How should we mark the dawn of Oakland’s dining-scene renaissance? By the 1999 opening of Doña Toma´s in the Temescal neighborhood? The 2003 Dopo debut on Piedmont Avenue? The establishment of an Uptown cornerstone by Luka’s Taproom and Lounge in 2004? The Temescal boost delivered by Pizzaiolo in ’05?
Whenever it began, it’s been a long day in the sun for restaurant start-ups at our end of the Bay Bridge. And twilight, let alone nightfall, seems indefinitely on hold. We may still think of Wood Tavern as relatively new, but 2007 was an eternity ago in the recently accelerated scheme of things. The eateries that premiered in 2008, including Flora, Bellanico, Camino, Corso, Marzano, Ozumo, Brown Sugar Kitchen and Mua, many of us take for granted as venerated old-timers.
The recession, and other complicating factors, may have brought down such longtime favorites as Eccolo and Citron; cut short the lives of Maritime East, Mono and Alameda’s Acquacotta; and given new meaning to delayed when it’s applied to the Jack London Marketplace. But at the same time, Commis became Oakland’s only Michelin-starred restaurant, and last June, The New York Times ran a travel section story by David Farley who paid visits to Adesso, Bocanova, Boot and Shoe Service, Camino and Commis, and titled the survey “In Oakland, Innovation Is on the Menu.”
Moreover, openings — Zut!, Locanda de Eva, Plum — continue to abound, and we won’t be surprised if by this time next year we’ll be able to identify another 10 best new East Bay restaurants you must try.
Business analysts and demographers can run the numbers and figure out what and who make this boom tick during an overarching bust. But from the perspective of a curious eater and East Bay partisan, the critical driving force is that nebulous factor George H. W. Bush called “the vision thing.” In the case of our eat-here-now frontrunners, it encompasses — to varying degrees but with palpable confidence — a strong culinary point of view manifested in everything that comes out of the (more often than not, open) kitchen, and an equally robust commitment to capturing and bolstering the zeitgeist of the neighborhood.
We might not walk out of every restaurant in our top 10 singing the praises of a specific chef, but we’re likely to echo the sentiment that the L.A. Weekly’s Pulitzer Prize–winning food writer, Jonathan Gold, expressed in a recent e-mail: “Camino makes me happy every time I visit.” Chacun à son goût, no doubt, but we trust that you’ll find your own ways to start that sentence with some of the names we’ve singled out from the latest leaders of the East Bay’s restaurant resurgence, all of which opened within the past two years. Our favorites are arranged roughly in alphabetical order — the numbers are not intended to imply rank.
Ce´sar and A` Côte´ primed East Bay foodie palates for the gourmet small plates explosion; Daniel Olivella brings it down to earth. The native-born Catalan, who grew up in a suburb of Barcelona, set up shop in a humble Temescal corner location after working in his uncle’s La Paella in Chicago and establishing himself in San Francisco at Zuni Cafe´ , Delfina, Zazie and his own B44. The paellas may be tempting, but steer yourself toward the signature latas (ingenious ingredient combos served in tins) and the boggling array of hot and cold tapas — nearly 30 choices that range from olives and fried potatoes through Spanish tortillas, chorizo, ceviche and mussels to jamon Iberico, grilled shrimp and five-hour braised ox tail. Explore the full selection of beers and Spanish wines and save room for a gorgeous dessert.
4901 Telegraph Ave., Oakland, (510) 450-0678, www.barlata.com
The revitalization of Jack London Square may have dialed down to a slow simmer, but chef Rick Hackett (the Ferry Building’s Market Bar) and his wife, Meredith Melville, have proved invaluable keepers of the flame. Their ambitiously revamped warehouse space — with 165 seats, a capacious lounge, an eye-popping bar and expansive dining areas — avoids the typical urban wharf tourist trappings, and the innovative kitchen elevates waterfront cuisine to new heights via a pan-American menu that begs revisiting. The wildly varied small and large plates — salty fried Padron peppers, crab-stuffed deviled eggs, roasted cheese-filled plantains, halibut ceviche, seared scallops, Yucatan seafood stew, pumpkin mole turkey — are complemented by Spanish, Portuguese, Argentinean and California wines and a terrific cocktail list.
55 Webster St., Oakland, (510) 444-1233, www.bocanova.com
Boot and Shoe Service
If you were thinking that the last thing the East Bay needed was another pizza place, Charlie Hallowell, the opinionated brains and indefatigable energy behind Pizzaiolo, was determined to prove you wrong. The Chez Panisse veteran sensed an insatiable appetite for gourmet pies with chewy thin crusts, puffy and charred at the edges, topped simply with tomato, mozzarella and basil, or more exotically with rapini and house-made sausage or wild nettles and Monterey Bay squid. And the crowds that gather outside the Grand Avenue storefront around opening time (no reservations taken) have been proving him right. He also nailed the neighborhood feel by restoring an old business name and exposing some of the original architecture. The addition of artisan cocktails, such as the Scoff Law, and small plates of halibut crudo or pork meatballs, lace up the menu and put a bow on it.
3308 Grand Ave., Oakland, (510) 763-2668, www.bootandshoeservice.com
Oakland’s dining renaissance had stopped short of the French Laundry end of the spectrum — until James Syhabout came to town (by way of Fat Duck, El Bulli, Coi and Manresa). If the starkly appointed 31-seat former site of Jojo looks and feels more like a gallery than a tavern, that suits Commis’ ultra artistic aesthetic. With the surroundings a blur of whites and grays with black accents, the prix fixe three-course presentations stand out all the more for their spare, meticulously spaced juxtapositions ofcolor and shape. A true genius at inventing and balancing flavor combinations, Syhabout trans-forms market-available ingredients into miniature works of art. Bucking the trend toward rustic cuisine in a worn-in environment, Commis demands a collector’s sort of dedication, which involves discriminating eyes and taste buds and deeppockets. In return, it has attracted the inter-national spotlight on Oakland dining.
3859 Piedmont Ave., Oakland, (510) 653-3902, www.commisrestaurant.com
Watching executive chef Christopher Laramie and his wife, pastry chef Veronica Laramie, in action in their minimalist modernized storefront is to witness love’s labor found. Only about two dozen diners at a time can partake of the Laramie’s avant-American creations, which change frequently and are offered as a $25 two-course, mix-and-match prix fixe meal (add more courses for $11 each). Every dish — a goat cheese–zucchini panna cotta amuse-bouche; a pure´ed corn soup poured over red bell pepper jelly cubes, blanched crawfish, dried corn, shiitake mush-rooms and huitlacoche (corn fungus) — is tightly composed and presented with ikebana-like mindfulness. The accessible pricing, the short-but-well-planned wine list and the welcoming ambience make eVe a family-bistro cousin of Commis.
1960 University Ave., Berkeley, (510) 868-0735, www.eve-berkeley.com
If the collaborative project of Lacey Sher, Linda Braz and Millennium’s star-power chef Eric Tucker had twice the current seating, it would be a leading contender to be a major player in Jack London Square’s slow-motion destination restaurant derby. As it stands, in the glassed-in ground-floor corner of a loft building, Encuentro is a picture-perfect neighborhood wine bar with an extraordinary vegetarian/vegan menu limited only by kitchen space. Sip your way through a unique wine list that emphasizes organic and biodynamic vintages, and graze on bountiful salads and sandwiches, comforting soups “of the moment,” hearty nightly specials, and original small plates that showcase the kitchen’s creative edge: Uncle Eddie’s Wild Hen Deviled Eggs, seedy cheese rounds, truffled mushroom pecan pa^te´, crispy smashed potatoes and more.
200 Second St., Oakland, (510) 832-9463, www.encuentrooakland.com
Unless cocktails and comforting, unpretentious food at reasonable prices go out of fashion, Sidebar will be a Lake Merritt institution for years to come. After all, the folks behind this happening tavern bucked the odds for a good run with Zax Tavern at the star-crossed Telegraph Avenue location that proved inhospitable to several post–Casa de Eva eateries. Here, they’ve created a versatile spot where you can drop in for a quick one and a bite, or linger over a satisfying multi-course meal. The four-sided bar dominates the room and showcases dexterous mixologists who shake and stir memorable “classicist” and “locavore” Manhattans, martinis and more. The artisan spirits and the barkeepers’ congenial personalities amp up the conviviality inherent in such consistently pleasing, on-beyond-bar-food dishes as steamed mussels with shoestring potatoes, a copious chopped salad, a terrific hamburger and the Zax classic twice-baked goat cheese souffle´.
542 Grand Ave., Oakland, (510) 452-9500, www.sidebar-oakland.com
More than 1,000 people “like” SR24 on Facebook, where chef Josh Woodall and sous chef Caleb Reemer post that day’s pizza and specials, plus passwords for various bonuses such as a 1-cent drink during happy hour. How many fans know that SR24 refers to the highway that runs overhead nearby has yet to be determined. Turning a funky location in the Temescal Triangle — where you can pawn a boom box or cash a check — into a destination is no mean feat. But walk-ups are in short supply now that more and more patrons have discovered the delights of the artisinal Americana cooking represented by slow-roasted pork loin, Kobe brisket pot roast, mac and cheese, chicken (roasted, fried or in a pot pie), fig and ricotta cheesecake and miniature pies. Plus: good beers, a fun wine list and a daily wine on tap!
5179 Telegraph Ave., Oakland, (510) 655-9300
If Oakland’s dining scene has a resident bohemian, it’s Hi-Suk Dong, the artist who spun Mua out of Soizic and recently closed the latter to concentrate his efforts uptown with a new bistro “nex” door to Mua. A true character who transforms industrial spaces, such as former car dealerships, to resemble working artists’ studios, Dong finds a beckoning middle way between edginess and familiarity. At the intimate Nex, John “Cap’n” Mardikian and Eric Cross balance the room’s mod quirkiness (concrete floor, candelabra chandeliers, Kerr canning jars as water glasses, a cheery four-seat bar churning out excellent cocktails) with small and large plates of French-inspired food that’s trendy (Padron peppers, brick chicken), classic (marrow bones, escargot, filet mignon) and comfy (gnocchi, pizza).
2442 Webster St., Oakland, (510) 238-8224, www.nexoakland.com
Revival Bar & Kitchen
Well established with her Venus restaurant on Shattuck Avenue, Amy Murray couldn’t let a golden opportunity slip away when Downtown folded and the prized corner location at Addison Street came available. She made it her mission to nurture Berkeley’s urban restoration by bringing back a sense of civic pride and history, and returning to pre-factory-farming methods to feed the locavore hunger for bygone healthy traditions. The space feels like it’s been lived in for decades, and the food takes you back to the days before Swanson, Ray Kroc, Colonel Sanders and Archer Daniels Midland industrialized our eating habits. Such menu stars as goat, pork, duck, pasta, salad and flatbreads; special dinners and social nights; and patron-friendly happy hours and corkage policies pave a path toward salvation. (See full review on page TK.)
2102 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley, (510) 549-9950, www.revivalbarandkitchen.com
We easily could have expanded our list of imperative dining destinations to a sweet 16 and still bemoaned exclusions and oversights. Number crunchers will note seven names here, but consider it our version of a baker’s half-dozen.
Not only does chef Jon Smulewitz’s team make some of the Bay Area’s best salumi (and lots of it), the Dopo spin-off also threw down the happy hour gauntlet with seriously good free food during its opening and closing hours.
4395 Piedmont Ave., No. 2, Oakland, (510) 601-0305
Loft dwellers around JLS hankering for a locavore small-plates-and-more, first-name-basis hangout that captures the neighborhood vibe have gotten it from Jesse (Branstetter) and Lev (Delany), with a monthly pig roast, to boot.
247 Fourth St., No. 111, Oakland, (510) 834-2467, www.chopbar510.com
They put their sustainable aesthetic in your face, but Ari Derfel and Eric Fenster have given the Cal campus a go-to spot that caters equally to vegetarians and carnivores; they also created a seasonal vegan “charcuterie” plate that’s nothing less than dazzling.
2200 Oxford St., Berkeley, (510) 809-0400, www.gatherrestaurant.com
Barbados native Sarah Kirnon offers downtown Oaklanders and Fox Theater–goers a fresh, just-upscale-enough Caribbean-Creole dining option. Staples include fried chicken, dry-rubbed steak, Amerindian pepperpot, rice and peas and a daily vegan option.
1745 San Pablo Ave., Oakland, (510) 444-2626, www.hibiscusoakland.com
Meritage at the Claremont and FIVE
Fine hotel dining was reborn through elaborate makeovers and contemporary California sensibilities at the Claremont Hotel Club & Spa, where Josh Thomsen’s farm-to-table approach is stellar, and the Shattuck Hotel, where Scott Howard
and Banks White tap farmer’s markets to bump up American standards.
Meritage: 41 Tunnel Road, Berkeley, (510) 549-8510, www.meritageclaremont.com
FIVE: 2086 Allston Way, Berkeley, (510) 225-6055, www.five-berkeley.com
Owner Michael LeBlanc built an uptown power spot for Oakland’s mixed upper middle class, on a foundation of fried chicken (and many other Southern “traditions” and “specialties”) and an astounding small batch, single barrel and blended bourbon selection
2295 Broadway, Oakland, (510) 834-1000, www.picanrestaurant.com