Eyes on the Fries

Is Downtown Oakland finally becoming an evening destination? Dozens of food and nightlife entrepreneurs are betting on it.

Granted, the timing was unfortunate. When Real Restaurants, which owns a dozen Bay Area eateries, launched Caffè Verbena, the corporation’s first East Bay venture — in September 2001 — the elegant Oakland City Center restaurant was open for lunch and dinner. Despite favorable press, which heralded Downtown Oakland’s arrival as a dining destination, Verbena couldn’t seem to attract an after-hours crowd. The owners halted dinner service for several years, then tried again two years ago, with far better results. “We had our best month ever in August,” reports Bill Higgins, one of the partners.

But existing downtown restaurants finally making good isn’t the story. As Mayor Jerry Brown’s plan to house ten thousand people in the area slowly comes to fruition, and entrepreneurs who once would have invested in San Francisco are fleeing that city’s high costs, there’s an explosion of new restaurants in the neighborhood — from casual places like Louisiana Fried Chicken and Cock-a-Doodle to sleek upscale bistros such as Maxwell’s, Tamarindo, and B. According to city marketing manager Samee Roberts, thirteen galleries, six clubs, fourteen bars, eleven cafes, and close to forty restaurants have opened in the area flanked by 27th Street and Embarcadero, between Webster and Jefferson streets, in the past few years. From city planners to renters, a lot of people are optimistic that the spark won’t fizzle this time around.

Lunch has always been good for downtown restaurants — the city’s 75,000 workers have to eat somewhere. But for years the area, with the exception of Chinatown and a few small pockets, has remained deserted at night. This is common to all urban business districts, but in San Francisco, tourists fill the seats when office workers go home. In Oakland’s downtown grid, however, there are only six hotels and motels, and both fear of crime and a lack of evening activities have historically kept diners away.

Perhaps not anymore. One of the biggest success stories has been Luka’s Taproom, a Belgian-style restaurant-bar-club on Broadway at West Grand Avenue. Both hipsters and suits fill Luka’s booths night after night, filling up on pork loin with herbed spaetzle and goblets of Ommegang Witte. Managing partner Rick Marshall initially thought the year-old restaurant, which is open continuously from lunch through the wee hours, would rely on downtown workers for the bulk of its business. “We knew we’d definitely be able to do lunch and happy hour, and then with the nightclub, we’d be able to attract a different crowd,” he says. But since month three or four, dinners have proved solid, too. Marshall estimates that three-fourths of his evening crowd is from Oakland, and many patrons come from nearby neighborhoods.

Newer restaurants are starting to catch some of the same buzz. When Misty Rasche, Kevin Best, and Don Harbison, owners of Boxed Foods Company in San Francisco’s Financial District, were looking for a second venture, the trio spotted a vacancy on the corner of 9th and Washington streets. Despite knowing that a succession of restaurants had failed at that location, the trio fell in love with the spot. “It’s just a perfect space for a restaurant,” Rasche says. “And with the growth in the area, it was great time to be a part of Oakland.”

Brian Kendall of the Oakland Redevelopment Agency soon approached the partners, offering grants to help them renovate the space and improve the facade. Their suave, airy restaurant, called B, opened for lunch at the start of August and for dinner Wednesdays through Saturdays one month later. “Friday night you can’t get a table,” Rasche reports. “The other nights are rapidly growing, and word of mouth is spreading.”

Kendall is one of the key players in Oakland’s campaign to attract and sustain new restaurant and entertainment ventures. An urban planner, he joined the agency five years ago, taking over its Facade Improvement Program, which gives matching grants to downtown businesses to improve their exteriors. Two years ago, he launched the Tenant Improvement Program, which offers $100 per square foot to businesses seeking to move into spaces that have been vacant for six months, so long as Kendall approves of the business plan. “I’m looking for owners with five years of management experience as well as people who sign leases for three or more years and can generate sales over $200 per square foot,” he says.

“I’m a Darwinist,” he adds. “These things start out organically. People open art galleries, then artists start looking for bars. Then you start to attract greater crowds with more income.” Seeing Downtown as the East Bay equivalent of San Francisco’s boho-swank Valencia Street, Kendall tries to help businesses look “as savvy as possible.” He cites Luka’s, the Uptown rock and blues club, and the jet-setting Air Lounge (still under renovation) as his greatest coups.

Kendall’s budget is now $2 million a year. To date, the Tenant Improvement Program has distributed $425,000 in grants to local restaurants, Kendall says, spawning $2.7 million in private investment. “The program has helped a total of 49 businesses, which has dropped the retail vacancy rate 60 percent,” he says, from 25 percent vacancy down to 12 percent. His goal is to lower the rate to 5 percent by attracting another 25 to 50 businesses to the area over the next two years.

Restaurateur after restaurateur highlights the growth of the housing market as key to their decision to open in the area. All 6,600 of the housing units needed to meet the mayor’s Downtown Housing Initiative are now in the works. Nicole Neditch, co-owner of Mama Buzz, a two-year-old cafe-cum-gallery at 24th Street and Telegraph Avenue, is confident that residents are bringing new wealth into the area permanently. “I was skeptical when I first saw the condos near us being built,” she says. “They’re selling one-bedrooms for $350,000, but they filled up within days.”

Until all that housing fills up, the city has also developed “Meet Downtown Oakland,” a marketing campaign to attract locals, tourists, and businesses. “We wanted to capitalize on the momentum we saw and get more people in the restaurants and downtown during the evenings and weekends,” says Samee Roberts, who coordinated the campaign. The marketing office has printed 100,000 copies of a 25-page brochure listing restaurants, bars and cafes, and cultural destinations, and has already distributed 90 percent of them in Oakland magazine, at events such as the Art & Soul fest, and to a company that places tourist materials around the Bay Area. The campaign includes BART signage, a Web site — MeetDowntownOak.com — and branded trinkets. The city can continue to promote its downtown, Roberts says, but much of its success is now up to the businesses. “They’ll need to keep up marketing and outreach and grow their audience,” she says.

The one part of Downtown relatively untouched by all this new development has been Oakland’s Chinatown, which apparently thrives on its own. According to Kendall, Chinatown’s vacancy rate is so low that none of the spaces qualify for the Tenant Improvement Program, and Jennie Ong, director of the Oakland Chinatown Chamber of Commerce, says it’s already among the city’s most vital neighborhoods: “Because of other services such as grocery stores, the neighborhood has a life of its own, and always has, even when the rest of the city wasn’t doing so well.” Nevertheless, she welcomes any Downtown revival with the recognition that Chinatown would benefit as well.

Buoyed by Luka’s success, meanwhile, Marshall is looking to expand into a nearby panini bar and possibly another nearby restaurant, and is finding it trickier than he expected. “It’s hard to get into a spot, because everyone’s so optimistic,” he says. “Landlords are looking to hold on to their properties until rents go up.” Plus, despite being able to demonstrate $2.5 million in first-year revenues, Marshall finds lenders are still reluctant to invest in Downtown Oakland.

Optimism, after all, doesn’t guarantee success. Neditch of Mama Buzz is organizing a merchants’ association in Uptown, the area northwest of City Center. “We’re all trying to get together to protect the neighborhood,” she says. “There’s a lot of development, but a lot of business owners are concerned. Why are we inviting new businesses here when there are people still getting mugged on the corner every night? We’re telling the city, if we want to get people down here at night we need proper lighting, more parking, and more of a police presence.” Still, she adds, “it’s amazing how many more places there are to walk to in the neighborhood.”

Rasche, of B, is considerably more exuberant. “Oakland’s hot,” she says.

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