The Oakland renaissance

Oakland, CA
In Oakland, patrons enjoy the outdoors at the Lake Chalet Seafood Bar & Grill overlooking Lake Merritt.
(Irene Lechowitzky )
Special to the Los Angeles Times

Oakland is feeling its oats. Steel-cut oats, that is. Sprinkled atop a puree of onion soup ladled over smoked dates at the Michelin-starred Commis, this coarse grain is being transformed into something wonderful and different, much like the rough-hewn city itself.

Best known for its rowdy Raiders and crime-heavy headlines, Oakland has changed for the better in recent years. There are trendy shops and nightclubs, modern condos cheek-to-cheek with restored Art Deco gems and an influx of top chefs, lured by cheaper rents from San Francisco and Berkeley’s gourmet ghettos.

Despite its large size (56 square miles, from the waterfront to the hills), Oakland and its neighborhoods are easily accessible, and some are just a mile or two apart. A car is best, but BART trains and city buses are convenient.

A culture boom

Uptown has great bones, with blocks of historic buildings (in varying states of repair) and striking architecture. Like many urban areas, it went from bustling in the 1920s to broken within a few decades.

Iconic structures such as the I. Magnin building dot the area, but it was the restoration of two grand dames that jump-started the neighborhood’s resurgence as a night-life and arts magnet. The Fox Theater (, a 1928 Moorish gem on Telegraph Avenue, and the Paramount Theatre (, a Depression-era Art Deco beauty on Broadway, give heft to the Uptown culture boom. The Fox reopened in 2009 as an indie music venue after a multimillion-dollar renovation; the Paramount is home to the Oakland East Bay Symphony.

There’s been a mini-population boom as well, sparked by former Mayor Jerry Brown’s efforts to boost housing. Though the boom was stalled by the recession, hundreds of residents have moved into new condos and apartments.

New eateries followed. San Francisco’s Ozumo ( opened an outpost; its sake bar was an immediate hit. Other standouts include Flora (, a classic bar and grill, and Picán (, a charmer with Southern soul food and a serious selection of bourbon.

Chowing down

In Temescal, you come for the food and stay for the … food. This diverse neighborhood, filled with small homes, started to gentrify a decade ago with the opening of Doña Tomás (, an upscale Mexican restaurant. Today, there are many excellent eateries packed into a few short blocks.

Folks line up for Bakesale Betty’s (, then grab a seat at one of the ironing boards — no tables here — on the sidewalk to chow down on massive fried chicken sandwiches or luscious strawberry shortcakes. Owner Alison Barakat came to the States from Australia in 2000 and honed her skills at Berkeley’s Chez Panisse.

In the evening, the crowds head to Pizzaiolo ( for another Chez Panisse graduate’s pizzas and pastas. Charlie Hallowell is a masterful chef; an heirloom tomato antipasti with shell beans, herbs, bread crumbs and aioli was superb as was the marinara pizza, an offering with housemade sausage.

Barlata Tapas Bar ( packs ‘em in as well; its small plates are authentic and satisfying. Burma Superstar (, another San Francisco favorite, is a block away, as is SR24 (, run by Josh Woodall (from S.F.'s South).

For serious shoppers

Rockridge, an affluent community of charming houses on leafy streets, is a wonderful place to shop.

Market Hall, on College and Keith avenues just steps from the BART station, anchors College Avenue, Rockridge’s eclectic main drag. The French-style marketplace, with produce, meat and fish shops as well as a gourmet bakery and grocery selling items such as artisan cheeses and fresh pasta, is a delight.

College Avenue is filled with unique stores. Stop at Tootsies (, where you can get a pedicure as well as new pumps. Dip into Who’s Your Betty? ( for custom purses. I was tempted by nearly everything in the shabby-chic Maison d’Etre (

After you’ve worn out your wallet, grab a local brew at Ben & Nick’s, then head back to Market Hall for dinner at Oliveto (, a longtime favorite.

The ‘working’ street

Piedmont Avenue runs about 18 blocks before you exhaust its many pleasures — or before it exhausts you.

It is a “working” street where dry cleaners elbow boutiques; you can pop from one side of the street to the other as stores catch your eye. Piedmont Lane is great for antiques; Pimlico Place is a good bet for vintage jewelry. In the mood to play dress-up? Try Mercy Vintage Now (, which offers clothing and accessories from the 1920s to the 1980s.

The area has a brace of top-notch restaurants: the stalwart BayWolf (, which has dished up haute cuisine for more than two decades, and César Latino (, an offshoot of a Berkeley tapas bar. Atop the list of new hot spots are Dopo (, a tiny Italian bistro serving artichoke soup and saffron spaghetti, and the sizzling Commis (, where James Syhabout — named best chef of 2010 by San Francisco magazine — has picked up a Michelin star and a devoted following for his complex, imaginative dishes.

Make the finish line of your marathon stroll Fentons Creamery (, an ice cream temple that’s been around for ages. Try the Black & White, chocolate and vanilla ice cream with ribbons of marshmallow and fudge snaking through it.

At Oakland’s heart

Lakeshore and Grand avenues, each filled with shops and restaurants, feed into each other as well as Lake Merritt, a striking oasis in the heart of the city.

Start the day by fueling up at Arizmendi ( on Lakeshore, a worker-owned cooperative bakery featuring pastries and artisan breads. Wander up the avenue to window-shop the cute boutiques; the Japanese kimonos and silk scarves at Rose Quartz are eye-catchers, the whimsical items at Urban Indigo ( are great for gifts.

Circle back around the Grand Lake Theater, a 1926 Art Deco movie house, and head up Grand Avenue. Gems are hidden among the old-line stores. Walden Pond Books( features new, used and rare works, and with its nice mix of new and recycled children’s items, Silver Moon is a must for moms.

Grand is a dining draw as well. Boot & Shoe Service (, an offshoot of Pizzaiolo, is as popular as its cousin. Camino ( is helmed by yet another former Chez Panisse chef. Russell Moore’s large, rustic eatery in a former warehouse is a hot ticket, with a small menu that changes nightly.

The best bet at the Lake Chalet Seafood Bar & Grill ( — it opened in 2009 in the renovated municipal boathouse — is to have a sunset cocktail outside on the dock overlooking Lake Merritt. The lake attracts joggers and picnickers to its park-lined perimeter; you need a child to get into Children’s Fairyland, a storybook playground, and adults can indulge their own fantasies with a gondola ride on the lake.

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