Gourmet Ghetto of the East
Something's a-brew along the teeming urban boulevard of Grand Avenue in Oakland. It has quietly become a food mecca – can we call it the East Gourmet Ghetto? – and has some of my favorite, and I think best, restaurants, beverage hot spots, and markets.
The best “diner-style” breakfast can be found at Grand Lake Kitchen, but if you prefer a standing breakfast, my favorite spot is the Belgian Waffle truck, the closest thing I’ve tasted to the true street vendor waffles of Belgium. These crunchy golden grids are dusted liberally with powdered sugar, and they will quickly ruin your outfit unless you dress strategically -- so don’t wear black to the Saturday Grand Lake Farmer’s Market if you want to fully partake. There over 40 local farmers, 30 specialty food vendors, and some local artisans. The market is open every Saturday year-round, 9am-2pm.
The Grand Fare Market is the newest addition to an already special neighborhood. It is both a market and a cafe with beautiful outdoor patio seating, and (secret’s out) awesome eggplant parm for takeaway. Get there early to snap that up.
Chef and restaurateur Charlie Hallowell has made himself at home on Grand Ave., opening two restaurants in the past few years that have become beloved staples. Boot and Shoe Service is a pizzeria that makes everything in-house with the best local and organic ingredients from farms they love to support. Penrose highlights the foods of Spain, Italy, and North Africa. Both are testaments to the escalating local food scene and quality in the East Bay.
Ordinaire is a wine bar that quietly opened a couple years ago. No ferns here. It’s a stark, yet charming, open space that could have been a barrel room before all the wineries hired fancy architects. It certainly smells like one, in the best way possible. The walls are lined with bottles of wine from California and Europe, and the casual counter is staffed with knowledgeable oenophiles who are happy to recommend a glass to enjoy on-site, or a bottle to take away. There are also snacks that dovetail perfectly with the wine: Charcuterie and cheese boards.
Speaking of beverages, a very special stop along Grand Ave. is Alchemy. Just a few doors from the theater, it’s a bottle shop with epic style and offerings. I don’t know if their product selection is based on how beautiful the packaging is, but it’s a wonderland of beauty in that store. The spirits are on the main level; gorgeous bottles from every corner of the world lined up like obedient and well-dressed soldiers. There are also gorgeous-sounding concoctions you’ve likely never heard of, like rhubarb, anise, or cardamom tea, and tiny bottles of tinctures, bitters, flavor additions, and even an end-all cocktail strainer (that makes a wonderful gift). There is wine on the top floor, and tastings every Saturday. I tasted verticals of coffee liqueur when I was last there that went light years beyond Kahlua. Who knew that we needed gin from Iceland and Scotch from corners well beyond Scotland, but this shop is crowded from sun-up 'til the hours when having a cocktail is de rigueur.
Lest anyone thinks that I am a little too focused on life's adult beverages, I give you Lake Merritt. The assets of this favorite Oakland destination are well-known… From gondola rides to slack-lining to gardens to the twinkling necklace lights that ring the lake, there is no lack of activities to consume your free time.
Then there’s the Oaktown Spice Shop on Grand, directly across the lake. I’ve bought more gifts here than you can shake a cinnamon stick at. It’s an emporium for spices from around the world, including a chili bar, half a dozen curry blends (my favorite is the Japanese curry), and rare goodies like beet powder and honey milk powder.