By Michelle A. Sieling
Oakland has been known as the red-headed step-child of the Bay Area, long out-shined by its glamorous sister across the San Francisco Bay. But in the past few years Oakland has seen a renewed interest in the flavors the city has to offer.
Though the Temescal neighborhood has grabbed most of the spotlight recently, Jack London Square and downtown are seeing an uptick in new eating and drinking establishments, catering to palates in search of the latest in California cuisine or new takes on Latin and Asian dining, and more. And many of these establishments are located in well-loved historical buildings of the last century, quirky industrial settings or along the waterfront. For locals and out-of-towners, it’s worth giving the area a second look.
You can make a visit to these neighborhoods an easy overnight trip. On weekend afternoons, there are a number of tasting rooms open in the Jack London Square area, including Urban Legend Cellars, whose flavors push the limits of what we expect from American wines in a good way, especially ones created in an industrial area. Their award-winning wines include everything from Amador Valley Syrah to Lake County Sauvignon Blanc to a Clarksburg Tempranillo.
The tasting rooms of Cerruti Cellars and JC Cellars are also located in the same area, but if beer is more your style, there’s Beer Revolution, a laid-back bike friendly beer garden where you can choose from more than 48 constantly rotating craft brews on tap and hundreds of bottles. Next door housed in an old train station is The Olde Depot, where you’ll find more beer, but also a pub menu that caters to both carnivores and vegans.
Speaking of bikes, if you want to ditch the car while you wine taste, rent a bike at Bay Area Bike Rentals. They’ll also provide you with a lock, helmet, lights and a map so you can get on your way safely.
Downtown Oakland is relatively flat and there are a lot of well-marked bike paths that take you along the waterfront. There’s also an easy loop around Lake Merritt, but if you’re ambitious, ride out to the new Bay Bridge bike path. The old bridge is still in the way of some of the view and you can’t ride out to Treasure Island just yet, but you can still get a good vantage point where you can take in scenes of the East Bay.
If you’re into water sports, kayak, canoe and paddleboards are available for rent at California Canoe & Kayak on Jack London Square. If you prefer the saltwater tidal lagoon of Lake Merritt over Oakland Middle Harbor, Lake Merritt Boating Center has everything from paddleboats to sailboats. Keep in mind, though, that it is a cash only operation.
Once you’ve worked up an appetite, it’s time for dinner. There are a number of choices in Downtown and in Jack London Square.
One of the forerunners of the growing Uptown dining scene is Flora, a restaurant and bar housed in the Art Deco building that was once the Oakland Floral Depot. Its eye-catching exterior of silver and cobalt glazed terracotta mirrors the artfully created food inside. This includes a daily changing menu of items like a grilled New York strip steak with roasted new potatoes and creamed beet greens with a red wine sauce or local black cod with white bean puree, green beans, turnips and baby shitake mushrooms with a black vinaigrette sauce. They are also experts in handcrafted cocktails, like the classic Dark & Stormy, but also drinks like Carter Beats the Devil, made with tequila, lime, agave, bird’s eye chile and mescal.
Also in the Uptown neighborhood is Hopscotch , an upscale diner serving regional American food with a Japanese twist, like Double-Down chicken wings with chili-miso and blue cheese. The space is tiny, though, so reservations are highly recommended, especially on a weekend.
If you want a more relaxed menu, like shepherd’s pie or fried chicken, there’s the Tribune Tavern, located in the former Oakland Tribune building downtown. It still features some of the original 1920s features and décor, like a phone booth in the back hallway, and tin ceilings.
Back on the waterfront at Jack London Square is Bocanova, where you can sit on the back patio overlooking the harbor and munch on small plates of Pan-American cuisine, like Day Boat sea scallops with a Brazilian curry sauce or Heirloom Squash Salteado with Mexican mint, dried chipotle, toasted pumpkin seed butter and cherry tomatoes.
While not a bustling downtown at night, there are a few great venues for live music, like the Paramount Theatre, whose Art Deco design is a viewing event in and of itself. More contemporary bands regularly play the recently restored Fox Theater, and jazz enthusiasts will love Yoshi’s, which also features a Japanese restaurant if you want to have the full dinner and a show experience in one place.
When you’ve worn yourself out, there are a limited number of sleeping options. On Jack London Square, there’s the Waterfront Hotel, part of the Joie de Vive chain. It has a boutique feeling and offers water views from many of the guest rooms. There are a few business/tourist-class hotel choices downtown on Broadway also, such as the Courtyard Oakland Downtown and the Oakland Marriott City Center.
If you have time for a leisurely breakfast, steps from the Waterfront Hotel is Lungomare. The restaurant offers brunch menu of eggs and sweet breads, but also lighter lunch fare, like pizza with fresh mozzarella or Italian, Indian or vegetarian Panini served with arugula salad. They are also known for their fresh seafood and pastas if you visit later in the day. You can dine in the outdoor seating area along the marina, or indoors where some of the tables look out over the bay towards San Francisco’s skyline.
If you visit on a weekday, check out Rio California for lunch. It carries Brazilian staples like the classic black bean stew feijoada and chicken croquettes called coxinha, but other Central and Latin American treats like jerk chicken and empanadas. It’s located in the historic Preservation Park, a preserved two-block Victorian neighborhood of 16 homes that now house businesses and event centers, which is worth a quick stroll on its own.
If you go, Oakland is easily reachable by car, BART, train or even ferry, and once you get to downtown, there’s the “Free B” shuttle that runs down downtown’s main street, Broadway, and runs until 1 a.m. on the weekends.
Feature image courtesy of Tribune Tavern.