Hunan Restaurant is, spoiler alert, a hunan-style Chinese restaurant. It is also a fully stocked bar, a repository for all sorts of strangeness, and one of the most reliably awesome places to drink in all of Oakland.
None of which you’d know by the outside, which is profoundly unprepossessing. Hunan Restaurant is stationed on the corner of Webster and 11th streets, at the graying border between Chinatown and Downtown, across the street from East Bay MUD and the University of California Office of the President. Outside, “Mandarin & Szechuan Cuisine” is stenciled on the side of the building — but the second half has been grafittied over, so it just says “Mandarin &.” Inside, it’s expansive and schizophrenic and almost always empty. Framed posters of Tsigntao and Budweiser bottles adorn the walls, and the whole place feels less like a restaurant than some kind of bizarre hoarder’s paradise. The corridor to the bathroom is lined with boxes and broken-down furniture; entire dining-room tables have been colonized by papers, potted plants, and industrial-size bags of fortune cookies; and near the kitchen, there’s a carton containing exactly one bag of dried beans, one package of diapers, and a street sign, like a half-finished earthquake kit or maybe a prop box for some hipster improv show.
They’re not in the process or moving or remodeling, either; no, this is just Hunan Restaurant in its perfect, natural state. When you walk in, there will be a murky aquarium full of live turtles and lobsters to your left and maybe, inexplicably, a stack of oranges and three teacups resting on the floor near the entrance. It’s not quite a dive, because “dive” usually implies some kind of intentionality, a tiny germ of care, even if said care ultimately yields an uncared-for feel. Hunan Restaurant is something even better and realer, because it exists in a universe where restaurants are named in the most straightforward way possible and oranges sit on the floor not to prove some kind of art-bar point but simply because someone left them there. If it’s not abundantly clear yet, I am completely obsessed with this place.
The bar is a small, orange-walled, mercifully space-heater-enhanced little nook, separated from the main dining room by a fish tank and looked over upon, incongruously, by a lodge-style taxidermied deer head. There is no music. But there are two TVs and full menu access, which, during the day, means cheap and unaccountably delicious lunch specials to be eaten and Nancy Grace to be watched; at night, it’s big bowls of hot and sour soup and Jeopardy!. The drink selection is small but entirely adequate — all your standard liquors, bottled beer only — and it’s presided over not by a dedicated bartender but by a tiny middle-aged woman, one half of the husband-and-wife ownership team. Not that it matters, because to go to Hunan Restaurant for top-shelf cocktails would be to miss the point entirely. Conversation moves lazily among patrons, with a heavy emphasis on various conspiracy theories, because: of course. (Ultimate conclusions: Fluoride-enhanced drinking water is inarguably suspicious; Chemtrails are totally real. Nothing makes sense here.) Between sips of brown liquor, a woman in a furry leopard-print hat shares pictures of her grandchildren with anyone who will look, and a man in a fedora and sunglasses gets up every five minutes or so to amble around the restaurant, objective unclear. (You get the sense that neither of these are uncommon occurences.)Behind them, the fish flap along happily.