Oakland is not filled with protesters and murderers, despite what the media may portray the city as. Underneath all that supposed grit and grime lies a wonderfully eclectic, culturally diverse city that grows by leaps and bounds each day, especially foodwise.
Over the last few years, Oakland has developed its own niche in the culinary scene of the Bay Area. In fact, earlier this year, the New York Times listed Oakland as one of the Top 45 places to visit in 2012, citing the Fox Theater as “one of the Bay Area’s top music venues” and mentioning “the city’s ever more sophisticated restaurants and upscale cocktail bars” as reasons to go out at night. But what has led to this food revival in the East Bay? Over the next week, we’ll look at some of the restaurants, restaurateurs and chefs that have changed the ball game and have put the city of Oakland on the map, both locally and nationally.
First up is a look at Uptown. Before serving as Attorney General and Governor, Jerry Brown served as Mayor of Oakland from 1999-2007. During that time, he came up with a plan to revitalize the downtown area, what has not been coined as the “10K Plan.” Brown wanted to have 10,000 residents move into the area, with plans for housing, condos and apartments. Along with residential developments, his plan called for an increase in arts, entertainment and dining establishments.
The plan seemed reasonable, especially with Brown’s many connections in both real estate and state and local government. But the recession slowed residential growth in the area. Local developer Phil Tagami, who has played a major role in building the area, said while the numbers may not show it, Brown’s plan has been a success. “City planners and (at the time) Mayor Brown didn’t want to displace existing residents. So they built on empty lots that were not being used,” Tagami said.
Two of the major projects that have helped the revitalization of the area that is now known as Uptown are Cafe Van Kleef and the Fox Theater. “Cafe Van Kleef brought a nightlife element to the area. People wanted to go out at night and that was a spot they could go to. Peter Van Kleef changed the area for the better,” said Tagami. “And the Fox Theater has brought a destination aspect to the city. People want to see great music acts and a majority of the tickets that are sold for the shows are to people living outside of Oakland. It has had a fantastic ripple effect for surrounding businesses and has been a real catalyst for other development projects in the area.”
And while Brown’s goal of bringing 10,000 residents to Uptown may not have been reached, efforts to increase the presence of other businesses continues to this day. “We thought it was Oakland’s time and Mayor Brown’s plan helped,” said Jeremy Umland, who opened Ozumo, an upscale sushi and Japanese restaurant on Broadway Avenue in December of 2008. “We partnered with Signature Properties and really wanted to be closer to the mother ship. I was counting on this area really becoming a cool, hip restaurant mecca, which it has become.” Umland said having a residential unit attached to Ozumo has helped business and he expects growth to continue Uptown, further up the hills. Having lived in the Bronx, he said he was comfortable with the urban setting of Oakland. “Sure, there’s a certain grittiness to the city. But I wanted to be a part of the gentrification of Oakland,” Umland said. “And the city remains interested in growth, which is a good thing.”
Shortly after Ozumo opened, a restaurant focused on down home Southern cooking became part of the neighborhood as Picán and owner Michael LeBlanc moved in right next door in March of 2009. “I live in Oakland and Uptown is an up and coming neighborhood. It is also much cheaper to establish a start-up restaurant in Oakland as opposed to San Francisco,” he said. “Plus, there is such a diversity in Oakland that is unique. There are folks visiting from all over to experience the Uptown District, which I think is the new heart of Oakland.” LeBlanc said he is pleased by the immense growth Uptown, not only in the food industry, but in arts and music as well.
After the opening of both Ozumo and Picán, the area exploded with both restaurants and bars. Famed sandwich shop owner Ike Shehadeh recently opened Ike’s Lair, a chain of his well known San Francisco Ike’s Place sandwich shop. Bakesale Betty, Hawker Fare, Hibiscus and Rudy’s Can’t Fail Cafe are just some of the other big names that have helped build up the neighborhood with plenty more on the way.
But perhaps the most well-known neighbor is the restaurant and bar that moved in right across the street from Ozumo and Picán, as highly acclaimed San Francisco chef/restaurateur Daniel Patterson opened up Plum and Plum Bar. “I never had plans to expand into Oakland. But my wife got a job in the East Bay and the commute started to really wear on her. So we decided to move to Oakland,” Patterson said. “I was a bit hesitant but I really like the people and the area. There is a real sense of community in Oakland.” He said it has taken awhile, but Plum is finally taking shape as that destination, fine dining spot he hoped for, while Plum Bum offers a more casual atmosphere with bar food a great cocktail program.
Despite the unmitigated success in reviving the upper Broadway area, there are still some concerns. “I have a major concern because during the recent Occupy protests, we had windows broken,” said Umland. “I completely understand their (the protesters) cause, but it’s a huge loss of business for us and other restaurants.” LeBlanc agrees saying Picán saw a 40 percent decrease in business during the protests. “It’s especially damaging because a large number of our guests who make a reservation are from out of town. City leaders need to be diligent.” They both are hopeful that Oakland city leaders can come to some sort of agreement to prevent this type of damage from happening in the future.
The question is what lies ahead for Uptown? Umland, LeBlanc and Patterson said they see continued growth in the area, with more restaurants and other businesses filling the vacant buildings on Telegraph and Broadway. Tagami said that while he remains guarded about the economy, it is slowly becoming more stable in Oakland and in his words, he “expects big things for Uptown by 2014.”
Coming up on Tuesday, while Uptown has been a big boost to the revitalization of the restaurant scene in Oakland, one particular restaurant helped put the city on the map as a true destination dining spot.
Main Photo Credit: The Fox Theater