It's true: Oakland, so long in San Francisco's shadow, has morphed into a culinary destination. Anya von Bremzen serves up the best this town has to offer
Still high from the best caffeine fix in America, I stroll through a cosmopolitan farmers' market overflowing with heirloom tomatoes and plums grown by Hmong farmers. Soon I'll be eating dim sum that rivals the best in Hong Kong, taking a gondola ride on a lake, then spending the evening having tapas and artisanal sakes. Could this be Oakland, the former no-man's-land between San Francisco and Berkeley?
"There's no there there," Gertrude Stein quipped of Oakland, the city in which she grew up. Today, there's so much there that I can't quite keep up. Thanks to mayor Jerry Brown's grandiose visions of urban renewal, Oakland has been transformed into a city that gentrifies as you blink, but without losing a genuine neighborhood air. And the food scene—ethnic cuisines uncorrupted by tourism, Berkeley-style haunts that feel like little shrines to Alice Waters's organic-ingredient cult, cool wine lists, and hot barbecue joints—is so swell that even the most militant food snobs from San Francisco cross the Bay Bridge far more often than they'd care to admit. So there, Miss Stein.
CAFFÈ 817 Welcome to Oakland's unofficial town hall, arts center, and caffeine emergency ward. That's what Sandro Rossi, a gracious Florentine, dreamed of a decade ago, when he took a gamble retooling an old butcher shop into a Milanese boîte of brushed steel and handsome dark wood. Back then, before this enclave of Victorian shop fronts was restored and designated Old Oakland, his neighbors were a bail bondsman and Ratto's, an "old-world" Italian deli. One wonders what they thought of Rossi's relentlessly purist vision of Italian food. The elegant poached eggs and silky polenta enriched with Tallegio cheese is the breakfast you never found on your vacation in Italy. At lunchtime the closet-sized kitchen serves chic sandwiches on Acme baguettes and unimpeachable piatti di giorno, such as a super-Tuscan panzanella (bread salad) and eggy homemade fettuccine flecked with bits of Hobbs's sausage. And don't miss the most correct cappuccino this side of Turin—in itself worth walking to Oakland for. 817 Washington St.; 510/271-7965; lunch for two $24.
À COTÉ Admittedly, as Oakland neighborhoods go, Rockridge's College Avenue of funky boutiques and secondhand bookshops feels more like an extension of Berkeley. For a zeitgeist, post-dot-com dining experience, À Côté, a cozy little den with sponged ocher walls and vaguely Belle Époque ironwork, is the place: the cooking is both precise and voluptuous, the prices are gentle, the scene rocks. To ease the wait for one of the minuscule tables—there are no reservations here—sip a Figoun, a sunny potion of figs, lemon, and vodka. As you nibble on the wonderful puffy flatbreads—perhaps studded with morels and roasted garlic—from the wood-burning oven; the straightforward but irresistible Pernod-infused roasted mussels; and the ricotta-filled squash blossoms that send whiffs of a Provençal summer into the air, you understand why chef Matt Colgan is touted by the San Francisco press as the most gifted champion of the small-plate trend that looms so large in the Bay Area. 5478 College Ave.; 510/655-6469; dinner for two $45.
GRASSHOPPER Still hungry?A breezy mile up College Avenue, past handsome Craftsmen and Prairie bungalows, is Grass-hopper, whose owners are doing for sake what that iconic East Bay restaurant, Bay Wolf, did for wine some two decades ago. If you haven't booked ahead, the hostess might find you a spot behind the smooth poured-concrete bar, where the Asian tapas menu runs to crowd-pleasing stuff like plush nuggets of rib eye steeped in sesame miso and fine fried calamari with perky lime sambal. But addictive as you'll find the organic edamame, the food here is a mere excuse for a tasting flight—or two—of two-ounce pours of sake from a remarkable list complete with poetic descriptions ("full and floral with aromas of sweet rice and gardenias"). The waitress, who could be a Berkeley freshman, is as adept at discoursing on the difference between Junmai and Ginjo styles as her professors might be at explaining post-poststructuralism. The Masumi Yumedono ("spicy-fruity with a ripe pear bouquet") and the rare Koshi no Kanbai ("bright rice flavors") aren't coming to a sushi joint near you anytime soon; so savor each sip. Slo-w-ly. 6317 College Ave.; 510/595-3559; light dinner for two $36.
PEONY Neither a typical inner-city Chinatown jammed with tourists and red-lantern chintz nor a suburban car-and-mall sprawl on L.A.'s Monterey Park model, Oakland's neat 12-block Little Asia sports a buoyant identity all its own. And though Chinese predominates, its streets are a polyglot of Cambodian, Mien, and Tagalog rising above vendors' cries and the occasional clack-clack-clack of mah-jongg tiles. Peony offers a shining example of a brash convention hall-scaled Cantonese restaurant. Yes, they serve immense crab from the seafood tank and brittle-skinned suckling pig. But the menu is also a hybrid that defines Hong Kong cooking today: Muslim-style lamb with green peppercorns, Malaysian chow fun, Macao-inspired Portuguese custard tarts. In the mood for dim sum?All the dumplings are flawless, and don't pass up the loh bah—smooth turnip porridge doused with sesame oil and punctuated with crisp fried shallots. It's true that the servers aren't exactly foreigner-friendly, but it's gratifying to look up from your bowl of sweet broth afloat with tender fish balls and note that yours is the only non-Asian face in a sea of some 200 diners. 288-388 Ninth St., Pacific Renaissance Plaza; 510/286-8866; dim sum for two $25.
DOÑA TOMÁS To some, Cal-Mex means sludgy burritos and margarita-fueled happy hours. To others, it signifies the thrill of discovering an obscure East L.A. taco truck. Doña Tomás offers something else altogether: dutifully researched regional recipes, elevated by terrific ingredients. Pescado Veracruzana, where you'd normally expect to find boring red snapper, features meaty oyster-like halibut cheeks, and the ceviche has an unmistakable citrusy punch. A flourish of fresh chanterelles adds excitement to a green pozole gutsy enough to be applauded in the pozole-crazed state of Guerrero. And if the crusty, oregano-scented carnitas are even a notch above the ones at my all-time favorite fried-pork palace in Tijuana, that's because the boys at Carnitas Uruapan have never heard of stupendous Niman Ranch pork. Made up of adjoining storefronts and decorated with a tastefully folkloric flair, Doña's is the perfect spot to linger over a glass of fancy El Tesoro Paradiso tequila or a flan infused with rosewater. No reason to hurry back to San Francisco just yet. 5004 Telegraph Ave.; 510/450-0522; dinner for two $50.
SIX MORE REASONS TO CROSS THE BRIDGE
1 | Old Oakland Farmers' Market Bay Area foodies descend on Friday mornings for its amazing produce and unselfconscious air. Get there early to see local chefs stocking up. NINTH ST. AND BROADWAY; 510/745-7100
2 | Everett & Jones Grab soulful barbecued ribs and juicy links at this meeting place for Oakland's African-American community. DINNER FOR TWO $35. 126 BROADWAY; 510/663-2350
3 | Vi's Restaurant Slurp a bowl of sparkling pho (noodle soup) with tender duck or rare beef at an authentic Vietnamese spot. LUNCH FOR TWO $14. 724 WEBSTER ST.; 510/835-8375
4 | City of Oakland Walking Tours BEST VALUE Free tours of the turn-of-the-century Victorian mansions in Preservation Park and the Paramount Theater, a great example of California Deco, top our list. 510/238-3234
5 | A gondola ride Boating on 140-acre Lake Merritt—the country's oldest wildlife refuge—is the next best thing to being in Venice. FROM $45. GONDOLA SERVIZIO; 510/663-6603 www.gondolaservizio.com
6 | Black Panther Legacy Tour It's been 37 years since the Black Panther Party was founded in Oakland—see where the movement began. TOURS $20. 510/986-0660; www.blackpanthertours.com
Everett & Jones
A family-run soul food restaurant, Everett & Jones opened in 1973 and has expanded with multiple locations. The dining room of this Oakland site is casual, with Raiders pennants lining the walls and tables covered with plastic cloths. The specialty beef brisket is marinated and cooked over an oak-burning fire; other grilled options are smoked pork ribs, chicken, and all-beef sausage links. Accompanying sides include cornbread, baked beans, coleslaw, greens, and candied yams. Soul, blues, and jazz musical artists perform weekly.
Serving Italian-style breakfasts and lunches, Caffè 817 sits on a tree-lined street in Old Oakland and is decorated with the work of select Bay Area artists, such as painters Julie Cohn and Jennifer Perlmutter. The kitchen poaches eggs in a retro Italian steamer, serving them with toasted whole-wheat sourdough bread and corned beef that's cured in-house. During the noon hour, diners lunch on panini, like roast beef with crème fraîche, shallots, and horseradish or portobello mushroom with blue cheese and spinach. Unusual drinks include rosemary lemonade and Mr. Espresso coffees made from beans toasted in an oak-burning roaster.
An 880-seat banquet hall installed in the same Chinatown complex as the Asian Cultural Center and Library, Peony prepares Hong Kong-style dishes as well as an elaborate dim sum menu. The kitchen counts roasted suckling pig and crisp Peking duck among the dinner specialties, and the Peony's popular dim sum lunch regularly includes authentic dishes like pan-fried radish cakes, steamed pork buns, and lotus seed pudding. A few geographically off surprises frequently creep onto the expansive menu, such as Portuguese egg tarts. In addition to the gym-sized dining room, there's also a VIP room with karaoke.
With many of its Mediterranean, small-plate dishes cooked in a wood-fired oven, À Côté has become a fixture Rockridge restaurant. But amongst the seasonal variations—perhaps a sardine crostini with shallot-almond purée, or duck spaghetti Bolognese—a few staples remain: the salted French fries and aioli, wood-oven-cooked mussels in a licorice-like Pernod broth, and the olives marinated in-house. Seventy-five seats are set around a mix of small and communal tables, and there’s also a year-round heated patio. The wine menu lists dozens of vintages by the glass, all the better for pairing with the tapas-style menu.