A little more than two years ago, some observers were announcing the death of the San Francisco restaurant scene. The city went dark, they suggested, just about the middle of 2009, the same time James Syhabout opened Commis on Piedmont Avenue. Not long after that, big-dog critic Michael Bauer declared the most exciting restaurants west of Treasure Island to be a couple of neighborhood bistros, Frances and Marlowe.
The city that counted its former glories in Minas seemed able to muster little more than fifty-seat dining rooms serving pretty good roast chicken.
Even Bauer began looking longingly east, hella hearting Uptown and Rockridge, blogging, “Oakland is on fire.” And though he lives in San Francisco, Bauer crowned himself a virtual Oaklander. “Since I live close to the Bay Bridge,” he wrote, “I can be at many of [Oakland’s restaurants] in less time than it takes me to travel to North Beach and park, making them practically a neighborhood destination to me.” Meanwhile, the Express — understandably — was fanning Oakland’s blazing new status, tagging the city of Syhabout in a September 2009 cover story for its Taste issue, “America’s next great dining town.”
Of course, anyone who loves Oakland knows it’s a great place to eat and, with pending projects like Daniel Patterson’s Haven (and recently launched ones like Damon Gallagher and Jesse Branstetter’s Vitus), it’s getting greater all the time. But in the excitement of 2009, even with Commis, Flora, and Camino, Oakland didn’t exactly become the new San Francisco. Then, six months after that Express story ran, San Francisco was seeing the beginnings of a high-end restaurant boom it hadn’t witnessed since the late-1980s, back when Herb Caen was sputtering about the dollar cup of coffee at places like Stars and the Washbag, Benu, Prospect, Atelier Crenn — though investment bankers and biotech moguls laid low during the zenith of the Great Recession, slipping into polo shirts to go eat Korean tacos with the tattooed kids at Off the Grid, they were back, unashamed and ready to spend.
And Oakland: Well, we didn’t hear any more about Michael Bauer rocking his Oaklandish T-shirt, gunning the Benzy across the bridge to his “neighborhood” in the 510. The story about Oakland being America’s great new dining capital was as cashed as an Oaksterdam blunt.
Which makes this moment, two years after San Francisco’s restaurants were prematurely logged as dead, just about right for assessing what’s alive and kicking about Oakland’s.
1. Bartenders who will actually make you a drink.
Deploy your visual Vulcan death grip all you want at a San Francisco bar: Dude with the handlebar mustache and tweed cap is going to notice you when he’s damn good and ready. Meanwhile in Oakland, a low-key place like Hudson has Alex Conde — one of the Bay Area’s unsung bar stars, a protégé of 15 Romolo’s Scott Baird — behind the stick, who will engage with you and make you a great cocktail.
2. Age diversity.
Go out to eat in the Mission above the age when you look wholly desperate in skinny jeans, and you can feel like some sad-ass cougar who should be home watching a Peter, Paul, and Mary special on PBS. But glance around Pizzaiolo, say, and on any given night you’ll see a mix of kids with neck tattoos, silver-haired guys in sweaters, and moms slipping out back to breastfeed. Talk about cosmopolitan.
3. Unpretentious staff.
Though I make my living eating out, I sometimes get spells of paranoia — like, is the cool-looking Nopa busser with awesome glasses and gym toning thinking I’m some bridge-and-tunnel douche for wanting an ice bucket for my Beaujolais? But at places like Hawker Fare in Oakland, I’ve never felt servers were anything other than eager to get me what I’ve asked for, even when it meant tweaking the normal presentation of a dish. That’s good training, plus a welcome lack of diva drama.
4. A connection to neighborhoods.
Maybe it’s what happens in a city with more than its share of dark moments, but eating out in Oakland can feel like an act of urban renewal. Show up at one of the Saturday dinners at Cosecha, and you get the sense you’re not only helping hard-hustling chef-owner Dominica Rice get her own restaurant off the ground, but also pitching in to support a struggling Swan’s Market, and even Old Oakland itself. Except when buying from vendors associated with the nonprofit La Cocina, I’ve never felt that in SF.
5. Small businesses.
The demands of startup capital are fierce everywhere, but slightly less prickly in Oakland. That means a neighborhood izakaya like Piedmont Avenue’s B-Dama can find a footing here, and afford to keep the vision small and personal.
6. Approachable chefs and owners.
Perch at Plum’s counter, and you can have a few words with chef Charlie Parker as he puts the finishing touches on plates nearly as elaborate as Tibetan sand mandalas (just, uh, don’t distract him). And though he probably wasn’t happy about it, Mua owner Hisuk Dong stood and took it one night as a customer bitched that he should change his menu once in a while. When have you ever had a chance to say that to Michael Mina?
Kids? There are no kids in San Francisco, unless by “kids” you mean the 22-year-olds smoking weed in Dolores Park. Besides, even they’re not welcome at Zuni, even if they do agree to sit quietly with crayons and color.
8. Affordable menu prices.
In San Francisco, “affordable” means $30 entrées, and don’t forget Healthy San Francisco, for which many restaurants loudly jack up the bill by as much as 4 percent to make sure their workers get health coverage — a worthy end, sure, but making it a line item (rather than reflecting it in menu prices) is an irritating display of passive aggression. And, anyway, in Oakland, a $30 entrée qualifies as pricey.
9. Food-craft startups.
Sure, San Francisco can count some great beer makers, picklers, preservists, and at least one fantastic soda maker, but relatively few food artisans can afford to start in the city. From Montreal-style bagels to pickled green beans, and from jam to jerky, Oakland is where the Bay Area’s next great generation of food businesses has the room to take toddler steps, and where established companies like Blue Bottle and Hodo still feel at home.
10. Fruitvale, Fruitvale, Fruitvale.
All the BS some of us spout about food having the power to bring people around the table? You’ll find it only intermittently at places where sitting around the table costs a minimum of thirty bucks per head. Where you will find it is Fruitvale, where on weekends, especially, families gather for vivid and thoroughly unpretentious food, some of it unerringly delicious. Plus, for anyone who wants to help small, sometimes struggling business owners make a dollar, Fruitvale represents raw entrepreneurship at its most American. The Mission? Many small business owners were priced out long ago. If Fruitvale isn’t the kind of neighborhood destination Michael Bauer praised Oakland for back in 2009, I don’t know what is.