A thriving restaurant scene has put this East Bay city back on the traveler’s map. Here, the best places to eat, plus what to see and do right now.
It may not have the skyline of San Francisco or the culinary pedigree of Berkeley (yet), but this former industrial powerhouse is forging a new, edgier identity thanks to emerging neighborhoods, a buzzing nightlife, and a renovated waterfront that promises to become one of the most ambitious gastro-destinations in the country. In fact, if you judge a city’s appeal by its restaurants, Oakland just made the big leagues: in June renowned chef James Syhabout (formerly of El Bulli, Manresa, and the Fat Duck) opened the small and refined Commis, which just received the city’s first Michelin star. Now sophisticates are making the pilgrimage across the bay to eat and explore.
Next Great Neighborhood
A stretch of once decrepit waterfront has been transformed into Jack London Square, now Oakland’s go-to district, with a series of landscaped promenades, converted loft apartments, and an ever increasing number of restaurants. The most exciting openings are coming this fall: Chef Daniel Patterson of San Francisco’s Coi introduces the rustic Bracina, a cavernous dining spot with a wood-burning oven; then there’s Jack London Market (55 Harrison St.; 510/645-9292; jacklondonsquare.com), which will have a two-story food hall set to be the East Bay counterpart to San Francisco’s Ferry Building. Indeed, the two venues are connected by a boat service that crosses the bay in only 30 minutes. Next door to the ferry terminal, the recently renovated Waterfront Hotel (10 Washington St.; 510/836-3800; jdvhotels.com; doubles from $129) is a 1960’s motel–style property with 143 nautically inspired rooms overlooking the marina.
Chef and owner Syhabout’s Commis (3859 Piedmont Ave.; 510/653-3902; dinner for two $118) is a spare, albeit highly innovative, restaurant on a nondescript block of Piedmont Avenue (“across the street from Blockbuster,” notes the restaurant’s website). Simple names belie the complexity of each dish: for the cool carrot soup, roasted carrots are glazed with tarweed honey and garnished with nasturtium and coriander. Later this summer, Patterson and chef Jeremy Fox, formerly of Napa’s Ubuntu, will unveil the nearby Plum (2214 Broadway; 510/444-7586; dinner for two $40). On Telegraph Avenue (a.k.a. Oakland’s restaurant row), in the Temescal neighborhood, the tapas bar Barlata (4901 Telegraph Ave.; 510/450-0678; dinner for two $30) serves authentic small plates from Catalonia—pa amb tomàquet; patatas bravas—accompanied by an all-Spanish wine list. Farther north you’ll find Pizzaiolo (dinner for two $40), the acclaimed Italian restaurant from chef Charlie Hallowell, whose new Boot and Shoe Service (3308 Grand Ave.; 510/763-2668; dinner for two $30) is a pared-down pizzeria with an endless array of toppings (sausage, potato, and egg, to name a few). Weekend mornings, locals queue up outside the diner-like Brown Sugar Kitchen (2534 Mandela Pkwy.; 510/839-7685; brunch for two $30), where biscuits and glazed ribs are considered standard brunch fare. Oakland has a tradition of soul-food restaurants, and Picán (2295 Broadway; 510/834-1000; dinner for two $40) adds a twist to classics like buttermilk fried chicken—ask for a side of truffled honey to drizzle on top.
The spruced-up Oakland Museum of California opened its doors this summer after a $62.2 million renovation of architect Kevin Roche’s 1969 Brutalist building. Inside the expanded galleries, you’ll find a collection of some 900 Californian works, video installations, and sculptures, some of which date back to the 1800’s. Downtown, there’s Lake Merritt, surrounded by 3.5 miles of walking paths. If you’d rather explore by water, rent a kayak at the Lake Merritt Boating Center (568 Bellevue Ave.; 510/238-2196; rentals from $10). Don’t miss an afternoon cocktail at the Lake Chalet (1520 Lakeside Dr.; 510/208-5253; drinks for two $18), overlooking the water.
Oakland’s nascent nightlife scene centers around the revitalized Uptown. Its flagship is the Fox Theater (1807 Telegraph Ave.; 510/302-2250; thefoxoakland.com), a Moroccan-style pile from 1928 (neon marquee out front; gilded ceilings inside) that shuttered in 1966 and reopened last year as one of the best indie music venues in the country (the National and New Pornographers recently played). If you’re looking for a pre-concert cocktail, just up the street is the Art Deco Flora (drinks for two $18), serving innovative cocktails such as a Fish House Punch (rum, cognac, apricot liqueur, lemon, orange juice, and soda). At the warehouse-like Mua (2442A Webster St.; 510/238-1100; drinks for two $14), late-night revelers push aside the tables after dinner to dance.
The second annual Eat Real Festival (eatrealfest.com) takes place August 27–29 at Jack London Square. Expect a lollapalooza of street-food trucks and craft brewers—more than 30 microbreweries and 80 vendors, including 25 trucks.
Need a pick-me-up? Check out the recently opened Blue Bottle Coffee (300 Webster St.; 510/653-3394; coffee for two $6), close to Jack London Square. It doesn’t get any fresher than this: coffee beans are roasted on the premises.
Oakland’s cutting-edge boutique McMullen (4395 Piedmont Ave.; 510/420-6906; shopmcmullen.com) just unveiled a second location, where you’ll find 3.1 Phillip Lim dresses and Loeffler Randall shoes.
South of Jack London Square, Dashe Cellars (55 4th St.; 510/452-1800; dashecellars.com) hosts weekend tastings of its Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Petite Syrah wines.
Catherine Bullimore, Oakland resident and owner of café Subrosa Coffee (subrosacoffee.com), shares her favorite things to do in the city.
“For live music, go to the New Parish (thenewparish.com), an intimate, red brick–walled lounge.”
Oakland Museum of California
This collection of galleries, terraces, and gardens (collaboratively created in 1969 by architect Kevin Roche and landscape artist Dan Kiley) explores California art, social history, and natural history. The displays are charming, informative, and sometimes dated (some of the black-and-white photo murals look straight out of Jonathan Livingston Seagull). The art side of things is heating up, though, with the addition of senior curator René de Guzman—formerly of YBCA, where he was responsible for edgy shows like 2004’s skate-world-centric “Beautiful Losers.”
Tip: The first weekend in March, the Oakland Museum Women’s Board holds its annual white elephant sale—the biggest rummage sale in northern California. If you’re around in late January, don’t miss the preview (tickets at the door, $15).
Admission: $8 adults; $5 seniors and students; free for children under 6; free for all on the second Sunday of each month. Closed Monday and Tuesday.
The heritage hardware store sign still hangs beside this 83-seat pizzeria, where the chef is an alumni from the Chez Panisse kitchen. Worn wooden floors and exposed brick match the restaurant’s simple Italian food. Start with a cannellini bean soup loaded with Jerusalem artichokes, parsley, and spinach, and then move on to the thin-crust pizzas (perhaps a potato, rosemary, and pancetta pie with fontina cheese) or main courses that change with the seasons (like the braised pork with polenta, preserved lemon, and endive). Arugula, farm eggs, and Calabrian peppers make for unusual extra pizza toppings.