Forget everything you've heard about Oakland, Calif. Contrary to the schizo images of the city in the media, Oakland is neither a hipster paradise nor an island of urban violence in the otherwise peaceful precincts of the Bay Area. Particularly misleading is the frequently drawn parallel to Brooklyn, N.Y. Yes, both places have an abundance of backyard chicken farms and beehives. There are streets in Oakland where Bugaboo strollers choke the sidewalks, and bearded, 40-ish fathers in ironic T-shirts walk with their exceptionally fit wives, rolled-up yoga mats slung across their backs like bazookas. But these similarities, and others, are superficial. Oakland is best approached on its own terms, with minimal expectations and an open mind.
That's what Tanya Holland did when she moved to Oakland from Brooklyn nine years ago. She saw the surface similarities to her old home, and she saw the differences. It was the things that made Oakland unique that prompted the former Food Network star to open a restaurant in the heart of West Oakland. Brown Sugar Kitchen is on Mandela Parkway, the wide boulevard that replaced the double-decker freeway leveled by the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989. The freeway started the neighborhood's decline when it was built in 1957. Loma Prieta finished the job. On a Friday night, the honey glow coming from Brown Sugar Kitchen's windows looks just like West Oakland's slow, stubborn revival.
Holland said that while there's no such thing as an Oakland cuisine — yet — there is an Oakland style: a combination of very good fresh, seasonal, local food, ably served without a trace of pretension. (In northern California, there's no escaping the influence of locavore pioneer Alice Waters, even in the ghetto.)
And then there's the diversity. Eat dinner at Brown Sugar Kitchen on a Friday night, and you'll see burners (Burning Man devotees), local pols, neighborhood activists and weekend epicures on a foodie expedition from the wealthy Oakland Hills. The cuisine is Southern crossed with northern Californian, leavened with Holland's training at La Varenne in Paris.
When Holland launched Brown Sugar Kitchen three years ago, the majority of the other black restaurateurs in Oakland were of the old school. In venerable establishments like Everett and Jones Barbecue in Jack London Square or the nearby Home of Chicken and Waffles, the Southern fare is rich and good, pretty much the same as it was when blacks brought Southern recipes to California during the Great Migration of the 1930s and '40s.
Holland's not alone anymore; other restaurateurs are experimenting with the Southern cooking canon. The owner of Picán is clear about his goals. Michael LeBlanc aims to conjure black, Louisianan hospitality in Oakland's Uptown district. A favorite of downtown professionals, Picán boasts one of the broadest and most interesting selections of bourbons on the West Coast. The dinner menu is any carnivore's comfort food: smoked brisket meat loaf, "Sorghum Lacquered Duck," "Low & Slow" ribs with peanut-jalapeno coleslaw and molasses BBQ sauce.
If the bourbon selection at Picán catches your eye, there's something you ought to know about a night on the town in Oakland: Getting around without a car is not as easy as it should be. Buses can take you anywhere you want to go, but budget cuts have slashed nighttime service. Bay Area Rapid Transit runs the length of the city, but confining yourself to places near BART stations would leave much of the city unexplored. Oakland is a bicyclist's mecca, but its pothole-scarred roads are ranked the fifth worst in the country. The dearth of taxis makes Washingtonians, New Yorkers and even San Franciscans apoplectic.
Once you've arranged your transportation, it might be time to get a drink. Uptown, the home of Picán, the 19th Street BART station and a mega-hipster art party the first Friday of each month, is a fine place to start. Uptown marks the epicenter of ex-Mayor Jerry Brown's plan to lure 10,000 new residents to Oakland. Now that Brown is running for governor, folks are arguing about how many people actually moved to Oakland because of Brown's big plans. Still, there's no debating that Uptown is home to some of Oakland's swankiest bars and restaurants.
As the name suggests, Era Art Bar and Lounge aspires to a particularly Oakland mix of gallery and speakeasy. Era is one of the new breed of Bay Area bars that takes its cocktails seriously. Syrups are homemade. The fruits used in drinks are local and organic. So are the wines. On nearby Telegraph Avenue, 2022 serves good drinks and good bar food in a relaxed venue. Across the street and a few blocks west on Telegraph Avenue, Somar usually has a local celebrity DJ spinning.
Speaking of celebrity DJs, Oakland also supports one of the largest black gay night-life scenes on the West Coast, said Joe Hawkins, who also happens to be the chief impresario behind that scene. Hawkins, an event producer and the organizer of Oakland's singular Pride Festival (held on a different date than the gay-pride parade in San Francisco), said that while San Francisco clubs and bars cater to a particular gay and lesbian market, Oakland fills a niche as a place for black gays and lesbians to party. Happily, said Hawkins, more people are discovering Oakland's gay night life. “Many of us in the minority community always knew Oakland was a great place to party; now more Caucasians are discovering it,” said Hawkins.
Despite the large gay and lesbian population (Oakland reportedly has the largest number of lesbians per capita of any large city in the country), gay and lesbian night life centers arund rotating nights that cater to different audiences at only a couple of clubs. The biggest is the Bench and Bar in downtown, which is home to the annual Mr. Gay Vaquero contest.
Back in West Oakland, at the other end of the Mandela Parkway from Brown Sugar Kitchen, closer to the port and its maze of roads and railroad tracks, is 7th Street. That's where blues and jazz greats came to play in the heyday of black Oakland. A freeway, a massive post office and Bay Area Rapid Transit, combined with a three-decade decline of the middle class, left the entertainment district in ruins.
If there's an heir to the 7th Street tradition, it's the New Parish in Uptown. The newish live performance venue attracts big-name performers from all over the country as well as allows locals to show their stuff. The New Parish is also where Dave Chappelle performs when he slips into the Bay Area for a performance. Of course, there's a reason Chappelle, a devoted cannabis smoker, likes Oakland so much.
Oakland has emerged over the past few years as the center of the medical marijuana industry. You don't have to wait to see if the ballot measure to legalize marijuana in California passes in November to buy and enjoy marijuana without fear of the Man. Head over to Oaksterdam University, the nation's first "cannabis college" — yes, really — and check out its student union on Broadway Sunday afternoon. There, if you are so inclined, you can reap the benefits of Oakland's Measure Z, which makes prosecuting the cultivation or selling of cannabis the Oakland Police Department's lowest priority. In other words, if you're over 18, you can buy weed and get high.
At the moment, Oaksterdam University is probably Oakland's biggest tourist attraction. It's one of the few places where you'll see visitors toting cameras and maps. The truth is, Oakland hasn't been good about highlighting its cultural history. There's not even a plaque on the building in North Oakland where the Black Panthers drafted their Ten Point Plan.
In Oakland, you'll have better luck searching for natural history than cultural history. The city is unique in the size and wildness of the parks that stretch across the hilly spine of the East Bay. The first landmark of the Bay Area's European era is a massive redwood tree looming from the top of a ridge on what is now the Oakland Hills. Spanish explorers used the tree as a navigational guide into San Francisco Bay. You can visit that tree's descendants at Redwood Regional Park. You won't find a 1,829-acre Redwood forest in Brooklyn.
Alex Gronke is the co-founder of the Oakbook, a daily news Web site based in Oakland. Follow the Oakbook on Twitter.