A Good Comeback Story
Much to the neighborhood’s delight, Grand Fare Market gets it right with a reboot.
Grand Fare Market has rebooted with a simpler concept and more outdoor seating, and it seems to be catching on.
Anyone associated with the Bay Area restaurant industry these days will tell you that increased competition, spiraling labor and food costs, and razor-thin profit margins make it a pretty cutthroat environment. And it’s certainly not one that accommodates second chances. Which is what makes the story of Grand Fare Market so unusual.
Simply put, the initial launch of the high-profile market-restaurant hybrid based loosely on Rockridge’s Market Hall was one of the East Bay dining scene’s most spectacular failures of the last few years. Veteran restaurateur Doug Washington has experienced his fair share of success—he’s one of the co-founders of the restaurant group behind popular downtown San Francisco spots such as Town Hall, Anchor & Hope, and Salt House—but his pet East Bay project seemed snake-bit from the start. Bursting with energy, the utterly charming Washington exhibits a bit of the reckless creative genius of a real-life Willie Wonka, and as the already ambitious scope of Grand Fare broadened, its opening date receded further from view (leading Washington to back out of a second dining project he’d planned in downtown Oakland).
Finally, to a heaping helping of fanfare, the gorgeous 3,500-square-foot complex opened in October 2015 on Grand Avenue more than two years after Washington took over the lease. And, oh, was it something. Helmed by former Commis second-in-command Ben Coe, the kitchen cranked out beautiful, compelling fare such as sous-vide cooked tandoori-spiced pork ribs, spit-roasted piri piri chicken, and intricate sides like wheat berry and mushroom fricassee and broccoli with farro verde, Korean chile, and hempseed vinaigrette.
Surrounding the central kitchen in the chic modern interior was a carefully curated grocery section, a baked goods subsection with house-made pastries in one corner, a wine bar in another corner, and a sleek raw bar overlooking Grand Avenue. Most impressive was the adjacent outdoor area, a parking lot transformed into a picturesque Parisian-style patio complete with trees, string lights, and even a converted Airstream-style trailer serving coffee and ice cream.
That gleaming silver trailer actually had to be lifted via crane over the imposing front façade of Grand Fare, a metaphor perhaps for a hugely ambitious project that dared to fly a bit too close to the sun. It was all too much, of course, and just six weeks later without warning, Washington shut the entire operation down, citing an unsustainable business model in a contrite explanation on Facebook.
And that, it seemed, was that. Some noises were made about perhaps reopening in a modified format, which, given the amount of money already sunk into the project, seemed highly unlikely. Except that it wasn’t. To his great credit, and with a big help from an accommodating landlord, Washington swallowed his ego, circled the wagons, and got to work on redesigning the concept to make it more viable.
In the new and improved version 2.0, the rarely used raw bar has been replaced with the coffee and pastry station (open at 7 a.m.), thus making room for a new front entrance and more grocery space. The scattershot interior layout has been simplified so that customers order and pay for their food, beer and wine, and groceries all in one place. More seating was added inside to accommodate inclement weather and outside in place of the Airstream trailer, which was sold and lifted out the same way it came in.
The goal was not to change drastically, Washington told me shortly before Grand Fare reopened in July, but to simplify. He wanted to get things closer to what he had in mind when he first visualized the concept: to serve “really simple, beautiful, delicious food” in a setting “that felt generous, that felt beautiful, and fun and easy.”
To execute this culinary vision, Washington brought in Chris Fernandez, a longtime veteran Bay Area chef at such restaurants as Oliveto and Poggio Trattoria who more recently had been doing consultant work focused on high-end catering. The experienced Fernandez clearly knows what he’s doing and shows a deft hand in putting together a menu full of accessible but still interesting dishes.
Divided into snacks, sandwiches, small plates, and large plates, the offerings are pretty straightforward Italian-influenced California cuisine and less ambitious than Coe’s more esoteric fare. But given Grand Fare’s casual setting and goal of appealing to families for dining in and taking home, I don’t think that’s a bad thing. It helps that, nearly without exception, the food is indeed simple, fresh, and delicious.
One of the half-dozen or so sandwiches available, the BLT, served on chewy, grilled levain slathered with basil aioli spread, sported peak-season heirloom tomatoes, and a robust smoky, house-cured bacon. (Given the summer bounty, tomatoes were rightly seen all over the menu, including three different pristine varieties in an heirloom tomato salad with fresh mozzarella and pesto.) The roast beef sandwich was similarly impressive, although the horseradish cheddar cream could have used more bite. A homey eggplant Parmesan featured three stacked circlets of meaty roasted eggplant interspersed with gooey mozzarella and flavorful tomato sauce. The salmon cake tasted perfectly moist—not dry as so often can be the case—and was spiked with sweet corn and red peppers.
Fernandez is also adept at throwing in a few unexpected twists to keep diners on their toes. A tasty little gems salad sported extra crispy croutons made only from the crust of the bread, to go along with crisp cups of lettuce, sweet halved cherry tomatoes, thinly sliced cucumbers and radishes, and a lovely, creamy, garlic-and-tarragon-inflected green goddess dressing. The addition of cauliflower offered the perfect textural nuance to the creamy mac ’n’ cheese. Perhaps my favorite dish was a seasonal pasta consisting of homemade linguini with sautéed pea shoots and shallots, a healthy dusting of lemon zest, and several large dollops of creamy ricotta cheese. It was a delicious, unexpected concoction that came off as filling and comforting while also light and fresh, no mean feat but a common attribute of many of the dishes I tried. As for the prices, Grand Fare is not cheap—many of the dishes cost a couple of dollars more than I’d have hoped—but really not bad considering the quality and the fact that you’re not paying service charges.
And the neighborhood has responded. The place was packed each time I visited, full of folks picking up (there are prepared foods for takeout and you can now order ahead of time through the website) or dining in and enjoying a craft beer or a selection from Washington’s excellent wine list. The downside of that success: The service was slow, sometimes painfully so. But I took it as simple growing pains and something that should improve as the staff finds its footing.
The nice thing was that most of the customers I observed didn’t appear to mind too much. It helps that the amiable Washington is almost always on hand to smooth out any rough edges (and in the case of one particularly delayed transaction, even threw in a free bottle of rosé). But it also seemed to me that Grand Fare’s setting is so lovely and its concept and execution so generous and earnest, that the neighborhood is simply a little more willing to be patient.
Everyone, apparently, appreciates a good comeback story.
This report was published in the October edition of our sister publication, The East Bay Monthly.
Published online on Oct. 7, 2016 at 8:00 a.m.