior Center,) Pinole | (510) 724-9800 |

Hours for Charles Ave Café: Mon. – Thurs. 12:00 – 1:00 PM | Fri. 11:30 – 12:30 PM | Closed Weekends

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