A dive bar popular with cops becomes a hip neighborhood hangout that puts an ethnic twist on bar food.
The name conjures a significant swath of local history, from the 1904 adventure novel, The Sea-Wolf, by Oakland resident Jack London, to the Sea Wolf restaurant (no direct relation), which opened in 1952 in Jack London Square as “the restaurant of the future,” where Scott’s Seafood is today. The building, on the corner of Fourth and Webster streets, has its own historical claims as well. The stately three-story Queen Anne Victorian, built in 1882, was home to many businesses — cafe, produce market, sail maker — but was most recently known as the location of the Warehouse Bar and Grill, a dive bar hangout for off-duty Oakland cops.
All that history still informs the look of the imposing exterior, with its gabled roof and corner turret, and the fully renovated first-floor pub, which received an extensive facelift (and ceiling lift) before owners Laura Blair and Monica Plazola launched Seawolf Public House on Valentine’s Day 2017. The 1,800-square-foot interior is adorned with photos and memorabilia related to the surrounding warehouse/produce district, Jack London, Prohibition, sports teams, police, and the armed forces, as well as quirky artifacts discovered during the retrofitting. The wood flooring in the bar was salvaged from an old North Oakland church, and the two booths in the back corner of the carpeted dining room were formed with pew-like benches. Seven flat-screen TVs, continuously streaming professional and college games and ESPN in living color, add a modern sports-bar edge to the pub feel that is practically built into the bones of the building.
Seawolf fulfills one of its roles as a public house by serving a rotating cast of 16 draft beers from a row of taps along the sleek back bar. The Guinness hails from Dublin, and you might find Germany’s Munich Marzen (Oktoberfest), a Colorado pale ale, or an Oregon IPA on offer, but California brews dominate: Northcoast Scrimshaw Pilsner from Fort Bragg, Gilman Maison de Campagne Saison from Berkeley, Lost Coast Great White wheat beer from Eureka, Eagle Rock Half Pint ale from Los Angeles, Barebottle Palesforce.com pale ale from San Francisco, and more.
But in contemporary Bay Area dining culture, a pub’s appeal hinges on a creative spirits menu and bar food that raises the bar, as well. To those ends, Plazola and Blair introduced 10 or so specialty cocktails (Blood & Sand, Navy Strength Gin & Tonic, Daily Rum Ration, Juniper Jack), and brought in executive chef Jason Moniz (Flora in Oakland, Tres and Locavore in San Francisco) to fashion a menu that is both true to pub-grub expectations — chicken wings, nachos, ribs, fries, chili, salads, and sandwiches — and responsive to East Bay hankerings for ethnic twists, which show up in gochujang-sauced wings, a Cuban pork and ham sandwich, a Korean fried chicken sandwich, chicken pozole rojo, and Brussels sprouts roasted with Thai citrus and chile vinaigrette.
Robin and I timed our dinner visit for taco Tuesday, when the large street-style tacos were $2 each — instead of three for $11, six for $19, or 12 for $35 — and margaritas were $5. The beer-battered fish with chipotle aioli and cabbage, the carne asada with chipotle salsa, onion, and cilantro, and the straightforward margarita won’t make anyone forget Nido, Cholita Linda, Doña Tomás, or the taco truck-Hotsy Totsy Club combo, but like everything I tasted at three meals (two with Robin, one with my friend Judy), they exhibited an even-handed touch with fresh and interesting ingredients in the kitchen and at the bar. We had to try the crispy mac ’n’ cheese balls, and while they were the definition of empty calories, they were weirdly addictive with the accompanying garlicky tomato red-chile arrabbiata sauce.
The Seawolf version of the classic Cuban sandwich didn’t convince me that it should be on a puffy roll instead of pressed like a grilled cheese, but the combination of roasted pork, shaved ham, Swiss cheese, pickles, and mustard rang all the right taste-bud bells. And if I was disappointed that our surprisingly attentive and professional server (a country club veteran) was stumped by my request for a Sazerac, I was more than satisfied with both the cutely named Oaxacan the Plank (mezcal, tequila, agave, chocolate bitters) and a well-balanced Manhattan.
On subsequent lunch visits, I realized that Seawolf blasts few home runs but hits for a high average. The beef and ale chili had a classic balance of tomato acidity and peppery heat; the pozole — thick with hominy and dark meat chicken, and served with cabbage slaw, crispy thin tortilla strips, and onion relish — was both comforting and invigorating; the arugula-based winter salad of pears, fennel, toasted almonds, and goat cheese (I added adobo roasted chicken) was vibrant and tangy; and the addition of fish sauce to the vinaigrette boosted the umami of the gooey, crispy Brussels sprouts, presented in a cast iron skillet.
Robin was not impressed by her double cheeseburger — ordered on a Wednesday when it’s half-off ($7.50) during lunch — but then she doesn’t like cheese or caramelized onions on her burger, prefers Dijon mustard to a house mayo-relish “spread,” never doubles up on her patties, and cringes when meat, ordered well done, arrives closer to medium. She suspended her preferences in the interest of research; I benefited by several bites and found the burger, with coarse-ground beef and a soft bun, better suited my taste. My partiality for dry-rub, slow-smoked barbecue could have prejudiced me against Seawolf’s pork ribs, which were thickly coated with a guava-habanero sauce. But as the ample, unctuous meat fell off the bones, and with the citrusy, finely julienned slaw providing a piquant accent, I found myself ravenously licking the glaze off my fingers and wishing there had been five ribs instead of four.
After establishing lunch and dinner service, with happy hour and weekday specials, Seawolf added weekend an equally eclectic brunch, when such dishes as chilaquiles, pork shoulder hash, smoked salmon scramble, French toast, shakshuka, ham and egg torta, and a build-your-own bloody Mary augment the menu. There’s still a sheen of newness about the place, but like other restaurants in the rapidly developing district, such as Chop Bar, Everett & Jones, Nido, and Sláinte, Seawolf is settling into its identity as welcoming gathering spot with its own distinct set of pleasures.
Seawolf Public House Bar Food
402 Webster St., Oakland, 510-891-1660. Beer $6-$7, specialty cocktails $9-$11, snacks and sides $5-$8, soups and salads $4-$12, sandwiches (with fries or salad) $13-$15, wings, tacos, ribs, etc. $10-$35, brunch dishes $8-$15, desserts $6. Serves lunch and dinner Tue.-Thu. 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m., Fri. 11:30 a.m.-12 a.m., Sat. 9:30 a.m.-12 a.m., Sun. 9:30 a.m.-10 p.m., brunch Sat.-Sun. 9:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. www.Seawolf.pub. CCG☎$$-$$$