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I like cities with a little grit and texture, with character. And just like with people, it’s the ups and downs that build character, not sunshine and lollipops. Oakland is a city of highs and lows. And it knows it. Lately, some things have been looking up. There’s been some smart growth downtown, and Oakland managed a spot on The New York Times’ list of “places to go in 2012.” But unlike some of its more glamorous neighbors, Oakland still feels grounded and inclusive, even amid the gentrification and corporatization that comes with urban growth. There are hipsters, but they don’t all look alike. There are one-percenters, but they feel kinda guilty about it. There’s a Whole Foods, but it’s full of people of color! You get the sense that Oakland is trying incredibly hard not to be spoiled by its success. There’s nothing wrong with doing better in the world, as long as you don’t forget who you are. The city’s rich history, and the essential character of its neighborhoods, can still be sensed in the face of Oakland’s emerging, hard-won prosperity—and in the ongoing struggle to keep it real on the way to Pilates class.
In keeping with the idea of highs and lows making up the texture of city life, here’s a little topographical tour of some of the neighborhoods and attractions of Oakland. Please don’t take this as a definitive list; mostly it’s intended as a way to get you out into different parts of the city where I know you’ll find lots of great sights, sounds and situations. May your experience of Oakland be pleasantly uneven.
WEST OAKLAND, elev. 11 ft.
West Oakland comes off as a barbed, rugged part of town. It’s so industrial, there are trucks and trains and cranes and chain-link fences with concertina wire. Middle Harbor Shoreline Park is right in the middle of this industrial zone, but it’s a bit of a departure from this gritty, hard-hat image. Though giant container cranes loom above each end of the park, this 38-acre recreational area serves as part of the Eastbay Regional Park system, and its once-contaminated shoreline is in the process of being restored as a tidal wetland and wildlife habitat. Shoreline Park also has some truly impressive views of San Francisco from across the bay. Definitely one of my favorite places to catch the sunset.
If that fresh San Francisco Bay air has gotten you a little peckish, drop in on the folks at Brown Sugar Kitchen. Chef/owner Tanya Holland serves up ‘new soul’ cooking that stresses local and seasonal ingredients, but doesn’t skimp on the comfort part of comfort food. The atmosphere is casual and friendly. It basically feels like the cleanest, most popular truck-stop diner you’ve ever seen. Make sure to try the cornmeal waffles with brown sugar butter and apple cider syrup. They’re crispy on the outside, but strangely airy and light on the inside inside. Well, maybe they aren’t actually that light.
West Oakland is also known as the home to some of the city’s finest graffiti art. You find good examples in all kinds of places around the neighborhood, but the corner of 26th and Willow is a good place to start. There are about a half-dozen top-quality graffiti murals right in that area. Some of these definitely bring high art right down to street level.
UPTOWN OAKLAND, elev. 20 – 35 ft.
In recent years, the Uptown neighborhood has become Oakland’s hands-down favorite night spot. This kind of widespread popularity would normally irk me, and I’d eventually find something about Uptown Oakland upon which to wax righteously indignant. Unfortunately, in this case I cannot. Not only do I genuinely like going out in Uptown Oakland, I suspect I enjoy it for the very same reasons everyone else does. Whenever you’re out in Uptown you feel a sense of ownership and community. You’re not just out on the town, you’re out on our town.
The successful renovation and reopening of the Fox Theatre a few years ago was a nostalgic victory for Oakland. There was the feeling that the good old days were being restored. The Fox has been thriving, but not in such an old-fashioned way. The Fox has been booking alternative rock and indie bands and even the dirgy stylings of Mastodon. The Fox Theatre has established itself as a timelessly classy, yet current venue to see live music.
The Paramount Theatre, on the other hand, revels in its anachronistic, Art Deco splendor. Its Summer Classic Movie Series runs on Friday nights well into September, making it a natural for date night, or just as a relaxing, low-key way to start the weekend.
Speaking of relaxing, the atmosphere at Pican is awash with Southern elegance and style. Enjoy a fine sippin’ bourbon at the piano bar & lounge or enjoy a leisurely sit-down meal with friends on the outdoor patio. Or if you’d prefer an artsy, postmodern setting with your cocktails, get to happy hour at Mua just up the block. Industrial decor, tasty small plates: it’s a perfect way to start an evening out.
And if you’re planning to be in Oakland on the first Friday of the month, make sure not to miss the Oakland Art Murmur. The open galleries, street food and open-air activities exemplify the city’s spirit of creativity and community.
JACK LONDON SQUARE, elev. 12 ft.
This frowsy waterfront district is cleaning up nicely, but it still retains some of its roguish charm. Spending the day around the dilapidated wholesaler buildings just a couple of blocks from the waterfront feels a little like playing hooky around the docks. That said, things have gone a little upscale. If you enjoy starting the day with a superior cup of coffee, drop by Blue Bottle Coffee. You won’t be disappointed. You may, however, be a little intimidated by how seriously the staff and customers take their coffee. There’s even a glass-walled ‘cupping’ room where people with rimless eyeglasses slurp and aerate their black coffee quite loudly. It’s like a Scientology Center for the caffeinated.
Bay Area Bikes – Rentals is located right on the waterfront, and you can rent a variety of bikes by the hour, day or week. You can ride along the Bay Trail or pedal along on a street-level tour of Oakland’s many neighborhoods.
When you get back from your ride, check out Everett and Jones, Oakland’s preeminent barbecue destination. The pork ribs are highly recommended and the barbecue sauce is delectable.
Heinold’s First and Last Chance Saloon was one of the teenaged Jack London’s favorite haunts, and it has changed little from the days young Jack sat at the bar writing short stories. Today as then, Heinold’s is full of characters worthy of tipping a glass with. Soak in the old-timey atmosphere, but watch your step. The floor of the First and Last Chance Saloon is permanently warped and dipped from structural damage that resulted from the 1906 earthquake.
TEMESCAL, elev. 114 ft.
The Temescal neighborhood boasts an eclectic selection of restaurants: gourmet pizza, tapas, Eritrean, Korean, Mexican, etc. Here’s a few of my standby favorites; I think you’ll like them. But there are so many good places to eat in Temescal, all within a short walking distance from each other, right on Telegraph, that you should feel free to rely on gut instinct if you are so moved.
Bakesale Betty. It’s travesty that a restaurant that’s open only 12 hours a week can be this successful. I have to admit, though, that the fried chicken sandwich is just that good. You may have to wait in line with dozens of hipsters, but they’re a pretty good-natured lot. And when it’s your turn… the ginger cookie is also spectacular.
I don’t think I had ever tried Burmese food before I first experienced a meal at Burma Superstar. It seemed to me that the food was, at the same time, both exotic and strangely familiar. Chinese and subcontinental influences melded into a kind of Asian Fusion style. I was hooked. Be sure to try the fermented tea leaf salad, I seem to have to order it every time I go to Burma Superstar.
There are quite a few Korean restaurants in the Temescal neighborhood, and most of them are pretty good. Almost every time I’m in the area, however, I go to Sahn Maru. This place specializes in homestyle Korean, and I find the array of menu options to be kind of quirky, and impressively varied. You can’t go wrong with the soft tofu stew and spicy pork barbecue combo, but if you’re feeling adventurous, try the fish roe soup, or the pork neckbone and potato stew. This place serves pretty large portions, and all meals come with the traditional, banchan, or small accompanying dishes. Enjoy the food of my people.
MOUNTAIN VIEW CEMETERY/CHAPEL OF THE CHIMES, elev. 174 – 250 ft.
I may be a little odd, but my favorite two places in Oakland are a cemetery and a crematorium. Not for morbid reasons. It’s just that the Mountain View Cemetery and the nearby Chapel of the Chimes may be the most aesthetically harmonious places in the city.
The cemetery dates back to the 1860s and was designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, the landscape architect behind New York’s Central Park. Mountain View Cemetery presents the visitor with a vision of nature that is romantic and expansive , but not so colossal that it dwarfs the human figure. Similarly, it’s a perfect place to take in ear-popping hilltop views of the Oakland skyline and the San Francisco Bay without feeling one has really left the city. Above all it’s a wonderful place to go for walk on a nice day, a little time-out, not an excursion.
The Chapel of the Chimes reflects a more internal, tranquil sense of well-being. The Julia Morgan design is suggestive of a library at Cordoba, or a gothic priory. Bathed in natural light and featuring exquisite, but minimalist ornamentation, the walls are just the right dimension, just the right color.
FRUITVALE, elev. 55 ft .
The International Blvd. taco crawl is, for us who live in the East Bay, a mythic quest over which nobody can triumph. The idea of consuming one taco, or burrito, or huarache, or torta from each of the taco trucks or taquerias along a umpteen-block stretch of 14th street no longer appeals to me as it once did. I’m not even sure if it’s actually physically possible. Here are my picks for a totally reasonable four-item taco crawl.
La Costa. This is one of the real traditional places to get Mexican food in Oakland. Any of the Ceviches will serve as the perfect antojito for a four-course crawl.
La Torta Loca #1. Okay, this place is actually inside a laundromat, don’t let that spook you. The tinga huarache is the standout here. And it’s a stable enough food platform that you can eat as you walk to Taqueria Sinaloa, great place for just plain tacos. I’m rather fond of their cabeza and al pastor varieties.
Now the last course is the most substantial. El Ojo de Agua is now at a new location, International Blvd and Derby. Be warned, you’re going to get a torta here, and it’ll be quite large. I recommend washing it down with a liquado smoothie.
Next stop, maybe a nap.
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Ben Choi, who writes this site’s Search For The Next Sriracha column, lives in the Bay Area with his wife Erica and dog Spock.