Revival of the Tribune Tavern
The modern/old-school watering hole plates up New American gastropub fare with flair. Missteps aside, it looks headed in the right direction.
Photos by Lance Yamamoto
The Tribune Tavern’s backstory is troubled and complicated. But to the delight of many, the narrative has shifted, and the restaurant has risen from the ashes of an ugly business meltdown to stake its claim as an important downtown cultural hub. While some minor kinks revealed themselves during our dinners and lunch in October, Tribune Tavern, under the guidance of original co-owner Chris Pastena and his wife, Jana, evinced the polish, ambition, and casual feel the characterize Pastena’s other ventures, including Chop Bar and Calavera.
Tribune Tavern opened in April 2013 as a joint project of Pastena and businessman Thomas Henderson. They had partnered to launch Lungomare in Jack London Square a few months earlier. By late summer 2014, the partnership had soured; it dissolved by the end of the year, with Pastena taking over Lungomare and Henderson holding on to Tribune Tavern (he’d bought the historic Tribune Tower building in 2011). In January 2017, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission sued Henderson for fraud — the story about the alleged EB-5 visa scam is detailed in an Oct. 25, 2017, investigative piece in the East Bay Express — and in late October of that year, Tribune Tavern closed suddenly. Earlier this year, the building’s new owners invited Pastena back in. In August, while the Pastenas were getting the tavern ready to reopen, Henderson was arrested and charged with conspiracy and wire fraud.
With all that behind him, and having sold Lungomare to a Southern California-based group and moved Chop Bar across the street from its original Fourth Street location in the warehouse district, Pastena could concentrate on Tribune Tavern. (Well, he is also about to open a Calavera offshoot in the Oakland airport.) Bringing Dario Pantoja over from Calavera as executive chef, the Pastenas have revived the modern/old-school watering hole on Tribune Tower’s ground floor.
The building originated as a six-story Breuners furniture store in 1906. The Oakland Tribune took occupancy in 1908 and added the iconic downtown-defining 22-story tower in 1922. The spacious, 150-seat restaurant takes good advantage of the building’s great bones. The high, boxed ceilings and quasi-Corinthian-corniced columns are accented with eclectic design touches and a mix of materials, emphasizing rustic and polished woods. There are several styles of chandeliers, assemblages by San Francisco artist Romanowski, and four flat-screen TVs piping in sports to the bar and front room. In addition to about 15 chair-back stools at the large horseshoe-shaped bar, seating includes high-top communal tables up front, low-top tables and booths dispersed through the several sectioned areas, and a narrow patio along the Franklin Street side of the building.
At first glace, the New American menus for dinner, lunch, and brunch seem packed with straightforward, conventional gastropub fare — oysters, shrimp cocktail, salads, cheese and cured meats boards, steaks, chicken, salmon, and pastas. Beignets, creme brûlée, s’mores, and ice creams are for dessert. Portions are generous and shareable. The difference is in the details, and chef Pantoja, who cooked previously at Wayfare Tavern and A16, adds a lot of details. Soups include French onion and butternut squash, but also apple with coconut milk. Everyone seems to do Brussels sprouts and mac and cheese; Patoja ratchets up the former with black garlic, preserved lemon, and toasted pistachios, and makes the latter with smoked fondue. Rhubarb chutney and grilled stone fruit accompany the braised short rib bone marrow. Pan-seared Monterey Bay calamari are given a medley treatment with Calabrian chili, sweet peppers, mint, shishito peppers, and green onions. And Parmesan-crusted fried green tomatoes take on oceanic notes with creamy lemon Dungeness crab, ogo seaweed, and bottarga.
Robin and I first appreciated Pantoja’s finesse in the tantalizing wine-garlic broth for steamed mussels ($18). It was spicy and umami-rich with pasilla XO sauce. When we’d used up all the crunchy slices of toasted country bread to sop up the broth, we spooned it out like soup. I attempted to, but couldn’t, finish a 12-ounce pork chop ($29) that was broiled to perfect pink tenderness and arrived on plate flamboyantly arranged with a bed of creamy mashed yams, four slices of grilled peach and nectarine, and a thick blanket of Gorgonzola Mornay sauce. Drizzled saba syrup added an earthy mustiness. It was a complex, over-the-top dish that worked.
Similarly, there was nothing simple about “Da Burger” ($17). It is served on a brioche bun with black garlic, smoked Gouda, “Dijonaise,” onion jam, and a thick bacon chip, and comes with a house-made pickle wedge and Tavern fries (dusted with Parmesan and herbs). When Robin wanted to tweak the order, our server said the chef didn’t allow substitutions, only exclusions. Robin held off on the onion jam and asked for plain Dijon mustard, but none was available. Still, it was an exemplary, if complicated burger.
On a slow Sunday night a week later, we sat at the bar and experienced a few missteps in execution. The hard little tomatoes in the Tavern Chop Greens ($14) should never have left the kitchen. Vibrant baby kale, not all that chopped, overwhelmed the butter lettuce, not all that chopped. The mixed-in farro, crispy quinoa, pickled onion, and green goddess dressing nearly saved the day. We loved the twist Pantoja gave the Tavern Fish & Chips ($21): fried tiny smelt served in a wire basket, accompanied by house-made potato chips and jazzed up with preserved lemon tartar sauce, salsa verde, and grilled bok choy. But the tasty fish should have been crispier and the chips fresher and crunchier. I would revisit the super-rich Tavern Carbonara ($25) only if ready for a cardiac challenge. I took home half of the huge serving of al dente fettuccine drenched in a hen yolk and lardo sauce, and studded with dozens of chunks of chewy house-cured pork belly and soft, sous vide herb chicken. At a follow-up lunch I did eat the entire pulled pork sandwich ($16), the sauce-heavy slow-roasted meat was studded with little chunks of smoked apple and accompanied by a relish-like pineapple slaw — both fine touches.
A tavern is fundamentally a drinking establishment, and Tribune offers local beers and cider on top, a few wines by the bottle and a few on tap, and three sparkling wines, “non-vintage, just fun.” Featured more prominently are spirits and more than 15 craft cocktails ($12–$14). Although both Robin and I found the bloody Mary undrinkable — burningly spicy, flavors out of whack, and garnished with a limp, brown baby carrot and a weary curl of white asparagus (it was taken off our bill) — other drinks, seemingly ingredient congested, hit the mark. I especially liked the balance and depth, and the sneaky alcohol punch, of The Right!!!! (bourbon, cranberry liqueur, Kina L’Aero D’or, orange bitters, simple syrup) and the Life’s Peachy (mezcal, green chili liqueur, and white peach schnapps).
According to our bartender, Michael, lunches and happy hours are the busiest times. To boost Sunday business, Pastena recently instituted a Sunday Wine Down “Town,” a three-course dinner with an “endless” glass of wine for $35, another smart step in creating a community institution already full of promise.