Man of the Moment
Charlie Hallowell appears positioned to score with Penrose, his latest restaurant venture.
Hallowell at his latest, Penrose.
It seems as though restaurateur/chef Charlie Hallowell can do no wrong. When he started his Italian gem, Pizzaiolo, in Temescal in the summer of 2005, it quickly became a word-of-mouth sensation, filled to overflowing every night, even when it didn’t have an outside sign announcing its location. Eight years later it’s as popular as ever—and there’s now a modest sign above the front door. Then, in the fall of 2009, came Boot and Shoe Service (its quirky name from the business that once occupied the space near the Grand Lake Theater), which was similar in many ways to Pizzaiolo—killer wood-fired pizzas, ultra-casual yet somehow hip interior—and also instantly popular. An expansion into the business next door two years ago eased some of the demand, but Boot and Shoe still is bustling and crowded nearly every night.
Now comes Penrose, directly across the street from Boot and Shoe, and given Hallowell’s track record, it would be foolish to bet against its success, either. Although Penrose was still under construction as we went to press (it should have opened by the time you read this), even in its unfinished state it was clear that Hallowell is trying something different with this enormous high-ceilinged space. What must be among the longest bars in Oakland dominates one side of the room, while the back wall is where the cooking takes place. Long communal tables—like larger versions of the elevated ones at Boot and Shoe—will dominate the expansive central dining area. The side walls are exposed brick; the front is a row of large windows that open onto Grand Avenue.
“It’s a bar and grill,” explains Hallowell, whose baptismo del fuego in local restaurants came from eight years in the kitchen at Chez Panisse in Berkeley. “It’s literally just a bar with a giant hearth, and everything is going to be cooked over fire. It’s not like a concept restaurant at all. Pizzaiolo is an Italian restaurant, and Boot and Shoe Service is primarily an Italian restaurant. This is like Charlie’s restaurant. I want a funky place where you can come get a great cocktail and a bunch of different kinds of food. And I want to be able to be a little more out there. It’s going to be all à la carte, so you’ll be able to come and get a steak, you’ll be able to get crudo, oysters, whatever. But you won’t be able to come and get an entrée—there won’t be steak with potatoes and green beans and salsa verde. It’s going to be fast and loud, and I’m going to have a little stage where I’m hoping to have some live music Friday and Saturday nights. I’m going to have a piano that lives here.
I’m going to buy a Hammond B-3 organ with a Leslie [speaker]. I really want to support blues and jazz.”
A question about the origin of the new restaurant’s name unexpectedly leads the thoughtful and passionate Hallowell to revelations about his family history and ruminations on Oakland, a city he loves so much. “Penrose is a family name from Cork, Ireland,” he says. “It was the name of my great-great-grandfather, who was this amazing Quaker abolitionist in Pennsylvania, and one of the men who led the first black regiments in the Civil War. There’s a 350-year-old Quaker tradition in Ireland, and this woman, Amanda Penrose, married a Hallowell right off the boat from Ireland and settled in Pennsylvania. They had a house on the Underground Railroad. I thought, ‘Wow, these amazing Irish Quakers came here and settled and decided to have this radical political stance. It’s probably the most righteous branch of my family.
“Somehow I found myself—this white guy, who grew up in suburban Connecticut—in Oakland. And my family has this lineage of having a relationship with race and class. I don’t know exactly how that’s working out for me, but I know that, for whatever reason, I’ve chosen to live in this city where race and class are big issues and I have a real interest in engaging that narrative still. I can’t imagine living in any other city in the world.”
Hallowell, his wife, and two children live in a modest home off San Pablo Avenue in North Oakland, “in a place where my house gets broken into at least once a year and every bike I’ve ever owned has been stolen. I’ve hit this weird place in my life where I have the economic capacity to buy a house in the hills if I wanted to. If I wanted to move to a nice part of Berkeley, I could do that. I have this economic freedom, but I don’t like the idea of leaving the $200,000 house I bought when I was a young man and which I’ve been working on the last five years. I love my funky neighborhood, and I love my funky little house. I love that one of my next-door neighbors is a 16-person Mexican immigrant family, and the next neighbor is an Eritrean guy. I kind of feel that if I cash in my chips now and move to the hills, it’ll be me fully taking my place at the table with the bourgeoisie. There will be no more delusional thinking about my place among ‘the people.’ ”
While Hallowell wrestles with those issues, he continues to pour his heart and soul into Oakland’s burgeoning food scene. Penrose was still a work-in-progress when we spoke in late August, yet Hallowell was already looking down the road at other projects still fermenting in his very active mind. He’d love to open “a green grocer and a butcher shop” next door to Penrose, and he and a partner have been discussing a plan to open another smaller, more specialized space (sorry, no spoilers) close by on Grand Avenue.
“There are two very civic-minded projects I want to bust out in the next couple or three years, and then I’m going to disappear and be one of those weird guys with the big beard who’s walking around the lake, like with four dogs,” Hallowell says with a laugh. “People will be like, ‘Who is that weird guy?’ ‘I don’t know. I think he used to be a cook somewhere.’”