Oakland’s restaurant scene is far more expansive than just Uptown and Jack London Square. From the old guard to newbies on the block, restaurants are thriving all over the city. Here’s a look at five spots, each with their own unique take on the city’s culinary revival.
B Restaurant & Bar (499 Ninth St., Old Oakland)
Budding restauranteur Kevin Best got his start on the other side of the Bay, working as general manager at Mc2 and consulting for various other projects in San Francisco. In 2003, he opened Boxed Foods Company in the Financial District with his wife Misty and friend Don Harbison. The concept was to focus on using seasonal, organic ingredients from local farms, while incorporating a warm and friendly environment for diners. Soon thereafter, Best got the opportunity to open two full service restaurants, opening B Bar above the Yerba Buena Gardens at the Moscone Center in San Francisco and B Restaurant & Bar in Old Oakland.
“When we opened B Restaurant & Bar in 2005, we were one of the few restaurants open at night. But as the neighborhood grew and developed, I think having a restaurant open at night helped bring people out,” Best said. “Now, there are some new residential buildings near the restaurant and Oakland is truly becoming a destination spot.”
The restaurant is located in a 19th century building and really is befitting of the neighborhood, with almost a classic, old world style to it. There is a locally sourced seasonal menu offered by Chef Hector Diaz with mostly American fare along with wood fired pizzas.
Best said that like any other business, there have been highs and lows. “The connection that I have living here in Oakland is unlike any other city I have lived in. There is just such an infectious attitude. Also, from the initial start-up process to getting a restaurant started, it is a much easier and less expensive proposition in Oakland than in San Francisco,” he said. “But we need more residents in the city. Friday and Saturdays have always been busy, but the weeknights can be hit or miss.” The recession and protests in downtown Oakland (both for the Oscar Grant shooting and Occupy movement) have hurt business as well, with Best saying that some nights, “there were a dozen police officers at my front door.”
Despite some of the recent issues, Best said he stills love his spot in Oakland. “I spend a lot of time while I’m here talking to customers and telling them about how great Oakland is. Being a resident, I feel it’s partly my duty to do that, especially for visitors from other cities. Because this is a great city and is truly becoming a destination city.”
Camino (3917 Grand Ave., Grand Lake)
Camino Chef/Owner Russell Moore wasn’t necessarily looking to open his first restaurant in Oakland. “We had looked in San Francisco. Just by chance, we found this spot on Grand Avenue. Some people we talked to thought we were crazy to move into this space. But I just thought it might be the right spot,” said Moore.
Calling it a “kitchen he could see himself cooking in forever,” Moore opened Camino in early 2008. Having plenty of experience in a big-name restaurant (he worked at Chez Panisse for more than 20 years), he focuses on some of what he learned at Chez Panisse, while also bringing in some finer aspects of what he calls technique-driven cooking. “It’s funny because I truly believe that we try a little harder in the East Bay. We know that people aren’t going to be out really late and our customers are really serious about their food,” he said. “They appreciate not only the quality of the food but where we’re getting the ingredients from. They are just much more knowledgeable about everything food-related these days.”
There aren’t a lot of other restaurants in the area, which at times, can make things difficult for Camino. “The restaurant is not really close to BART or within walking distance. So a lot of our diners may have heard about the restaurant and looked us up.”
As an Oakland resident himself, Moore uses the restaurant as a way to get rid of the stigma and perceived notions about the city. “Some of our diners said that they have never been across the Bay. They even ask if there car is safe where they park it. But we do a lot of social media outreach and are constantly working harder to not only get Oakland residents, but out-of-towners into Camino. Some of those barriers are being broken down.”
As one of the few restaurants on that stretch of Grand Avenue, Moore said it can at times be hard to attract business, which is part of the reason the restaurant frequently hosts author dinners, a popular weekend brunch and other special events. It has also helped to have Boot and Shoe Service open up a few blocks down, adding to the appeal of the neighborhood. Moore said things are getting better and better each year and expects big things not only for Camino, but Oakland in the near future.
Brown Sugar Kitchen (2534 Mandela Parkway, West Oakland)
Chef Tanya Holland is proud of not only her own roots, but her roots in West Oakland. “When I was looking for a space, I first looked at Old Oakland but the landowner wouldn’t lease me the building. After looking at some other spots, I knew it had to fit the neighborhood,” she said. “We live in West Oakland and the owners of this space had talked about renting it out. Finally, they were having troubles and asked if I wanted to buy it.”
Located in a heavily industrial part of the city, Holland opened Brown Sugar Kitchen in early 2008. Holland offers up her own interpretation of soul food, all while using locally grown organic and seasonal ingredients whenever possible. Ever since opening, the restaurant has been a huge success, with long line for breakfast and lunch. “While there may not be a lot of other businesses nearby, we are lucky being so close to the freeways and being especially accessible to people who live outside of Oakland,” Holland said.
In fact, the restaurant has been such a success that Holland opened up B-Side BBQ (3303 San Pablo Ave.) late last year. “It really just happened organically,” she said. “Actually, the same people that opened the space where Brown Sugar Kitchen is were looking to sell again. We’ve been fortunate.”
The success of both businesses have helped to “soften the image” of West Oakland. “There is still a stigma about West Oakland and Oakland in general. But living here, I have so much neighborhood pride. We want to be around for the long haul to help continue to build this neighborhood.”
Holland said she keeps hearing about the possibility of new businesses and restaurants in the area, but nothing has come to fruition yet. And while she would welcome the added “competition” she is just focusing on the task at hand in maintaining two successful restaurants in West Oakland.
Oliveto Restaurant & Cafe (5655 College Ave., Rockridge)
Perhaps the most well-know restaurant in Oakland, Oliveto has long been the place to go for fine dining in the city. It’s classic Italian cuisine made it one of the original destination dining spots in the East Bay.
Chef Jonah Rhodehamel, who took over the kitchen in November of 2010, has an extensive pedigree, cooking and working with some of the best chefs in San Francisco. He said that while he has made a few changes, for the most part, he is sticking with what’s worked. “The restaurant still has the same roots, that regional, classic Italian feel.”
Rhodehamal said he has brought a bit more of an edge to the menu, including a complete upgrade to the salumi program. “The program has been the same for the past ten years and I thought it was getting a bit stale. I wanted to put a lot more effort into it and since I actually don’t have a ton of experience in cured meats, it was a learning process,” he said. “But it has gotten better. We now have a meat locker and we are bringing in two whole beasts on a monthly basis. I am exploring aging and also working with aged individual cuts, many which are not the usual cuts of meat.”
Rockridge has always been one of the more food-friendly neighborhoods in Oakland and even with the influx of new restaurants elsewhere, that hasn’t change what Oliveto is about. “There are some really great restaurants and a lot more fine dining options. But we’re not going to change for the sake of change,” Rhodehamal said. “We have a strong and loyal following of regulars and are also seeing a much younger influx over the last year. We’re in a great neighborhood and want to provide the best for our customers.”
A true model of success for more than two decades and still going strong to this day.
Homeroom (400 40th St., North Oakland)
Allison Arevalo and Erin Wade had never owned a restaurant before. In fact, they weren’t even in the food business. But in 2011, the pair opened one of the most interesting specialty restaurants in the Bay Area: Homeroom, a haven for macaroni and cheese lovers.
“We thought we had found a spot in Uptown and at the very last minute, the lease fell through. We were devastated because our hopes and dreams had been on that spot,” said Arevalo. “We even thought of giving up on the idea. But one day, when we were riding our bikes on 40th Street, we spotted the perfect location.”
Although it is mostly a residential neighborhood, Homeroom has become a hit with long lines waiting for the numerous mac and cheese options on the menu, along with a great beer and wine list. “Even though we’re not centrally located in Uptown or Rockridge or any of the other neighborhoods, people have found us and are willing to drive and dine with us. It has become sort of a destination dining spot,” said Arevalo. “And the neighborhood has been so supportive.”
The idea of having such a specialized restaurant didn’t win over everyone. “Some of our friends thought we were absolutely crazy when we told them our plans. But some thought it was a great idea,” said Arevalo. “We just knew that we loved mac and cheese and a lot of other people would as well.”
While Arevalo would love to see more restaurants in the area, she said she’s happy with the success they have had in their first year and that they are constantly looking at ways to improve being first-time restaurant owners.
On Friday, Part Five in our weeklong series on Oakland looks at what’s next for the city and answers the question, will it be competing with San Francisco in the near future?