OAKLAND - When Michelin-starred chef Daniel Patterson was ready to expand beyond his two successful restaurants, Coi and Il Cane Rosso, in San Francisco, he decided to cross the Bay Bridge to Oakland. Patterson found the pull of this other city by the bay irresistible and moved here with his family in 2009. He opened Plum in the heart of uptown in 2010 and plans to open a second Oakland restaurant on Jack London Square later this year.
“I’m enthusiastic about Oakland for so many reasons,’’ said Patterson, a Boston native. “Oaklanders are very real. They care about the food, the experience, and that’s it. And the diversity is amazing.’’ He remembered looking out over Plum’s 28-seat dining room on opening night and seeing a rainbow of customers of all ages and persuasions. “Everybody was just hanging out together having a great time. That just doesn’t happen all in one place in San Francisco.’’
Oakland has had a lot of ups and downs since Gertrude Stein acidly remarked “there’s no there, there’’ about her hometown. Still demonized by its turbulent past, California’s eighth largest city has what Patterson called, “a huge public image problem.’’ “People still associate it with crime and race riots. Those images from the ’60s are still so vivid. But that’s not what should define Oakland today.’’
When Suzanne Loi left San Francisco a few years back to move her family to Oakland, her friends thought she was crazy. “They kept asking me, ‘Aren’t you scared?’ ’’ said Loi, who works at the Blackberry Bistro, a popular breakfast spot in the residential Glenview neighborhood. “I came here because it’s so much more diverse, and I wanted to connect to the Vietnamese community. Oakland just has a bad rep.’’
For Patterson, and many other chefs, Oakland represents the land of culinary opportunity, a more affordable place to stake a gastronomic claim. “There aren’t as many rules here,’’ he said. “You can deliver quality without the flash, pomp, and circumstance you need across the bay.’’
Separated by the 12-mile Bay Bridge, Oakland has long been the commercial and manufacturing hub to San Francisco’s art and culture mecca. Although farm-to-table goddess Alice Waters is just a few miles away at Chez Panisse in Berkeley, the notion that Oakland might be a dining destination in its own right was laughable until a few years ago. But visit Oakland today, and it’s clear that the food scene has spread all over town.
The reasons are varied: Sky-high real estate across the bay pushed many artists, including chefs, to the East Bay during the dotcom boom. Many chefs who made a name for themselves in San Francisco or trained under Waters live in Oakland and like the idea of working closer to home and cooking for loyal locals.
Many chefs are also inspired by the city’s tremendous ethnic diversity, which means that customers are open to new tastes. Daniel Olivetta, who owns Barlata in the Temescal along with a restaurant across the bay, said he can put authentic Spanish dishes on the menu here that are too exotic for San Francisco diners.
Urban renewal projects begun under Jerry Brown when he was mayor (1999-2007; he is governor now) are another driver, turning a once desolate urban landscape into the bustling Uptown Entertainment District. Michael LeBlanc was one of the first restaurateurs to venture uptown, opening Picán, a swanky spot for fine Southern cuisine, in 2009. He recently expanded the restaurant from 135 to 185 seats to keep up with demand. LeBlanc moved from Boston to his wife’s hometown in 1998, after working for Polaroid for 26 years. “I wanted to do something different, something entrepreneurial. There was room for that here. People who live here are fanatical about Oakland.’’
“Oakland is our Brooklyn,’’ said Tanya Holland, who opened Brown Sugar Kitchen, a farm-to-table “evolved soul food’’ restaurant in the West Oakland warehouse district three years ago. Here, near Interstate 880 freeway, a 20-block stretch of Mandela Parkway is landscaped with a center median park, a grassy swath that attracts tattooed dog walkers and senior citizens soaking up the sun on benches. Charlie Parker, the former chef de cuisine at Patterson’s groovy Plum, echoed the “Oakland as Brooklyn’’ idea. “It’s more affordable here,’’ he said. “We’re at the stage where Brooklyn used to be before it got gentrified, up and coming, but not quite there yet.’’
“And why not Oakland?’’ said Sandie Smario-Alison, concierge and “chief food taster,’’ at the tony Claremont Hotel, a grand dame classic that literally straddles the Berkeley-Oakland border. Smario-Alison has been on a nonstop eating track since starting her job less than a year ago. “With the economy making San Francisco so expensive, there’s been all kinds of activity here. I can’t keep up with all the new places. And more are opening every day.’’
Eating by neighborhood
It takes 10 minutes to get just about anywhere in Oakland. The city is compact and easy to navigate. Start with these tasty spots, and come hungry.
This middle-class area is experiencing a revival along Telegraph Avenue, a business corridor bustling with shops and restaurants. Modern Mexican rules at Doña Tomás, a neighborhood gem in a former industrial space. 5004 Telegraph Ave., donatomas.com, $7.25-$19.25. Pizzaiolo, at the forefront of the restaurant renaissance, delivers authentic Neapolitan pizza along with terrific homemade doughnuts at breakfast. 5008 Telegraph Ave., www.pizzaiolooakland.com, $7.50-$26. Seriously authentic Barlata serves real deal tapas and a great wine selection. 4901 Telegraph Ave., www.barlata.com, $4-$20. Lines form out the door for the chicken and egg salad sandwiches at both Bakesale Betty locations. The sweets are also divine. 5098 Telegraph Ave., 2228 Broadway, www.bakesalebetty.com, $2-$7. Burma Superstar serves fresh Burmese cuisine, spicy fare influenced by Cambodia, China, Laos, and Thailand. Get the tealeaf salad. 4721 Telegraph, www.burmasuperstar.com, $5-$17.
Just two years after the Fox Theater reopened, this area is stretching up to 25th Street, between Broadway and Telegraph. Michael LeBlanc’s Picán is terrific, a fresh take on Southern comfort food in a stylish setting. 2295 Broadway, picanrestaurant.com, $7-$35. Daniel Patterson’s Plum is a gutsy homage to all things local with addictive bites such as seared squid and chilies on toast and braised pork shoulder served with roasted escarole, peaches, and homemade spaetzle. 2214 Broadway, www.plumoakland.com, $9-$22. Located in a former garage, Mua’s 6,500-square-foot space is all grit and artsy industrial. Great small plates and cocktails. 2442 Webster, www.muaoakland.com, $6-$28. Adjacent to the Fox, Rudy’s Can’t Fail Café is a rock ’n’ roll-themed diner co-owned by Green Day bassist Mike Dirnt. 1806 Telegraph Ave, iamrudy.com, $3.25-$12.95.
At this residential ’hood on the edge of Berkeley Rich and Rebekah Wood opened Wood Tavern after working in San Francisco at Rubicon, Farallon, Harry Denton’s, and Scala’s Bistro. This is a comfort spot, a place where everybody really does know your name. 6317 College Ave., woodtavern.net, $7-$28.
Located near the northeast corner of Lake Merritt, this area includes a surprisingly serene downtown lake. Boot & Shoe Service, another gem from Pizzaiolo owner and Chez Panisse alum Charlie Hallowell, with an emphasis on inventive pizza toppings. Nettles anyone? 3308 Grand Ave., bootandshoeservice.com, $7.50-$20. Camino, with its communal tables, wood-burning oven, and open kitchen, delivers very good, eclectic, seasonal California cuisine. 3917 Grand Ave., www.caminorestaurant.com, $10-$27. Another creation from San Francisco chefs crossing the bay, Sidebar offers creative bistro fare in a cozy neighborhood setting. 542 Grand Ave., sidebar-oaktown.com, $5-$19.
JACK LONDON SQUARE
This busy tourist destination has shopping and dining along the waterfront. Bocanova, Rick Hackett’s sister spot to his Market Bar in San Francisco, offers creative Pan-American cuisine and views of the Golden Gate Bridge. 55 Webster, bocanova.com, $3-$32. Chop Bar is the rare neighborhood spot in a touristy part of town, offering affordable and tasty locavore fare and a smart wine list. 247 4th St., #111, www.oaklandchopbar.com, $6-$22. Yoshi’s has been around forever, and it’s still good. Great bar scene, sushi, and jazz. 510 Embarcadero West, www.yoshis.com/oakland, $5-$35.
This upscale residential neighborhood is home to Bay Wolf, a pioneer of California cuisine. Commis and chef James Syhabout received a Michelin star for his beautifully composed foraged fare after being open only a few months. He has since opened Hawker Fare for Thai street food uptown. 3859 Piedmont Ave., commisrestaurant.com, $68. Dopo and James Beard Award-winner Adesso are owned by chef Jon Smulewitz and offer some of the best Italian in town. 4923 and 4395 Piedmont Ave., www.dopoadesso.com, Dopo $8-$20, Adesso $2.50-$17.