Oakland Eats: The “There” is Definitely There

Food Features Oakland

In her autobiography, Gertrude Stein immortalized the Oakland of her youth. “There’s no there there,” wrote Stein infamously of the city where she was raised. But it wasn’t that Oakland didn’t have stories to tell. Rather, it stood in the shadow of San Francisco, the region’s cultural and economic center, whose gravitational pull sucked in everything around it.

There was always a there there, and Oakland’s culinary scene offers plenty of evidence. The city is teeming with good food, some of it more exciting and affordable than what’s to be found in San Francisco. This year’s Restaurant Week, 11 days of prix-fixe lunch and dinner deals at more than 100 Oakland eateries, gave diners an excuse to eat, but also an opportunity to survey the city’s changing food landscape, which is exactly what I did.

Writing in 1995, novelist Ishmael Reed called Oakland “America’s best kept secret.” It’s only in the last few years that national media “discovered” Oakland, hailing the city for its creativity, energy and diversity. But these are old traditions. Throughout the 20th century, immigrants from around the world moved to the busy port city, along with thousands of African Americans from the Deep South, who came to work in booming shipyards and aircraft factories during World War II. Mark Twain, Jack London, Robert Louis Stevenson and John Muir have all called Oakland home. More recently, as Matt Werner says in his book, Oakland in Popular Memory, the city gave birth to the Hyphy movement, Scraper bikes, turf dancing and the language of hip-hop, from Mac Dre, E-40, and Keak da Sneak. Urban farming has deep roots in Oakland, along with locavorism.

Despite all the changes in today’s gentrifying city, there are still continuities to be found. Oakland’s pioneering traditions include art, dance, music, writing, activism and social justice—including the Black Panthers and the Chicano arts movement—and last but not least, food. The list is long, so here are just a few standout places to eat and drink in today’s Oakland.

1. Brown Sugar Kitchen

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Tanya Holland’s Brown Sugar Kitchen is more than a restaurant. When it opened in 2008 in West Oakland, the predominantly black neighborhood was rundown and desolate, a testament to decades of racist zoning laws and redlining. Roadways damaged by the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake sat in disrepair. Without a communal gathering place, let alone a dining destination, West Oakland was a picture of post-industrial decline, despite its storied past as a thriving commercial and industrial center.

Then came Holland, a native of Rochester, New York, with a restaurant that transformed the neighborhood. The revitalization of West Oakland, now home to artist communities, small manufacturers, and tinkerers and other makers, is the result of Holland’s legendary fried chicken and waffles.

Crowds clamor for it, as well as the coffee and beignets and shrimp and grits at Brown Sugar Kitchen. The restaurant has an aura of community and inclusiveness; its diners and staff represent every age, class, and ethnic group. Cops eat alongside ladies who leisure, students, Burning-Man types, techies, and bus drivers. There’s the magic of perfectly-cooked grits, but also a lesson about food and urban renewal. Holland is a celebrated cookbook author, former Food Network host and “queen of the contemporary soul food movement,” and while her fame is national, her business is largely local. Almost everything at the restaurant, from the apple cider used in the syrup to the doilies under the pastries, is sourced from neighbors and nearby producers and farms.

2. Clove and Hoof

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Local meats are the draw at Clove and Hoof, a hybrid butcher shop-restaurant in Oakland’s Temescal neighborhood. It opened in 2014, at the start of a national nose-to-tail butchery revival. Like Brown Sugar Kitchen, Clove and Hoof is driven by big ideas and values. Analiesa Gosnell and John Blevins, who studied charcuterie in France and worked in agriculture for many years, use only whole animals that are sustainably raised, according to the highest and most humane standards. No antibiotics or hormones are allowed.

While slinging their hot fried chicken and “pig face” Cuban sandwiches, and cheesesteaks that have gained a local following, Clove and Hoof makes hand-cut beef tallow fries that merit a visit. Perched on a sunny corner, the restaurant beckons with its warm, homey vibe. Steaks, chops, sausages, roasts, smoked items and special cuts are available at the open counter. The charcuterie plate, crafted in-house like everything else, could turn a hungry vegetarian into a carnivore.

3. Core Kitchen

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Core Kitchen in downtown Oakland is the culmination of another big idea. Billed as “the world’s most nourishing restaurant,” it’s the work of Corey Rennell, an Alaskan who traveled the world before settling in the East Bay. After spending time with indigenous communities in Papua New Guinea, Indonesia, and Mongolia, and observing the importance of a traditional, plant-based diet, Rennell set out to revolutionize fast food. Core Kitchen is produce-only—no salt, sugar, flour or oil are used—and much of the cooking relies on milk from coconuts that are cracked by hand each morning. Crunchy burritos come wrapped in steamed collard leaves, stuffed with vegetables and seasoned with creamy nut-based sauces. The menu features zucchini noodle bowls, tahini-marinated kale salad, and date-sweetened drinks. Rennell’s socially-conscious mission is built into the business, a B Corporation that follows stringent standards for social and environmental performance and transparency. A steady buzz of office-workers and city managers, grabbing breakfast, lunch, and snacks during the week, offers proof that the food also delivers.

4. Drake’s Dealership

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One of the best places to forget about work is Drake’s Dealership in Uptown Oakland, on a stretch of Broadway known as Auto Row. Oakland, like the rest of the region, hardly suffers from a brewery shortage. But Drake’s, with its vast outdoor space in what used to be a Dodge auto dealership, distinguishes itself with a beer garden, wood-fired pizzas and a long beer menu that includes staples from Drake’s Brewery in nearby San Anselmo and a tap “guest list” of rarer, small-batch options. On the patio, lights hang from the magnolia trees while imbibers sit in front of fire pits and linger on Adirondack chairs. An egalitarian brewpub with room for everyone and everything, including live music, dogs, wheelchairs and strollers, Drake’s tops the list of where to relax outdoors in a city than enjoys an average of 261 days of sunshine a year.

5. Boot and Shoe Service

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Second only to beer’s popularity in Oakland is Cal-Ital, an amalgam of pizza, pasta and vegetable dishes that show off northern California’s bounty. Boot and Shoe Service Service on Grand Avenue, about a half a block from the neoclassical Grand Lake Theater, serves memorable food and cocktails at an unpretentious spot warmed by the exposed brick walls and wood-burning pizza oven. Chef-owner Charlie Hallowell nails the maxim that simpler is better. On weekends, brunch lines form, in characteristic Bay Area fashion. Rustic pastries and house-made granola are delicious, but no match for the savory porridge topped with roasted vegetables, toasted seeds, and a soft-cooked farm egg, or the sweet variation swirled with butter and laden with hazelnuts, maple syrup, and seasonal fruit.

For a long time, the bright lights of San Francisco eclipsed Oakland’s dining and drinking scene, but today, the city benefits from this proximity. A number of chefs have left San Francisco, driven out by rising rents, minimum wage hikes, and staff shortages, to set up shop across the Bay, where start-up costs are lower. In Oakland, it’s still possible to gamble on a new idea and take risks on a small food business. The city’s bars and eateries will likely get even better for this reason. The “there” was always there, no matter what Gertrude Stein said. Today, that’s especially the case, and the Oakland’s food is no exception.

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