Oaklanders love Oakland. Let’s begin with that understanding.
On a visit to ‘The Town’, as the city is familiarly known, it’s nearly impossible not to take notice of the affection that the city’s residents bear for their municipality. It is an almost visceral pride that rivals that of Chicagoans and New Yorkers. In fact, so deep is their love for their hometown that Oaklanders have coined the label ‘Oaklandish’ as a term of endearment to define the unique way they do things in the other City by the Bay. And it is perhaps this vibrant spirit that explains the city’s ongoing transformation.
There is clearly something afoot in Oakland these days. Call it buzz, call it revitalization or call it whatever you like, but there is no denying that contemporary Oakland is a city that has woken up with an awful lot to talk about after what some might call a decades-long slumber.
Just as Brooklyn has, in recent years, burnished its own identity as the new cool kid among New York City’s family of boroughs after years of playing the less-polished understudy to glitzy Manhattan, so is Oakland rising out of the shadows of its own illustrious neighboring metropolis to cultivate a reputation as more than an addendum to a San Francisco itinerary but instead a full-fledged destination in its own right. And this is in no small part thanks to the changing demographics on the foggier side of the Bay Bridge.
Nothing, as they say, breeds change like necessity. So, In a twist on an all too familiar tale of urban evolution, it comes as little surprise that as a cavalcade of newly minted tech millionaires have flooded San Francisco with a the tidal wave of cash, they have effectively washed many of the city’s non-millionaires across the Bay where they have been welcomed and, I dare say, encouraged in these ever-evolving times. The net result of this band of fresh arrivals has clearly been a burst of new life combined with a welcome renewal of sorts tor the city.
Whereas after my last visit to Oakland some 10 years ago, I would have characterized the city as sleepy, post my most recent visit I could not describe the vibe of Oakland as anything other than alive in every sense. Hipsters stroll along once forgotten streets now lined with swanky, modern lofts. Artist galleries and collectives dominate the heart of the city. Dilapidated theatres have found renewed life as proper entertainment venues and a bevy of celebrated young chefs have, in recent years, set up shop in Oakland, reinforcing the city’s prominence among America’s culinary meccas.
To the last point, Oakland’s culinary scene is perhaps one of its most impressive assets and is alone enough to justify a visit. Standing tall amid the city’s fierce epicurean competition is out, former Top Chef finalist Preeti Mistry’s casual and intimate Juhu Beach Club, where the flavors of India get a thoroughly modern twist. Among the more tantalizing starters on the menu is the addictive combo of sweet, salty, spicy popcorn, peanuts, pistachios bearing the name “Desi Jacks”; the crispy, sweet and sour Manchurian cauliflower; and the Masala Papadum served with English cucumber, pickled red onion, cilantro and chutneys – all of which are actually vegetarian options and so memorable that even a confirmed carnivore like myself would make a meal of them. That said, there are also plenty of options for more carnivorous diners including a whole chicken leg marinated for 24-hours in fresh turmeric and a mouth-watering selection of street food sandwiches known as Pavs stuffed with everything from pulled pork to braised short ribs. That all this magic happens in the comfortable unpretentious environs of a strip mall is only an added bonus.
Back to mouthwatering, West Oakland’s Brown Sugar Kitchen may well be the best soul food restaurant in the Western United States, if not all of America. With her eatery, which has garnered universal praise while simultaneously rejuvenating the formerly declining neighborhood in which it resides, classically trained Executive Chef and Owner Tanya Holland has not only created a venue at which patrons happily cue to enjoy signature menu items like Buttermilk Fried Chicken and Cornmeal Wafﬂes served with brown sugar butter and apple cider syrup, Smoked Chicken and Shrimp Gumbo and Blackened Catfish, she has inspired her own signature iteration of New Soul Food cuisine by using only organic ingredients in a manner that is no lighter on flavor than the traditional ways that they have been employed in the past. I was honestly a bit skeptical of the place at first, being a bit of a soul food aficionado myself, but as it was recommended by nearly every Oakland resident I encountered, I submitted and was more than pleasantly surprised that I did, as it is, in addition to being a supremely delicious experience, also something of melting pot where all of Oakland seems to convene.
Other notable dining experiences include Grand Lake Kitchen, a popular spot on Lake Merritt with a major weekend brunch buzz, A16, a local gem serving modern Italian fare situated in the bustling Rockridge neighborhood, and the romantic Paragon, which in addition to delivering staggering views of the Bay set against equally stunning sunsets, also enjoys the luxury of being housed in what is among the finest, most historic properties in Northern California – the Claremont Hotel and Spa –which though actually located in Berkeley, qualifies as Oaklandish according to locals. Finally, I’m pretty sure that it is some sort of fineable violation to visit Oakland and not sample Oaktown’s very own Chinatown which is jam-packed with delectable treats for which you need a guide to properly explore. Enter Savor Oakland’s Chinatown Tour which fits the bill quite perfectly.
If there is a buzz word in Oakland it’s ‘inclusion’. Whether tripping through Rockridge and exploring the countless pleasures offered up by the local eateries and the forever and always dazzling food emporium that is Market Hall, which is something of a foodie paradise; Cruising around Jack London Sauare; a hub of shopping, nightlife and all things fabulous in the city in addition to being home to the legendary Yoshi’s Jazz Club; Checking out the art scene courtesy of Oakland Art Murmur, a monthly happening that regularly draws crowds of more than 20,000; or popping into Café Van Kleef in Uptown, where RuPaul’s Drag Race nights play well right alongside nightly sports-themed events, Oakland’s message is a big and hearty “Welcome” to one and all.
There is little doubt that it is the dawn of a bright new day in Oakland. The real question is who will be casting a shadow on whom in the not so distant future.
Find out more about Oakland at www.visitoakland.org.