Believe the Hype
The Well goes beyond lip service in delivering nourishing fare in North Oakland.
The Well, akin to an “edible apothecary,” plans to add to its offerings, including an expanded brunch menu later this year.
Photo by Lance Yamamoto
The Well can make for an easy target.
Between the healthy syrup shots, the herbal-infused honey and sprouted seeds, and the organic, transparent-trade “drinking chocolates,” this little cafe practically invites caricature and parody. Yes, it can come off as a little precious, and its customer base sure seems to rock a higher-than-average ratio of yoga pants.
There’s just one problem with lampooning The Well: It’s really, really good. And the more time I spent there, the more I recognized real substance behind all those new-age “wellness” buzzwords. Fair warning, though: At least for this cynical East Coast transplant, there’s a fair bit of buzz to wade through.
The co-founders of The Well are husband-wife Karim Bishay and Marielle Amrhein, Oakland residents whose bios are steeped in categories like social change, holistic healing, community building, and sustainability. Described on the website as “a place to come home to ourselves and to plants,” the cafe is on the edge of Oakland’s Temescal district in the recently launched East Bay Community Space (itself described as an “inclusive, non-market based social space”). You get the idea. Dunkin’ Donuts, this is not.
Let’s start with the drinks. Given the dozens of glass jars on display filled with herbs, flowers, tea leaves, and more, The Well can seem as much apothecary as cafe, thanks to Amrhein’s background in herbal medicine. As a dyed-in-the-wool coffee drinker, I found the options dizzying. There’s tea, of course, which is certified organic and blended in house or by a local herbalist (do they just roam the streets of Temescal these days?). Beyond that, there are herbal tonic lattes, elixirs, drinking chocolates, healthy “shots,” and chai, as well as delicious cold concoctions, such as a not-too-tangy homemade kombucha and “fusion lemonade” spiked with elderflower, chamomile, rose water, lavender, and maple syrup. Yes, there is coffee. But it seems kind of a waste not to explore all the other beverages given how much energy is devoted to them.
The food menu is divided into breakfast and lunch sections—The Well’s typical hours are 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. For breakfast, the most substantial item you’ll find on the menu is the porridge, which comes sweet or savory and with a choice of grain (oats or amaranth). I ordered the sweet porridge with oats. Soft and chewy, they served as a nice base for a really lovely mélange of items that included seasonal fruit—in this case strawberries, blueberries, and peaches—flavor-packed sprouted seeds for crunch and some salt, as well as some of the best almonds and walnuts I’ve ever tasted. Herbal-infused honey imbued a delicate sweetness and brown butter a roasted nuttiness, while the tiny edible flowers (which I assumed were strictly for aesthetics) actually added a sharply aromatic element that I enjoyed.
For the savory porridge, I switched to amaranth, which was a revelation. Not quite as filling at the oats, the tiny grains form a smooth, fluid texture, but when chewed, pop in your mouth like tiny tapioca balls. A soft-boiled, halved egg was paired with intensely dark-green blanched spinach, seeds, sprouts, and almonds, and topped with brown sugar, aleppo red pepper, and more edible flowers. Again, the mix of items was gorgeous, a perfectly Instagram-able bowl of food. But more than that, each ingredient seemed so impeccably sourced. It was as if everything—from egg to sprouts—had been freshly harvested from some platonic ideal of a biodynamic, organic, free-trade farm. As my wife said after a few bites, “Wow, I feel healthy already.”
This is nourishing fare. That comes down to ingredients, of course, but also to the fact that they don’t over-season the food. In particular, rather than rely on straight-up cane sugar, the restaurant tends to use things like infused honeys, maple syrup, and in the case of the chia pudding, fresh coconut milk, which add a gentler, aromatic sweetness to dishes. Salt is a little trickier, and I did find myself shaking out more (Himalayan pink, of course) onto items like the pressed veggie sandwich and beet hummus, which were on the bland side.
More often than not, though, the ingredients themselves were enough to carry the day. Specifically, I’m thinking of the pesto in the seasonal lunch grain bowl. It’s a small dab of sauce amid a variety of ingredients (you can choose your own grain, protein, and sauce) that included a soft-boiled egg and mix of vegetables atop quinoa. But it was so vibrantly herbaceous that it packed a more than adequate flavor punch for the entire bowl. I was also a little skeptical about the portion size, which seemed small. But the grain bases I tried (quinoa, oats, and amaranth) were all quite dense and filling, to the point that I struggled to finish a couple of the bowls.
If I were to levy a criticism of The Well, it’s that outside of the bowls, the food options are a little lacking. There are exceptions. That chia pudding is great. The $3 side salad with pristine greens dappled with delicate rose water vinaigrette was absolutely gorgeous. And the honey pie, like a healthier version of a Southern-style chess pie, was delicious, each bite infused with honey and lavender and a bit of sea salt. But the pressed veggie sandwich didn’t pop—you can spice it up by adding proteins such as goat cheese, herbal sausage and meatball, or smoked salmon, but I think the bowls are simply a better showcase for vegetables versus pressed between thick slices of bread. The underwhelming “breads and spreads,” meanwhile, came served with a disappointingly meager array of bread, crackers, and carrot sticks.
Part of that can be explained by the fact that they’re operating without a full kitchen and they’re just getting up to speed having only opened in June. It’s also worth remembering that The Well is more cafe than restaurant, and places a heavier emphasis on drinks than most other similar establishments.
Regardless, the bowls are more than enough to warrant a visit, and if you don’t eat, there are plenty of drinks, free Wi-Fi, and a fun, helpful staff. The interior is beautiful, too, decorated with splashes of Moroccan flair, from clusters of striking lanterns to the vibrant tile backsplash behind the counter. It makes for a restful oasis on what is a heavily trafficked stretch of Telegraph Avenue just a stone’s throw from the Route 24 on- and off-ramps.
And unlike many other dining experiences, which can leave me feeling unhealthy or ripped off, I found myself exiting The Well in good spirits. I’d even say inspired: to eat healthier; take better care of myself; heck, maybe even take up yoga. I just need to get some of those pants.
5443 Telegraph Ave., Oakland, (510) 808-7315,
Breakfast and lunch, Tue.-Sat. 8am-4pm, Sun. 9am-3pm.
Average entrée: $9. No beer or wine. Credit cards accepted.