Any way you break it down, Plank is an impressive spectacle. The restaurant/beer garden/entertainment complex, which took over the old Barnes and Noble spot in Jack London Square this past fall, sprawls across 50,000 square feet, both indoors and out. The cavernous, warehouse-y interior boasts forty (count ’em!) flat-screen high-definition televisions, eighteen bowling lanes, and more Skee-Ball variants, ticket-dispensing jackpot games, and stuffed-animal-laden “claw” machines than I could count. Outside, at the edge of the large beer garden, three sand-filled bocce ball courts sit among artfully strewn lawn furniture: a slice of the Jersey Shore transposed onto the Oakland waterfront.
Did I mention that Plank serves food, too? The complex is the brainchild of the SoCal-based Trifecta Management Group, which runs several similarly ambitious and outsized dining and entertainment venues all over the country, so it should come as no surprise that the feel of the place is fairly corporate and suburban-mall-esque. On a spectrum of play-and-eat spots that has the hipster-gourmet stylings of San Francisco’s Mission Bowling Club on one end and Dave & Buster’s on the other, Plank skews toward the latter — except for its decidedly big-city prices.
The restaurant is not without ambition — promising, on its website, dishes “made from scratch daily, using locally farmed and always fresh ingredients.” Opening chef Jason Moniz and his replacement Axel Axelson, who took over last month, have developed a globe-trotting menu that’s meant to represent California’s melting pot of cultures: a pub’s standard selection of burgers and pizzas, but also tacos of various ethnic origin and a disproportionate number of Asian fusion dishes.
Much of the food was at least better than average. The soup of the day during one visit was a mild New Orleans-style seafood gumbo that was enjoyable enough, even if the chef’s choice of vegetables (why so much edamame?) was slightly odd. And the fundido, the best of the small plates I tried, was a fairly traditional, satisfyingly greasy Tex-Mex preparation: French fries, roasted poblanos, and a hunk of well-charred chorizo all luxuriating in a big vat of melted cheese.
When the menu traveled to Asia, things started to get a little rocky. Char siu pork tacos ($13) came topped with so much potently gingery “ginger scallion salsa” that it was hard to taste anything else. And while I ordered the pork “ramen” with the most modest of expectations, what I was served was still shockingly bizarre: not ramen noodles at all, but rather thick, flabby udon, with a poached egg cooked far beyond hope of a runny yolk, no visible “rich pork broth” whatsoever (despite the menu description), and, perhaps strangest of all, crunchy slivers of raw cucumber and daikon radish. The only redeeming thing was the pork itself — tender chunks of braised shoulder, most of which I brought home to repurpose. (Fortunately, it seems that others have already gotten the message across, as Axelson told me he’s taking the whole Asian noodle section off the menu next month.)
One of the problems, if you’re judging Plank strictly on its merits as a restaurant, is that there are too many places in Oakland that serve much better versions of the same dishes for roughly the same price. After all, $13 is only marginally less than what Ramen Shop charges for ramen. And while I never got around to trying any of Plank’s burgers, $12 to $14 a pop is a hard sell when Haven’s elegant version, available just a little further down on the waterfront, goes for just $15. And I never could quite bring myself to shell out $8 for a draft beer, even if the menu promised super-sized twenty-ounce “imperial” pints. (We ended up trying a $7 margarita, which was very large if not especially strong.)
You can have a decent meal if you stick to the less ambitious menu items. The pizzas, too, feature an array of internationally inspired toppings, but the flatbread-style crust — baked in the restaurant’s wood oven — isn’t bad. The one topped with mojo de ajo shrimp might be an offense to Cuba, but the shrimp were perfectly cooked, and the whole combination was tasty in the way that things drenched in garlic butter can’t help but be tasty. The chicken wings, probably the most popular item at Plank, were the best deal on the menu — plump, juicy, and crisp-skinned, especially if you pass on the traditional buffalo sauce and get them with the Old Bay spice rub.
And, despite the restaurant’s well-publicized opening-weekend woes (which have perhaps permanently submarined its Yelp rating), I found the service to be perfectly friendly and efficient, in a chain-restaurant kind of way.
Whatever you think of the food, it’s hard to capture the sensory overload that is part and parcel of a place like Plank: the blinking lights, the blips and beeps, the clatter of balls crashing into pins and intermittent click-click-click of a fiercely contested air-hockey match. Look in any direction, and you’re likely to see about nine of the aforementioned TV screens in your field of vision, including three of them sized as though for a giant. And I haven’t even visited Plank after 9 p.m., when it becomes a 21+ establishment and the vibe shifts from a soft PG to something approaching PG-13. (Or that’s what I imagine, anyway.)
I wouldn’t recommend that anyone go out of their way just to have dinner at Plank, but there’s a certain appeal to the fact that you can order food from anywhere in the room. As a place to be loud while you watch the big game on the largest screen you’ll find outside of a movie theater, while simultaneously bowling and stuffing your face with chicken wings? I’m fairly confident there isn’t a better place in town.