When Piedmont Avenue’s Homestead stopped serving diners at the start of the 2020 pandemic, the owners created the Humble Sandwich. That temporary takeaway solution—to serve customers and keep the doors open—is now a full-time replacement. Homestead closed its fine-dining doors earlier this summer, but the daily sandwich menu is still available five days a week. Although this is only one example of a restaurant that changed its entire approach, the Humble Sandwich did appear to be a bellwether. Fine dining appeared as if, for the foreseeable future, it would be unsustainable for the proprietor and less desirable for customers.
But downtown Oakland’s Tribune opened for business with one eye cheerfully and willfully shut, defying the pandemic’s restaurant trends. Chef Omri Aflalo describes the reincarnation of the former Tribune Tavern as a bustling American brasserie, “where Oakland meets France.” Aflalo and his business partner Darrin Ballon may not own the building itself—it belongs to Doug Abrams—but they have a stake in the restaurant. “We are the operations,” Aflalo says. “All the thought processes going into it, from the bones to the menu, have been agreed upon by all parties.”
Aflalo says that Abrams’ eyes lit up when the chef suggested that Tribune should emulate Balthazar, Minetta Tavern or Frenchette. “He was like, ‘Oh my God, you’re talking about my home, about New York,’” Aflalo says. Oakland, he believes, is becoming the new Brooklyn. Thanks in part, the chef notes, to Mike Ghielmetti, the developer behind the Hive and the Brooklyn Basin. “I think it’s fitting that this restaurant can be where you go for happy hour or on special occasions,” he says. “You can come here week after week, and it’s not stuffy.”
Tribune is not stuffy, but it’s not a casual diner either. The menu I tried during its soft opening was fussier than what a typical brasserie menu has on offer, with one or two or three too many ingredients per dish. That initial menu has since expanded, but some of the original items remain. One starter, a tomato and melon salad, included fresh burrata, lemon cucumber, cilantro and a toasted sunflower-seed gremolata. The finely cut squares of tomato and melon weren’t engaged in open conflict, but neither were they speaking to each other. I would have ditched the melon and the bitter gremolata altogether.
Also remaining on the menu—the unfortunate shape and chewy texture of cavatelli. Of the hundreds of thousands of pasta types to choose from, cavatelli, I find, is one of the least appealing. The dish’s brown sauce, composed of wild mushrooms and hazelnuts, didn’t do much to revive or brighten up the pasta. Since my visit, there are newly added, brighter-sounding starters to choose from instead, such as the corn bisque or a chopped salad.
Aflalo acknowledged that starting Tribune during Covid-19 was an act of bravado. In the planning stages, he sat down with his partners and they all thought, “The world’s turning upside down. The restaurant industry is dying. Do we really want to do this?” At the time, Aflalo was a private chef, working regular hours and making a comfortable living. But he’d been working in the restaurant industry since he was 16. “I couldn’t let 20 years of experience go by the wayside,” he says. Additionally, the team felt as if “Oakland was getting lost in the dust of the Bay Area.”
While some chefs have gained local and national acclaim—Aflalo mentions Dominica Rice-Cisneros of Bombera, Scott Eastman of Juanita & Maud, and Nelson German of Sobre Mesa—he feels that Michelin stars, with notable exceptions like Commis, go to chefs in San Francisco, Napa and Palo Alto. “We thought Oakland needed to be revived,” he says. “We need to put Oakland on the map.”
Hence the name of Aflalo and Ballon’s second Oakland restaurant, Town Revival, which is on the verge of opening in another of Abrams’ downtown buildings. At Town Revival, Aflalo says, the menu will change more rapidly and revolve around what’s at the market from day to day, but “elevated, elegant, on a par with tasting, menu-style restaurants.” Whereas Tribune’s brasserie concept is meant to be more consistent for returning diners.
Aflalo is optimistic about Oakland’s economic and dining prospects. Tribune offered him and his partners the opportunity to showcase their food and begin “getting into the community and really giving back to Oakland and really raising that bar.” Town Revival will allow them to take what they’ve learned about the people who are eating out downtown, and “take it even further.”
[Ed. note: The Humble Sandwich is now permanently closed.]