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.
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.
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.)
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.
Cafe Van Kleef
For outdoor drinking:
For cheap eats:
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!