It seems like every year, some major publication comes out with the definitive piece on why Oakland is so up-and-coming or how it’s the next big thing, declaring it “The Next Brooklyn” or “The Most Exciting City in the Country”. My personal favorite was its #5 ranking in The New York Times’ “The 45 Places to Go in 2012”, just behind London and beating out Tokyo, the Maldives and the #20 ranked Space. As in… outer space.
Coming from the Times’ #4 (London) a few years ago, I wasn’t thrilled with the prospect of eschewing San Francisco’s exorbitant rents in favor of Oakland’s relative affordability. Growing up between New York City and San Diego and spending a good portion of my 20’s in London, I had grown used to living in world-class, international hubs and the variety of culture, food and pace that came with them. Oakland’s own Gertrude Stein once famously put down her hometown by declaring “There’s no there there”, and with that in mind, I arrived prepared to get across the bridge as soon as possible.
Oakland has a way of growing on you though. The climate alone averages 10 degrees warmer than San Francisco on any given day, and if you live close to BART, it’s faster and easier to get to the Mission, the Financial District or SoMa for dinner than it is if you’re coming from Russian Hill or the Marina. And if you’re anything like me – proximity to great food is critical.
The Grand Lake farmers market near Lake Merritt (widely acclaimed as the best in the East Bay) is something I personally look forward to all week. On any given Saturday, throngs of people descend under the picturesque Grand Lake Theater landmark to scoop up local produce and perhaps a tamale or hot dim sum from one of the food stalls. Joggers trace the lake on their weekend 5K, navigating the path around tightrope walkers, families with strollers, soap box protestors, aspiring rappers, as well as countless species of birds and the occasional otter – all of whom call this surprisingly bucolic part of Oakland home.
The restaurant scene continues to grow ever more exciting, and it seems like there’s a new wine bar, beer garden, fusion bistro or concept restaurant opening every month. Ordinaire and the (soon to be re-opened) Punchdown continue to dazzle and educate even the most sophisticated city-dwelling oenophiles. The service, wine lists and cuisine at Duende, Boot & Shoe Service, Itaba, Homestead, A16 Rockridge and Wood Tavern would feel right at home in any major metropolis.
For bars where ‘everyone knows your name’ (or at least you’ll soon feel like they do), no watering holes feel more like home away from home than Cato’s Ale House on Piedmont (go when Adam’s behind the bar, and never on Mondays unless you want to wrestle my team for a table on their insanely popular trivia night) and Easy Lounge on Lakeshore. Easy would be a scene if it were in San Francisco, especially on Saturdays, when bartender Eric whips up inventive seasonal cocktails using fresh ingredients from that day’s farmer’s market around the corner. Instead, patrons are mostly locals and they hang out playing Jenga at the bar while enjoying the free wifi and help-yourself gratis cayenne popcorn.
For some real Oakland flavor, Sunday brunch is the way to go. At the Caña Cuban Parlor & Cafe, you can pair your arepas benedict with an authentic mojito and sensory feast of live Cuban music that has patrons salsa dancing until the sun goes down. ‘Diner-chic’ Hopscotch is great if you’re looking for some Japanese flair with your egg sandwich, and Brown Sugar Kitchen is a southern soul-food local institution. I dare you to not order chef Tanya Holland’s famous chicken & waffles (especially after that cocktail-infused hour-long wait for a table).
Those willing to “brave” the culinary treasure that is East Oakland (it’s really not that bad) will be rewarded with some of the most underrated Latin American and Asian flavors in the Bay Area. Whether it’s the array of sit-down pupusarias that cater mostly to homesick El Salvadorians, the endless options of authentic $3 banh mi shops that dot International Blvd (Ban Mi Ba Le reigns supreme) or the best pho you’ve ever had at Pho Ao Sen, your Mission friends will be left speechless.
My favorite East Oakland experience was the day I knocked on the door of a locked, non-descript kitchen door in pursuit of acclaimed Indian food in the dodgy neighborhood behind the Coliseum. An elderly couple ushered us to one of the two plastic patio tables they had set up next to the open kitchen, before locking the metal door behind us for safety. They then proceeded to cook our order entirely from scratch while we grew intoxicated with anticipation and olfactory overload (there was of course nothing else from which to get intoxicated). It took two hours for lunch to arrive, but was it the best malai kofta I’ve had in California? Of course.
And finally, you can’t forget Alameda. It’s an island so public transport is tricky, but the blackberry/bacon/blue cheeseburger from Scolari’s (washed down with a cold beer next door at Lucky 13) is almost worth renting a car for.
So - if you find yourself faced with that ever-so-common Sophie’s Choice between visiting Oakland and experiencing outer space, you should probably still go for space (I mean, really). But hyperbole notwithstanding, I think if Gertrude Stein could come back and experience Oakland as it is today, she’d be pleasantly surprised by all the ‘there’ that can now be so easily found…there.