Atlanta vegan finds home in Jack London Square
Chef Imani Greer received a late welcome to Jack London Square this weekend. Someone smashed the window at Roasted and Raw, his vegan restaurant on 2nd Street. But an indefatigable Greer takes a pragmatic approach to his life in the restaurant business. “If the roof isn’t on fire, you got to keep cooking,” he says. With the glass already fixed, he says, “We’re good to go.”
Greer grew up in Wisconsin, but arrived in Oakland last year after working in Atlanta. Looking for a place to open a Bay Area restaurant sounded like a risky game of musical chairs. Greer investigated different kinds of leases. Some restaurants had closed during the pandemic. Some were coming back, but could be sublet in the meantime. The chef said he toured more than 30 spaces before settling into the space in Jack London Square.
He opened Roasted and Raw in January, taking over the kitchen at Chop Bar’s first location. When the lease fell through after a couple of months, Greer reopened on 2nd Street at the end of March. Joining such restaurants as Vegan Mob and Malibu’s Burgers, vegans have more and more options to choose from in the East Bay. The chef says that his journey into the vegan world began when his brother encouraged him to start eating healthier.
“I blamed my physical and mental grogginess on my 14-hour shifts,” Greer says. Coming from Wisconsin, a state that’s known for its meat and dairy, he was very resistant to the philosophy at first. Then he started to notice his health improving. “I felt lighter on my feet,” he says. “It was the first time in my life I really started to understand digestion.”
Despite his restaurant’s troubled weekend, Greer says that the people who live around Jack London Square are “completely awesome.” Roasted and Raw now has about 30 or 40 regulars, which is a departure from his experience in Georgia. Here, he says, people are willing to pay for quality food and good service. They’re appreciative of the dining experience and generally share their experience with others. It’s the difference between passively being fed and actively enjoying a meal. “The culture in Atlanta is changing,” he says, “but they’re not there yet.”
Another aspect of being a California chef is having access to a wide range of produce. Greer’s astonished by what he’s able to buy at all the local farmers markets. “In Atlanta, I’m going to pay three times as much for the same beautiful mushrooms that you grow here,” he says. “I don’t think people in California realize how far ahead they are when it comes to quality ingredients—it’s unmatched.”
Greer has also begun to notice subtle differences between East Bay neighborhoods. “Towards sunset here, the breweries get a little business in the evening, but when it comes to actual restaurants, Jack London [residents] are more home-based,” he says. Greer believes that from 7–10pm Berkeley residents are more likely to be eating out. He’d like to see the amount of evening diners increase in Oakland. “I’m from Madison, and I’ve always said that Berkeley reminds me of home.” Because of his affinity for people in college towns, Greer has his eye on expanding into Berkeley. “I think our food would sell substantially more,” he says. In the meantime, vegans can try Greer’s bowls, pastas, burgers and wraps in the Square.
I took home containers of zucchini lasagna and the curry chickpea ragout. Bland isn’t an adjective I’d use to describe Greer’s dishes. Zucchini “noodles” are now commonplace, but I’d never had them as the base of a lasagna dish. The thin-but-tangy tomato sauce veered more toward Middle Eastern flavors than something recognizably Italian. As a lasagna, the slippery slices of zucchini had a tough time holding a shape together. But that might be attributable to the takeaway box. And there were at least five or six tasty components in the chickpea ragout. I’ve seen photos of the giant burritos, but on my next visit I’m going for a bowl of fresh, crispy falafel.