I can’t begin to count the number of times I’ve been told over the years that I have a “Cali vibe,” or asked if I’ve ever considered living in the Bay Area. One of my professors at Howard often had to correct herself after referring to me as a California girl. We didn’t have much money to take vacations when I was a kid, so while I’d always been really curious about traveling to the home of the Black Panther Party—of which my dad was a member—I’d yet to make that pilgrimage until earlier this year. And in the weeks since I returned, I’ve been trying to justify the creation of an EBONY.com West Coast office. Seriously.
Much like my current home, New York City, Oakland is undergoing a lot of changes. There are new businesses opening, new people moving in. And while this has seen a decline in the city’s African-American population, unlike the gentrification taking place here on the East Coast, you won’t find a profound erasure of people of color, nor a movement of national chains replacing small, independently owned businesses. The Oakland of 2014 is profoundly diverse in ways we rarely get to see. It’s not simply a multihued city with people relegated to their separate corners—it’s truly integrated. The sights, sounds and tastes of Oakland are almost Sesame Street-like in terms of their blend of cultures.
If you’re like me and only have time to take quick weekend jaunts, then I have a few great suggestions for a quickie trip to Oakland that won’t break the bank AND will allow you to get an adequate sampling of what “the Brooklyn by the Bay” has to offer.
Located in Oakland’s trendy Jack London Square, the Waterfront has great nautical-themed rooms and is walking distance from dining, cute shops, theaters and much more. A nightly wine-and-cheese reception by the fireplace in the lobby makes guests feel even more at home.
Sunny, tranquil and budget-friendly, The Inn is also walking distance from concert venues and restaurants and super close to the San Francisco Bay.
Located in the city’s Old Oakland neighborhood, Miss Ollies is a hip Afro-Caribbean restaurant helmed by chef Sarah Kirnon, who describes here cuisine simply as “food from the Diaspora.” With recipes that nod to her London and Barbados upbringing, Kirnon learned to cook from her grandmother, for whom the eatery is named, and prides herself on hiring young employees who may not easily find jobs elsewhere. The “market driven” menu changes frequently, but the famed fried chicken is a mainstay; ackee and saltfish patties are worth the carbs, if you can get them. Wash it all down with a Dark and Stormy.
A swank and sexy spot in the city’s Uptown cultural district, Picán has one of the most impressive bourbon lists on the West Coast—and a club for those who are serious about their bourbon devotion. Founder Michael LeBlanc is a first time restaurateur who brought his expansive business savvy to the Southern-inspired hotspot, which draws diverse crowds of diners to connect over plates of lip-smacking crawfish macaroni and cheese. Do yourself a favor and go for the Louisiana lobster and blue crab thermador, which is lovingly dressed in a rich bourbon cream and served with dinosaur kale. I still dream of it.
Chef Tanya Holland has had her fair share of highs and lows over the course of her culinary career. Inspired by her parents’ love of cooking and diverse cuisines, Holland studied at the prestigious La Varenne Ecole de Cuisine in France and learned the business at restaurants in Manhattan, Brooklyn, Boston and Martha’s Vineyard before eventually making Oakland her home in 2003. Though she once dreamed of an upscale, white linen restaurant, her Brown Sugar Kitchen (and sister spot, B-Side BBQ) has turned out to be a major success, with people from across the world flocking to her West Oakland digs. The cornmeal waffle is a revelation, while the shrimp and grits rival any that I’ve ever had. If a Cali trip isn’t on your calendar anytime soon, you can get her Brown Sugar Kitchen Cookbook later this year.
If your Mexican food craving typically leads you to a certain fast food chain that shall not be named (or it’s overrated, snobby cousin), do yourself a favor and head to Oakland’s Fruitvale District (more on that below) for something real. Once a small market, Otaez was purchased in 1986 by Jesus and Socorro Campos, who had worked as a cook and a waitress, respectively, in other restaurants. The couple transformed the “Mexicatessan” into a full restaurant and they now have a second location in Almeda. Go for the pescado en salsa or check out the weekend brunch buffet for only $10!
If Cana had been my only destination during my trip, it would have been enough to make me consider a move to the Bay Area. Everyone knows that brunch is A Big Deal these days, but how about a weekly brunch party with Salsa dancing and moijitos? Um, yes, please. The parlor and café has a delectable menu centered largely on the Holy Trinity of Cuban cooking (sofrito, mojo and verde sauces) and is definitely a great place to see and be seen. It might get awkward if I mention that one of the owners is drop dead gorgeous, so let’s just move along here…
AAMLO has the most extensive African American archives in the Bay Area and is a popular destination among researchers, tourists and locals, who flock to examine more than the museum’s more than 160 meticulously curated collections. Among them are California census records documenting the early post-Emancipation lives of African Americans in state, records belonging to Marcus Garvey’s famed UNIA and an extensive collection of papers pertaining to the Black Panther Party—which was founded in Oakland—including hard-to-find copies of The Black Panther newspaper. There’s also an extensive oral history collection, a great children’s reading room and an amazing non-circulating reference library with over 12,000 books.
Unlike certain cities that won’t be named (Washington, DC), Oakland’s Chinatown isn’t a few blocks of national chains with Chinese signage, but rather, one of the largest, most vibrant Chinese communities in the country. Check out the Oakland Asian Cultural Center, which offers dance, art and culinary classes enjoyed by people of all backgrounds—-the staff is friendly and happy to show you around (the venue also has rental space for plays and events of all types), grab some fresh fruits and tasty teas from the local markets and then enjoy dim sum and then some at the Golden Peacock Restaurant.
Located in the Fruitvale neighborhood, Fruitvale Village is a “mixed-use” development in East Oakland that reflects both the economic and cultural diversity of East Oakland and features residential, office and retail space (Powderface Café is quickly gaining acclaim for their tasty beignets, while Mar Y Tierra is a popular destination for taco lovers.) If you’re a “Muslim oil” fan like myself, there is a young brother with a kiosk out there who’s got some great Egyptian Musk.
Most of us non-Cali natives were introduced to Fruitvale via the 2009 killing of 26-year-old Oscar Grant, which was famously depicted in the acclaimed film Fruitvale Station. Take time to visit the BART station where Grant lost his life to pay your respects.
Here’s a fun fact: There are only about 400 gondolas (the flatbottomed rowing boats that were once the primary source of transportation in Venice, Italy) in the world. Like champagne and cognac, they can’t simply be duplicated outside of their land of origin by someone with some wood and a bit of time to kill. Luckily for Oakland, there are two authentic gondolas available for rides along Lake Merritt, which is located in the center of the city bordering the Downtown district. Gondola Servizo, which is housed next to Lake Chalet Seafood Bar and Grill, has been offering gondola rides for 15 years and has great food and wine packages available for you and your bae in the Bay.
The Brooklyn comparison is most valid when visiting the weekly Oakland Museum’s weekly evening party, which features a rotating cast of yummy food truck vendors, live music, arts and crafts and lots more. Admission for adults is half-off and children under 18 get in free. It’s family friendly, but still a good time for singles and adults who have left the wee ones at home.
The famed sushi bar and jazz club, which hosted legends such as McCoy Tyner, Max Roach and Dizzy Gillespie, relocated to Jack London Square in 1997 and has been a cornerstone of the city’s redevelopment efforts. Patrons are invited to enjoy both Japanese culinary delights from Executive Chef Shotaro "Sho" Kamio and live performances from artists like Cassandra Wilson, Musiq Soulchild and Dru Hill, who will all be appearing there in the weeks to come.
Every Saturday, vendors and shoppers flock to Splash Pad Park for what has come to be known as one of the East Bay’s best farmer’s markets. With no less than 40 local farmers, dozens of specialty food makers and local artisans participating, it’s a great way to spend a lazy weekend morning alone, with friends or family. Grab some amazingly fresh blood oranges, locally crafted chocolate bars and maybe even a few baubles. Bonus: it’s directly across the street from Cana and Cana is everything.
As someone with a modest shopping budget, I am always on the hunt for bargains when I travel. And as someone who had never been to Oakland before, I was a little too excited to escape the cold of NYC and didn’t pack a smart pair of knee boots for nighttime kicking it. Lucky for me, I was able to nab a very cute pair at Maribel for thirty bucks—along with a funky, printed tunic dress and a gorgeous plaid Talbots dress that is totally appropriate for the grownup wardrobe I aspire to have—and I spent less than $150 for the whole shebang. If they still have the blue suede hobo bag when you go, cop that for me, please and thanks.