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.