Live! From Oakland’s Uptown District
2014 will mark my 27th year living in Oakland. When I moved here, my neighborhood was rough and tumble. I used to describe it as the Wild West. Every now and then you’d hear gunshots, and some of the locals were rather disreputable.
I first started noticing demographic changes in the mid- to late 1990s. Real estate prices were soaring in San Francisco, forcing people out. Some of them found their way to Oakland. You know who the first group to arrive was? Lesbians. That’s when I knew my ‘hood was in for some good changes. Look what Lesbians did for Hayes Valley. They went there in the 1980s, when Hayes was all prostitutes and junkies. Now it’s one of S.F.’s hottest neighborhoods.
Following the Lesbians to my neighborhood came the gay boys, DINKs as we used to call them (double income, no kids). They had plenty of disposable income, with few places to spend it in Oakland. Entrepreneurs took note: in the early 2000s came the first wine bars and a sprinkling of interesting new restaurants. With the good economy of 2002-2007, restaurant and wine bar launches increased their pace. Jerry Brown, who was our Mayor from 1999-2007, heavily promoted the development of downtown, which had been wrecked in the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake; with his economic development program came shiny new condominium towers. More restaurants, wine bars, night clubs and entertainment venues followed the money. Suddenly, my neighborhood was rocking. Realtors gave it a flashy new name: Uptown.
Then the Great Recession hit. It was pretty devastating to San Francisco restaurants, but Oakland actually benefited. Chefs forced out of their restaurants crossed the Bay Bridge and opened places in Oakland, where rents were much cheaper. The food and wine prices weren’t as high in Oakland as in San Francisco, which brought diners in. Today, Uptown is perhaps the most thriving restaurant zone in the Bay Area. Every week, it seems, a new one opens up. And Uptown’s demographics continue to change. We’re now seeing an influx of young couples, often with little kids. These are people who don’t want to spend half their lives in a car on the freeway, commuting from the ‘burbs to their offices. They want to live in a vibrant, thriving inner city, close to BART and buses. (The 19th Street BART station in Uptown is three stops away from the Embarcadero station in San Francisco. One stop further and you’re at Montgomery Street, in the Financial District.)
Here are some of my favorite local restaurants. Come on down for a visit!
Boot and Shoe Service is awesome, attracting a colorful Oakland crowd. Hip, casual, fun and affordable, it has some of the best cucina rustica in town. My fave: any of the pizzas, topped with a gooey, poached farm egg. Prices are moderate.
Hawker Fare is the second restaurant from Michelin-starred James Syhabout [Commis]. The storefront used to be a cheap Thai restaurant owned by his mom (I loved their fish cakes). When she retired, James opened Hawker Fare. It’s just a neighborhood joint, but with James’ inventive world touch. And it’s not expensive.
Some people don’t like Ozumo because it’s part of a chain, but I find the contemporary Japanese cuisine delicious and creative. This is a glamorous restaurant, and they do a good job with sushi. After dinner, I like to head next door to Pican, the city’s premier Black upscale restaurant, for their classic Bourbon cocktails. (Fortunately, I can walk home!) Pican has got to be the most romantic late-night joint in town.
My friend Solomon co-owns the Ethiopian-themed Ensarro. You wouldn’t believe how busy this neighborhood joint is. Folks line up to get in the door. Prices are moderate. My favorite is the combo meat and vegetarian platter, served with the doughy bread they call inerja, which is made from teff flour.
Every once in a while I like to go to Bocanova, a Pan-American fusion place down on the waterfront at Jack London Square. If the weather’s nice, which it usually is, I sit in the outside patio, overlooking the estuary. The extensive menu is small plates, and everything is absolutely delicious: oysters on the half shell, papas fritas with aioli, grilled octopus, Peruvian fish stew with bacon and–I get hungry just thinking about it–the slow-roasted pork tamale with a poached egg and queso fresco.
Have a great weekend!