Bangs For Your Buck: Oakland USA
Miranda York visits an ex-gangster’s paradise that’s transforming into a very reasonable culinary hot spot.
At passport control, the customs official raises an eyebrow when I mention my destination. “You’ll see,” he says slowly, “you’ll see.” This doesn’t do much to allay my fears. Oakland’s a city full of gangs and guns, right? I’ll be mugged on every corner and forced to join the South Side Locos. But it’s all in the name of journalism so I rally on. Such dedication.
Driving over the Bay Bridge from San Francisco, the sights do little to cheer me. We pass shabby industrial estates, dusty car parks and abandoned warehouses. When we reach Jack London Square, the streets are deserted. I start to panic and imagine I’ve been transported to some kind of post-apocalyptic nightmare. With zombies.
Of course, Oakland hasn’t been abandoned, it’s not ruled by gangs (well, not all of it), and zombies only feature occasionally at the Piedmont Theatre, or in flash dances on Halloween (this happened; it was amazing).
Oakland is a city in flux. It’s had a tumultuous past full of industry, immigration, post-war unemployment and uncontrollable spates of crime. But times are changing, Twizzlers of regeneration wind through the city. It’s exciting. It pulls at your curiosity and draws you in.
So after realising my life isn’t in danger, I turn to the most important task in hand: lunch. Wandering the wide, empty streets, I don’t have much luck. But of course, Oakland is the kind of city where you have to search for your supper. Restaurants, bars and attractions aren’t clustered in the centre in one convenient, tourist-ridden package. Local knowledge is essential.
Chinatown is a good place to start. You’ll struggle to find a menu in English but dumplings are cheap and plentiful. If soul food is what you crave, it has to be Picán, where it’s all about the fried chicken. And bourbon, lots of bourbon. On Telegraph Avenue (a.k.a. Oakland’s restaurant row), the tapas bar Barlata serves small plates from Catalonia accompanied by an all-Spanish wine list. Farther north you’ll find Pizzaiolo, the acclaimed Italian restaurant from chef Charlie Hallowell, whose new Boot and Shoe Service – a pared-down pizzeria – is packed every time we pass. Grand Avenue is home to Sidebar, Grand Tavern, and the acclaimed Camino, by Chez Panisse alum Russell Moore. And in Old Oakland, the historic food hall Swan’s Market has undergone a recent makeover, now sporting a quaint Mexican café called Cosecha and Sarah Kirnon’s Caribbean soul food spot, Miss Ollie’s, next door.
In 2009, Oakland made the big leagues: renowned chef James Syhabout (formerly of El Bulli, Manresa, and The Fat Duck) opened the small and refined Commis, which received the city’s first Michelin star. And to add to the fine dining mix, Chef Daniel Patterson of San Francisco’s Coi introduced two restaurants: Plum and Haven. Despite such an illustrious selection, I opt for a local diner, mainly because two cops are eating there and it makes me feel like I’m in the movies again, minus the zombies.
It’s the eclectic dining scene that tempts most San Franciscans to make the pilgrimage across the water. It’s also the main catalyst for regeneration. Yet a growing cluster of artists and entrepreneurs are also making Oakland a unique shopping destination. So I steer clear of the tourist tat and buy all my souvenirs from Temescal Alley, a row of former horse stables just off Oakland’s 49th Street, which has become a destination for Bay Area artisans and designers. On my return, the contents of my suitcase thus include: hammered brass bracelets from Marisa Haskall, ceramic flasks cast from leather gunpowder pouches from Crimson Horticultural Rarities, teas and tinctures from Homestead Apothecary, and vintage books and magazines from Book/Shop. I’m not 100% sure the sweet treats from Doughnut Dolly will survive the transatlantic flight so I promptly scoff a hand-filled Mexican chocolate number there and then. And an apricot jam one too, for research purposes.
If a day is all you have in Oakland, the only suitable ending is sushi and jazz at Yoshi’s. Not your classic combination, not even close, but the Spicy Dragon rolls, hot sake and Gypsy Jazz played by Stephane Wrembel that evening are perfection.
Now I’ll admit many of my Oakland explorations do not fit with the luxe traveller lifestyle. And the city is woefully lacking in upscale accommodation (The Claremont Hotel & Spa is the only place worth looking at). Yet there’s something quite charming about this city. Those in the know are touting it as the Brooklyn of the Bay Area – be the first to discover it.
Visit visitoakland.org for more information. There are no direct flights from the UK into Oakland International Airport but if you fly into San Francisco International it’s an easy BART (Bay Area Rapid Transport) ride into Downtown Oakland.