When it comes to the real estate agent’s mantra, “Location, location, location,” SR24 nails it two times out of three. Location: Oakland, defying the odds with its ongoing restaurant boom. Location: Temescal, transforming itself into a gourmet ghetto. And, location: the interior
of the Temescal Triangle, hiding unceremoniously between Telegraph Avenue and 51st and 52nd Streets as they converge toward the on-ramp to State Route (SR) 24. And, even at this last, superficially loser locale — where a check-cashing store and a pawnshop anchor the commerce, and security bars pass for window ornamentation — the bustling self-described “classic American eatery” has become a thriving neighborhood hangout with dining-destination appeal.
The chef-owner who pulls this off at SR24 is Josh Woodall, an Oaklander who previously cooked as chef de cuisine at South Food + Wine Bar in San Francisco.
He builds his Facebook following with such daily posts as “Yay, it’s not Monday anymore! Come in for our today’s pizza: heirloom tomato, fresh mozz, garlic confit and basil. Our penny password is ‘you pick’—stop by
for Happy Hour and we’ll give you a drink for one penny!” And, “Would you like any bottle of wine half price!? Well, come in tonight, order two entrees and you can! Wednesdays are now half-price bottle night!!”
The casual, customer-friendly attitude carries over to the menu, a potpourri of soups, salads, sandwiches (at lunch only, except for the burger), “little plates,” sides, “supper” dishes and desserts. Offerings feature such reassuring throwbacks as tomato soup with grilled cheese ($7), mac and cheese ($7) and chicken pot pie ($14). There is a simple kids’ menu—“fried chicken and mashed” or “fish and fries” ($8), cheese pizza ($5) and apple juice or lemonade ($2). And SR24 introduces seasonal and artisanal dishes and ingredients (homemade ricotta, Berkshire pork, Rocky Jr. chicken) to capture the attention of foodies.
Woodall, who will soon open a gastro-pub in Twain Harte and put SR24’s daily operations in the hands of new sous chef Daniel Ikelman, has instilled the same affability in his wait staff. The servers are as friendly and knowledgeable as you’ll find, although it took a while for that to shine through on our first visit. We lucked out with street parking right next to the small, typically packed parking lot and arrived 10 minutes early for our reservation. Although two tables were empty and set, we were told we’d have to wait because the servers and kitchen needed to keep their timing in sync. The puzzling policy gave us plenty of time to study the quirky menu and the pleasantly motley décor — a red-and-black mash-up of elements, including a painted concrete floor, a partially dropped ceiling with down-lights illuminating bare-wood tables, and flame-shaped wall sconces above a slatted bench along the wall opposite the open kitchen and six-seat bar. An overhead flat-screen TV and gaudy red-globe chandeliers tweak the look toward “red-light-district sports bar.”
Once we were seated, the charm of SR24’s idiosyncrasies sank in. The wines, for instance, by the glass and the bottle ($26 to $72), are listed in groups according to such characteristics as “Clean/Crisp,” “Aromatic,” “Rich,” “Body,” and “Heady,” and one is offered on tap — I had a fine glass of Lurton Merlot ($9.50). Cocktails ($5) are built on a base of botanical-infused white wine and Sutton Cellars vermouth. The pumpkin jojos ($6) turned out to be battered and deep-fried slices of squash served in a mini frying basket and accompanied by a spicy red dipping sauce. The movie on TV was Gone With the Wind.
Sometimes this work makes me feel like a hoarder. SR24’s menu encourages that tendency. It exploits the inherent appeal of such comfort food as pot roast ($20), fried chicken ($17) and cottage pie ($16). It taunts with tantalizing twists on classics such as bread pudding spiked with gypsy peppers and goat cheese ($8), stuffing for the roasted chicken ($20) made with farro and bacon, and a chopped salad ($9) sparked with pickled fennel and feta. Prices top out at $20 until you get to the specials, which might include salmon ($25) or a double-thick pork chop ($25).
Try as we did, however, Robin and I barely made a dent. Our initial path to satiation led through a plate of spicy barbecued tofu with chunks of cooling cantaloupe ($8), the aforementioned pumpkin jojos and a superb Kobe beef burger ($11) with a slightly distracting onion marmalade. The high point was the slow-cooked Berkshire pork ($19) — a massive log of trussed shoulder with a crunchy, fatty, salty exterior and a succulent center, served atop creamy organic grits and al dente tangy greens. We had to forgo dessert.
Two weeks later, set up by ample pours of Sutton Cellars Pinot ($10) and Rabid Red Petite Sirah ($7), the knockout blows were delivered by a bowl of huge, tender mussels ($10) piled up in complex broth (white wine, Pernod, harissa, shallots, lemon) that had Thai-like kick and begged to be sopped up with the accompanying toasts and the crusty house bread; an excellent pizza ($12) with a thin cracker-crisp crust topped with roasted heirloom tomato sauce, fingerling potatoes, gypsy peppers and goat cheese; and fork-tender Kobe brisket pot roast ($19) with a red wine and veal stock reduction that slightly caramelized on the beef, and a hearty portion of little potatoes carrots and onions. We boxed up half the pizza so we could squeeze in some wickedly plump and scrumptious donut holes with coffee dipping sauce ($7).
A something-for-everyone menu is usually a self-defeating exercise in compromise, but at SR24 the passion never flags and the execution rarely falters. Even outside the happy hours (3 p.m.–6 p.m Mon.–Sat., 9 p.m.–11 p.m Fri.–Sat., when you can get beer or bread and butter for buck, wine for $5 and small plates for $5 to $10), the place successfully sells itself as an affordably upscale roadhouse of American dreams.
Classic American. 5179 Telegraph Ave., Oakland, (510) 655-9300.