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Where to Really Go in Oakland

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Every week we'll be asking you to come with us to some of our favorite small towns and cities—and we'll show you the places, secret spots, and nooks we love. 

Today: The unabridged, local’s guide to where to eat and drink and be outside in Oakland.

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All hail the kouign ammans from Starter Bakery and Japanese barware mecca Umami Mart.

Have you heard? Oakland is “up and coming” and “the new Brooklyn.” Everyone’s moving there, “getting in on the party.” While Oakland may not be the world’s greatest secret anymore, the Google buses in the neighborhood I lived in for two years didn’t get to me because I had spots that felt special, that felt like mine (and, okay, hundreds of others, too—Oakland’s not huge, which is a plus). These are the spots that are run by familiar faces—or creative people who you want to be friends with. They’re homespun and presented with care, if a little worn around the edges sometimes. They (typically) don’t involve a many-hour wait, either.

So whether it’s your first or tenth time visiting Oakland, start with these spots (the short list, the tried-and-trues, and the deep cuts), then tell me which others you stumble upon. There’s always a new place that just opened, or a well-cared-for old haunt, waiting to be adored.

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Let's start with the short list, the essentials (that may not be what you've been told before):

Skip Bakesale Bettys; go to Beauty's Bagels.
Bakesale Betty’s fried chicken sandwiches are good. Beauty’s Bagels’s fried chicken sandwiches, down the road, are better. Full disclaimer: I moved to my apartment in Temescal largely because of its proximity to Beauty’s. And the decision was worthwhile: Their Montreal-style bagels (meaning they’re hand-rolled, boiled in honey-water, and baked in a wood-fired oven) were a considerable percentage of my diet—whether topped with veggie cream cheese and sprouts and salted cucumber or egg and cheese or, as I’m supposed to be talking about here, fried chicken with beet slaw.

The chicken portion is not skimpy and will require some maneuvering to fit into your mouth, but it’s neither dry nor oily. And then there’s the creamy beet coleslaw with hits of cilantro that brighten the whole thing up. And need we forget that we’re eating this thing on a very, very good bagel—everything was always my bagel pick, partly because there’s a generous amount of whole fennel seeds in their everything mix. The food at Beauty’s is worth the visit, but it's also a good place to settle into. Even during its busiest moments, it never feels like you’re being rushed out. You might just order another bagel. 


The New Parkway

First Friday of the month? Don't go to Art Murmur; see a film at The New Parkway.
Travel guides will tell you to go to Art Murmur the first Friday of every month. While every Oakland and Berkeley resident is cramming into art galleries, go to a movie at The New Parkway instead. The theater is housed in a 1970s warehouse not far from Auto Row. Your seat could be a couch, chair, plushy rug, booth with dining table—all ostensibly thrifted from the sidewalk or otherwise. It feels like you’re watching a movie—some new releases, other oldies but goodies—on a huge screen in your artist friend’s industrial loft with a couple dozen of your closest friends. There is good beer, good snacks (including pizzas), and especially good popcorn fixings: Top your plastic bowlful of popcorn with nutritional yeast, Bragg’s liquid aminos, and Sriracha, just like you might at home. Rumor has it they’re playing free shows outside on the side of the warehouse through the summer. Go check it out for me, will you?

Pass Fenton's and snag an It's-It instead.
Instead of ice cream with a pricetag at the landmark Fenton’s, walk into any grocery or liquor store and snatch an It’s-It or three. The original It’s-It (named after someone’s exclamation after trying the first one in 1928) is vanilla ice cream sandwiched between two thick oatmeal cookies and dipped in chocolate. They’ve since expanded to chocolate, mint, and cappuccino flavors, and sometimes have fun “seasonal” ones (they released pumpkin in June, as a summer flavor—just because).

Maybe you’re thinking, “oh, so it’s an ice cream sandwich.” No. There’s something about the oatmeal cookie texture that makes biting so seamless; the cookie breaks down and folds into the ice cream as if it’s a crunchy topping. And the ice cream doesn’t slack, either. (The mint, which you wouldn’t think would be good with oatmeal but really is, tastes like fresh mint.)

  
Oaktown Spice Shop and Mountain View Cemetery

Instead of strolling around Lake Merritt, hit up Oaktown Spice Shop, then do your strolling at Mountain View Cemetery.
Lake Merritt’s perimeter has nice walkable areas, and then you run into one that’s inhabited by pigeons. If you end up by the lake, skip the walk and visit Oaktown Spice Shop, where you’ll leave with fifteen more spices than you thought you needed. Then, roam in Mountain View Cemetery—and get the best view of the bay to boot. This cemetery might as well be called Oakland’s Park. Go up up up to the top, where you can soak up a stunning view of the bay, Oakland, Berkeley, and, on a rare clear day, Marin. The cemetery is so eerily quiet that you might just want to stand still, but keep walking: You may find a bed of tulips or a mausoleum or a view that's better than the last.

More: Can't make it to Oaktown? Their spices are in our Shop.

Pass up Brown Sugar Kitchen for brunch and head to Mama's Royal Cafe.
Brown Sugar Kitchen requires a three-hour nap after eating (which comes after a three-hour wait for a table). Instead, cut that nap and wait-time in half and brunch at Mama’s Royal Cafe. It has been serving classic American breakfast food made from quality, local ingredients out of a former Chinese restaurant for over forty years, so you’ll be eating eggs benedict under the gaze of a dragon sculpture—and napkin art. Mama’s even has an annual napkin-art contest with prizes; win and you could get a spot on the wall.

Skip the Ferry Building Farmers Market in favor of the Old Oakland Farmers Market.
You could head across the bay for the Ferry Building Farmers Market, the Disneyland of farmers markets. Or, you could have an equally unique market experience at the Old Oakland Farmers Market. There’s this special part of Downtown Oakland right next to Chinatown that doesn’t look like the rest of of the area: Buildings from as far back as the 1860s have been restored and house quaint shops like Umami Mart (a Japanese bar and kitchenware store where I would like to outfit my entire home bar). But every Friday, the streets shut down and a farmers market sprouts up. You'll find seasonal produce du jour, sure, but you can also grab loads of Asian vegetables (some familiar and some likely mystifying). Part of the fun is trying to discern what's what.

Oakland has more; Oakland has options. Here are the great spots you might have read about but are actually worth going to (sometimes the path is trodden for a reason):

  • Homeroom: First of all, it’s homeroom-themed! There is a chalkboard and library cards that serve as punch cards for frequenter eaters. Second of all, it’s a mac and cheese restaurant! Pick from the Mac the Goat, the Gilroy Garlic, or one of the other mac flavors that’s served in individual ceramic vessels. Eat it, perfectly cheesy and gooey, with a Snake Bite (cider and stout). You probably won’t have room for a Grasshopper Pie, but just try. Because you’re a kid again at Homeroom, and your eyes are bigger than your stomach.
  • Burma Superstar: This spot gets slightly-upscale Asian food right. I crave the Samosa Soup, a spiced swamp of samosas and falafels and lentils and cabbage, as well as their Sesame Tofu, which might as well be called Vegetarian Orange Chicken. If you can, do take out. You’ll get to skip the wait, and I’m convinced the portions are bigger.


Cafe Van Kleef

  • Cafe Van Kleef: Walk into what look likes a hoarder’s third warehouse—you could call it quirky or kitschy, eclectic, divey, or stressful. Spend all night making out the vintage swords and accordions and other knick knacks behind the polar bear taxidermy and ceramic women’s busts—and drinking Greyhounds. Don’t think about ordering anything else. I'd say they squeeze roughly 15 grapefruits in a glass, add some vodka, and then top the whole thing with a quarter of a grapefruit. Take a sip and be reminded that sprightly drinks need not include syrups and herbs and a cherry on top. Pro tip: Ask for snacks. Cheez-Its and Chex Mix have both made appearances.
  • Temescal Alley: Okay, so you’ll gasp at the wait for a haircut at the barber shop and the price of a small air plant at Crimson, but you just need to take a stroll down the alley. You’ll find a lot of itty bitty artisan shops selling clothing, jewelry, home goods, plants, herbs and teas, ice cream, and doughnuts that are fun to look at and expensive to purchase.

  
Pizzaiolo and Blue Bottle's W.C. Morse location

For morning food and latte art:

  • Pizzaiolo: You’ll hear about their pizza, but go for breakfast for espresso and impeccable pastries (and such good toast, topped with honey and ricotta or almond butter or cinnamon-sugar). The space is gloriously romantic at night, but during the day, it feels casual yet motivating—where you want to go to work or meet a friend for coffee.
  • Blue Bottle's W.C. Morse location: This could also be called Coffee Church. The design-minded owners of Blue Bottle renovated the historic W.C. Morse Building on Auto Row so you’ll walk into a beaming marble-strewn space with mid-century pieces and an elegant coffee bar. Gussy up to the bar, where you’ll find a menu more plentiful and experimental than at any other Blue Bottle (harkening back to the workshop history of the space). My favorite find: a Cascara Fizz, which involves cascara tea (made from the dried skins of coffee cherries), sparkling water, and a wedge of lemon—think a funkier Arnold Palmer.
  • Subrosa: Grab your morning Four Barrel coffee and sit out on the parklet at this closet-sized coffee shop. It could be just another “modern industrial” coffee shop with small-batch beans, but they got my business way too many mornings because of their kouign ammans from Starter Bakery and vegan donuts from Pepples. These are two of the best pastries I found in the Bay Area (San Francisco included, people).
  • Arbor: When you need to hole up all day at a coffee shop, this is where you should go. Many a college paper has been written by me in this cafe, which has a hodge podge of furniture and people and always plays good music—but always at a level that’s amenable to focusing.

  
Woods

For outdoor drinking:

  • Woods: This new-ish beer and wine bar has a vibe you can settle into. It’s located in the heart of the Uptown district on Telegraph, an area you could make a night of: Start early at Woods, go to dinner at any of the restaurants you can see from the outdoor seating area (with a fireplace), get a Greyhound at Cafe Van Kleef (see above), then see a show at The Fox. (Switch up order according to how you like your Friday nights.) The space is as modern and well-curated as the taps: Woods serves a small list of their own house-made beer, some guest taps, and empanadas. There’s one with Yerba Mate and bay and citrus that I’ll be going back for.
  • Lost and Found Beer Garden: This bar is a good bar not because of its beer, though I’m sure a beer person would tell you it has a good selection. This is the beer garden I’d choose among the many that are cropping up in the Bay Area because of 1) its bar food. It’s plentiful and diverse and just interesting-enough (think ramen funnel cakes and kimchi deviled eggs). And 2) the garden: There are plants, but also games (ping pong, corn hole, hula hoops), heat lamps (this is the Bay area), and ample seating.
  • Beer Revolution: There is loud music and beer nerd-punks who can explain all the bottled and on-tap beers to you. Sit outside, then when you’re hungry, go next door for vegan soul food at Souley Vegan.


Shan Dong

For cheap eats:

  • Shan Dong: I’m proud to be recognized at this restaurant that serves “Spicy Meat Sauce Hand-Pulled Noodles” and $1 red bean buns and is BYOB (if you bring your own cups?). If you go with a group, you can eat until you can no longer eat and somehow the bill is still $9 a person.
  • Tacos Mi Rancho: You eat the tacos or burrito on a curb—typically, in my case, after a few drinks at the above and maybe some cheap beer. You will likely be told by a security guard you are too loud and rowdy. But with food this good, and cheap, consider the inconveniences part of the bargain.
  • Wally’s: You won’t be able to see this restaurant from the street: You can access it through a street-facing, “regulars only,” red-lit dive bar called The Bank Club, or follow the alley down the side of the bar past its dumpsters. What awaits is a U-shaped counter (no tables) with the kitchen in the middle, where a husband-and-wife couple serve very good, piled-high Lebanese food (and some Mexican dishes thrown in—the wife is from Mexico). The burritos use schwarma meat (brilliant, no?), the plates include all the fix-ins you want (hummus and pita and rice and and and), and every meal starts with a light lentil soup and ends with addictive baklava, flaky and sticky, sweetened by orange blossom syrup.

See all of our favorite places on the map below. Did we miss anything? Let us know in the comments where you visit in Oakland!

Tags: california, oakland, bay area, travel, restaurants, bars