In the East Bay last year, well-trained high-end chefs have been slumming it, with startling results. Other chefs took classic foods and gave them a fresh coat of paint. Ethnic specialties were shaped by colliding cultures and shifting standards. Meat was simultaneously revered and rejected. Farm-to-table continued to influence everything. The beat goes on.
The food scene here — sprawling, rangy, and often self-contradictory — dares you to define it. After a little study, you might be able to pin down some trends, but you’re really just sketching the edges of a rough-shod silhouette. Look at these ten newcomers, and feel the East Bay shrugging off a quick label.
After years manning the kitchen at Michelin-starred Commis , James Syhabout launched a new project in Uptown: Hawker Fare (2300 Webster St., Oakland, 510-832-8896, HawkerFare.com), a righteous and reckless send-up of Thai street food. The rice-bowl menu swirls around memories of Syhabout’s childhood kitchen, with whiffs of the immersion circulator hinting at his high-end pedigree. In its aggressive spicing, its defiance of expectation, and its straight-up street elegance, Hawker Fare is a child of Oakland.
At Doggy Style Hot Dogs (1234 Park St., Alameda, 510-521-5555, Doggy-StyleHotDogs.com), Wasabi mayo, Persian cucumbers, and blue corn tortilla chips lend boutique flash to the oft-maligned tube steak. In a tiny neon-painted storefront in downtown Alameda, uncle and nephew team Michael and Milton Pang tinker away at sometimes-aggressive, sometimes-elegant new recipes and combinations. Like the Dogzilla: a caraway-specked pork bratwurst, soft and mild, topped with cabbage slaw, teriyaki sauce, wasabi mayo, and a thicket of marinated seaweed.
The Guest Chef (5337 College Ave., Oakland, 510-658-7378, TheGuestChef.net), brainchild of a property developer with no food background, garnered national buzz by offering a Rockridge kitchen and dining space to a new chef every two weeks. Short-termers have ranged from a Mexican grandmother with no professional cooking experience to a Michelin-starred chef, soon to open a permanent spot in San Francisco. Diners need to keep tabs on The Guest Chef’s social media to see which stints are worth a visit, begging the question: Can a restaurant survive on a business model of impermanence?
Cosecha (907 Washington St., Oakland, 510-452-5900, CosechaCafe.com) is Dominica Rice’s new farm-to-table Mexican experiment, combining solid Latin cookery with the Bay’s trademark sustainable sourcing. Cosecha’s Panisse-influenced fare (heritage Berkshire pork, organic eggs, etc.) is stripped-down and simple, but it conveys ethereal complexities that dazzle the palate. Breathing fresh, peppery life into Old Oakland’s achy bones, Cosecha nails that elusive balance between tradition and innovation.
Consider Bowl’d (1479 Solano Ave., Albany, 510-526-6223, BowldSolano.com) like a Korean tutorial for the Western palate. Bay Area native Jessica Oh created the bright, accessible spot as a demystification center, a way for non-Koreans to ease into the bibimbap pool. The food (think kimchi, noodles, broths, and barbecue) is comforting and highly customizable, and the patient servers won’t judge any mispronounced words. Also: unlike typical Korean meat slogs, there’s a panoply of veg-friendly choices.
San Francisco tempest in a teacup Ike’s Lair (2210 Broadway, Oakland, 510-338-6789, IkesLair.com) just stormed its way into Oakland with a new sandwich shop in Franklin Square. Owner Ike Shehadeh maintains a vast arsenal of hefty, dude-friendly gutbombs (See: “The Womanizer” and the “Menage a Trois”), juiced up with Ike’s garlicky Dirty Sauce. Like its Uptown neighbor Bakesale Betty, Ike’s is no stranger to rabid fans and lines around the corner. Maybe that’s why Shehadeh is throwing down the gauntlet — he called his new fried-chicken sandwich The Bakesale.
The Rockin’ Crawfish (211 Foothill Blvd., Oakland, 510-251-1657, The RockinCrawfish.com) is a uniquely American hybrid, a Southern-style seafood joint created by South Asian immigrants on the Gulf Coast of Texas. It melds the Cajun seafood boil with traditional Vietnamese feasts, resulting in a loud, audacious restaurant, where Asian twentysomethings congregate over cheap beer and spicy seafood by-the-pound. While graffiti and rock memorabilia lines the walls, crab, crawfish, and shrimp shells litter the floor (no utensils needed).
This year witnessed an uptick in East Bay bars offering chow that far transcends chips, pickles, and jerky. The carefully conceived, thoughtful menu at the new nightspot Vitus (201 Broadway, Oakland, 510-452-1620, VitusOakland.com) is a striking example. Chef Jesse Branstetter (formerly of Chop Bar) zests lemons, stews brisket with red wine and whole oranges, and mixes mayo from scratch, infusing a surprising degree of refinement into all his haute pub grub. The food is then served in a dark, cavernous rock venue, where the focus is cheap beer and raucous live shows.
Pikanha’s (25 West Richmond Ave., Richmond, 510-237-7585, Pikanhas.com) is the East Bay’s only churrascaria, a rapid-fire gorge-fest where stoic, implacable waiters shave nearly a dozen rotating meats onto your plate until you cry mercy. This family-owned spot is an affordable entry in the all-you-can-eat steakhouse genre, where quantity trumps quality and small appetites are a liability. Pikanha’s caters both to Richmond’s significant Brazilian population and to meat gluttons of all stripes.
Kitty-cornered across the street from Pikanha’s is vegan restaurant Symphonie (199 Park Pl., Richmond, 510-236-2118), with a proselytizing “Eat Vegetarian” sign visible through Pikanha’s window. Symphonie is part of Supreme Master Ching Hai’s rollicking global empire (some would say cult), a cousin of the Golden Lotus restaurant in Oakland. Like other Ching Hai operations, it serves up traditional Asian soups, rice, and noodle dishes, but also excels with analogue meat crafted from soy and wheat gluten. Symphonie and Pikanha’s opened around the same time on the same Point Richmond block, proving all are welcome under the East Bay’s big tent.
Update: A previous version of this story misspelled chef James Syhabout’s name.