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In Oakland, gentrification comes at a cost

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Okay, kids, more Oakland stuff today! You know how much I love my town because I often write about it. The grittiness, the craziness, the electric buzz, the hipster vibe, the artists and musicians, the diversity (we’re #4 in America, baby!) and now, we’re turning into the restaurant capital of the Bay Area!

Well, maybe not quite, but there’s plenty of buzz about Oakland restos, as well there should be. But there is a problem directly associated with all the cool new launches, and it’s this: We’re losing the old standbys.

The latest to close its doors—apparently—is Kwik Way,

 

Kwik Way

 

which might have been the model for the Simpsons’ Kwik-E-Mart, except that ours is even better because it has a drive-in. I’m not gonna say Kwik Way is my go-to restaurant—if I have one, it’s Boot & Shoe Service, just around the corner from Kwik Way—but I will say that when I’m in a mood for the fundamentals: turkey meatloaf sandwich with homemade ketchup, onion rings and an agua fresca, Kwik Way is where I go.

The neighborhood is called the Grand Lake District, after the old movie theatre and, also, of course, wonderful Lake Merritt. It hasn’t been gentrifying quite as fast as Uptown, Piedmont Avenue, College Avenue or the Temescal (which may be the fastest-gentrifying ‘hood in town). But Grand Lake also is changing. In addition to Boot & Shoe (which is from the same team that owns the amazing Pizzaiolo), we have older standbys like Camino, and newer joints like Penrose, which my favo restaurant critic, Michael Bauer, gave a good review to, and which also happens to be owned by the Boot & Shoe team (that Charlie Hallowell is taking the town over. Factoid: He’s a Chez Panisse alum).

I like many things about gentrification, a word that gets a bad rap, perhaps deservedly so, as it results in the loss of places like Kwik Way and also, more troublingly, forces good people out of their homes as rents rise. I do understand that. But cities change constantly: my birthplace, the Grand Concourse area of the Bronx, used to be an upscale place where rich white people built “country places” to get out of Manhattan. Over the next hundred years, it turned solidly Jewish, then Puerto Rican. Now, the Bronx itself is getting so gentrified that people are being forced out, as they are in Oakland.

I don’t know what the answer is. There is no good answer. It’s a shame to lose Kwik Way, if indeed we do. Fentons Creamery, over on Piedmont, a 119-year old ice cream and retro food place, almost shut down a while back, but the neighborhood was so upset, they raised $800,000 to keep it open, and Fentons is doing just fine now.

There’s got to be a way for neighborhoods to grow and evolve, in a way that doesn’t negatively impact too many people. That’s the job of enlightened politicians and policies, but that may be asking too much.


Pssst: Wanna buy a restaurant reservation?

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Ever get frustrated about not being able to get a restaurant reservation when you actually want one?

Happens to me a fair amount. My go-to restos tend to be in Oakland, since that’s where I live: Ozumo, Pican, Bocanova, Lungomare, among others. But so popular are these places that you really need to make your reservations far in advance—unless you’re willing to dine before 6 or after 9, which for the most part I am not. I like eating dinner at the normal hours of 7-8 p.m., but so does everyone else: hence, the difficulty. (The problem is worse in San Francisco. Try getting a 7:30 table at Boulevard. Good luck!)

Of course, I can always go to a non-reservation restaurant. We have some nice ones in my neighborhood: Boot & Shoe Service, the new Captain & Corset, and Hawker Fare. But that presents its own problems, namely, lines! I pretty much have a firm policy of not standing in line waiting for a table to open up.

Dining should be a pleasant experience; we should be able to eat where and when we want to. But that’s not reality. So some entrepreneurial types have discovered a new way to make money in the San Francisco Bay Area: they get reservations at in-demand restaurants, and then sell them online.

I first heard about this practice a while ago, when I read this article about reservationhop.com, a startup that makes reservations at San Francisco’s most popular restaurants and then sells them back to the public ‘for as little as $5’”, according to the S.F. Chronicle. But reservationhop is hardly the only new business trying its hand at the reservation-selling game. Table8 also is doing it: when I went to their website yesterday, they were selling reservations for such ultrachic places as Acquerello, Foreign Cinema, Waterbar, The Slanted Door and, yes, Boulevard (for up to $25 a shot!). The online S.F. site, Eater, quotes Table8’s founders as claiming “their offering actually levels the playing field for ‘normal’ people, allowing them the chance to get into a hot restaurant without advance planning.” That is true, I suppose; but you have to be a fairly well-to-do “normal person” to be able to afford to eat at one of these places plus pay a double-digit fee! (I don’t suppose you have to factor the reservation fee into the tip, do you?)

As you’d expect in a contentious town like San Francisco, there’s been some blowback against the reservation sellers that’s reminiscent of the complaints about Uber and Airbnb. One person who’s not so happy with the situation is a restaurant owner himself: Ryan Cole, whose Stones Throw is on Russian Hill. “I feel sick to my stomach to think that restaurants of such high pedigree and prestige would agree to participate in something so fundamentally against the principles of hospitality,” he wrote recently, in an open letter published in the Chronicle’s Inside Scoop online edition. He likened it to the old practice of slipping the doorman a $100 bill and skipping the wait for your table.” (Actually, it’s also rather the way StubHub works.) Ryan feels there’s something vaguely immoral about selling reservations. “Just because you can charge the premium doesn’t mean you should.”

I myself am neutral on all this. “It is what it is,” goes the current slogan, and besides, even if reservation selling is a horrible degradation of traditional restauranting, it’s here to stay. People want to be able to eat at top restaurants at their preferred times, and if they have to pay an extra $25 for the privilege, so be it! (I just hope they don’t make up for it by skimping on the wine.) But I personally won’t indulge in any of it. For every nice restaurant that’s next to impossible to book a table, there are dozens that aren’t. Let’s not forget that.


Friday Fishwrap: old wine writers never die, we just eat pizza!

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Hello. My name is Steve and I’m a “grand-fatherly white male traditional print writer.”

That’s what Amy Corron Power called me in her blog today. She was referring to my recent panel on wine writing at the Wine Bloggers Conference; my co-panelists were Mike Dunne and James Conaway, who are pictured, with me, in this little graphic Amy put up.

writers

She wrote, apparently facetiously, that we were “the only ‘true experts’ to whom we should aspire.”

I must admit that when I saw my panel I had the same thought. Three aging Boomers in a room full of bloggers mostly in their twenties and thirties: Yes, it did seem a little weird to me.

But let’s break it down. There’s lots of collective career success between Dunne, Conaway and me. And the Wine Bloggers Conference always has had a pedagogical or mentoring relationship with the bloggers who attend: I’ve gone there for long enough, and sat on enough panels, to know. If you’re a young and ambitious blogger, who better to get advice from than older guys (and gals) who have been around the block a few times and can tell you what’s up?

* * *

I’ve written a fair amount (here, on Twitter and on Facebook) about Oakland’s changing culinary scene. One classic example of it—and of what not to do—centers around Michelin-starred Daniel Patterson (Coi, in San Francisco) and his recently shuttered Oakland restaurant, Plum. Much was made of Plum when it opened in 2010 in the Franklin Square area off-Broadway. It was from Patterson, it was at Ground Zero of the restaurant scene in the newly-dubbed Uptown District, and it was high-concept and expensive. Those last two distinctions sealed Plum’s fate.

I ate there a few times in 2010-2011 and was always disappointed. I’m not big on high-concept food, where the abstract thinking and plate design seem to be more important than the flavors. And the prices were quite high. It was the experience of eating in places like Plum that always led me to tell people I’d rather have good, cheap Mexican or Thai than throw my money away for a “culinary experience.”

Well, apparently I wasn’t the only one who felt that way. Patterson closed Plum and has reopened the spot as Ume, a Japanese-themed restaurant whose prices aren’t bad. I haven’t eaten there yet, but plan to; Michael Bauer gave it a pretty good review in the San Francisco Chronicle.

Plum’s closure does say something about Oakland and what its citizens want in a dining establishment. We want nourishing, delicious food in a friendly environment that’s filled with people who look and sound like us. Oakland isn’t San Francisco or Manhattan; high concept doesn’t cut it. (I still don’t understand the success of Commis.)

The quintessential Oakland resto is Boot and Shoe Service. Loud, easy-going, happy, hip and boozy, this pizza-themed joint caters to a blue-jeaned, tattooed crowd that knows how to have a good time. I love bringing friends, sitting at the bar munching on a margherita pizza and gulping vodka gimlets while all the pretty people come and go. There’s money to be made in Oakland, only you have to know what people want. Whole Foods understood that when they built their big store around the corner from me. I credit Whole Foods with helping to turn my neighborhood around. I think Josiah Baldivino understands that, too, with his launching of Bay Grape. We Oaklanders are proud of our culture and traditions, and will support entrepreneurs who believe in us and respect our way of doing things.


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