Oakland is enjoying a moment in the sun right now, as evidenced by a recent spate of media hits and amorous outpourings on social networks. But after Nat Geo photographer Catherine Karnow and I spent time there on assignment, we both left convinced that the city’s ascent isn’t fleeting, but one that will have a long tail, bolstered by a steady stream of colorful shop and restaurant openings and an influx of equally colorful characters seeking lower rents and a less stressful lifestyle.
That being said, I would stop short of calling Oakland “Brooklyn by the Bay.” I live in Brooklyn, and seemingly everywhere I travel lately, I am met with food, clothes, and culture described as the “Brooklyn of…” or “Brooklyn-style”—terms meant to evoke a less touristy, hipster alternative to a major metropolis that has historically been overshadowed by its neighbor.
To be sure, Oakland does offer an antidote to expensive San Francisco and its smaller next-door neighbor, Berkeley. The city’s racial and ethnic diversity also draws apt comparisons to Brooklyn. But, as a local named Emily told us at Cole Coffee in Oakland’s Rockridge neighborhood, that diversity is unlike anything she’s encountered before.
“If you explore Oakland, it’s not like the Mexican neighborhood is here, the African-Americans are here, and the whites are over here,” the 34-year-old tech strategist said. “If we had yuppies in Oakland, we’d all be here at this coffee shop. But we don’t. It’s so laid back.”
She pointed across the street, to the stretch of College Avenue between 63rd Street and Alcatraz Avenue. “This block reflects the city’s growth today,” she said. Indeed, independent local-owned shops—a bakery, a beer café, a pizzeria, and, a major draw for foodies, the spirited Wood Tavern, among them—make the block a poster child for the Oakland of today.
Here are four of the trends we witnessed as we explored this sister city on the rise:
> Food Phenoms: Oakland’s Dynamic Restaurant Scene
When Rich and Rebekah Wood left a popular San Francisco restaurant to open Wood Tavern in 2007, they kick-started a food frenzy in Oakland. The classy, warm joint was soon brimming with neighborhood locals and visitors from across the Bay Bridge—commanding attention from the San Francisco fooderati and exploding old stereotypes.
Many chefs are following the Woods’s lead, moving in from San Francisco and Berkeley to make their mark on Oakland. In the past three years, more than 200 restaurants have opened their doors in the city. Top Chef contestant Preeti Mistry is at the helm of one of them—Juhu Beach Club, a casual, modern Indian eatery that’s earning rave reviews and repeat visitors.
And you simply can’t talk about the Oakland food scene without mentioning chef Charlie Hallowell, who honed his skills at Berkeley’s legendary Chez Panisse before opening Pizzaiolo. He has since followed up his success there with Penrose and Boot and Shoe Service, but Pizzaiolo remains the star. The Italian hotspot is packed for dinner but also offers up one of Oakland’s best bets for breakfast, with daily pastries like a spicy cheese croissant and cornmeal-raisin scone.
Camino, with its giant, open room and communal tables, is the labor of love of yet another Chez Panisse alum, chef Russell Moore, who shares ownership and creative vision with his wife, Allison Hopelain. Another early favorite in Oakland, the still-beloved restaurant is known for its emphasis on open-hearth cooking and rustic yet refined dishes.
And in Old Oakland, the Friday farmers market continues to be a launchpad for local talent (many of Oakland’s most popular places, like Bakesale Betty and Cholita Linda, got their start here), with current stand-out stall Flour Chylde Bakery serving up delicious gluten-free treats.
Catherine and I especially loved brand-new oyster bar and café The Cook and Her Farmer. Located in the old Swan’s Market building and accented by natural light and wood tables, this foodie favorite is co-owned by Romney Nani Steele, whose family owns Big Sur darling Nepenthe, and former public school teacher Steven Day. Their unique culinary offerings reflect both of their personalities, blending Steele’s coastal sensibilities with Day’s Memphis-born southern soul.
> The Alter-Napa: Oakland’s Urban Wineries Take Flight
The urban wine landscape has been growing steadily in the Bay area for the past decade, and there are now ten wineries in Oakland, represented by the East Bay Vintners Alliance (EBVA).
Many vintners, like Cerruti Cellars, are taking formerly abandoned spaces and turning them into wine destinations, combating, as Nina Newhouse of the EBVA noted, “the notion that living in a vineyard is the only way to make fantastic wine.” Cheers to that.
> Breaking the Chains: Mom ‘N Pop Retail
It is refreshing and increasingly unremarkable to explore a city without being assaulted by mass-market retail brands. Oakland is one such city.
Shopping local there should start in Temescal Alley. Formerly home to a horse-drawn streetcar line, the narrow street now houses an eclectic mix of jewel-box-size boutiques and eateries along with the popular walk-in-only Temescal Alley Barber Shop.
Walrus, which started as an Etsy outlet before opening up shop here, up-cycles or refurbishes home goods to fabulous effect. And don’t miss Kickstarter-funded Doughnut Dolly, where the fist-sized treats are infused with your choice of filling—like “naughty cream,” fruit jam, and dark chocolate—before being rolled in granulated or powdered sugar.
It’s worth the trip to head two miles southwest to Uptown, another mom ‘n pop mecca. At Owl N Wood, you’ll find a curated hodgepodge of pieces reflecting the Afro-Scandinavian style of Denmark-born owner Rachel Konte, who worked with Levi Strauss for years as a designer before opening up her own shop.
> Fair-Weather Fun: Out-of-Doors Oakland
When you’re blessed with weather this good (temperatures hover in the 60-70°F range most of the year), it makes sense that much Oakland’s art and culture scene is centered outdoors. The first Friday of each month brings Art Murmur, a grassroots initiative that has grown to include live music and more than 40 galleries that keep their doors open late for the occasion.
Oakland’s sizable waterfront is another focal point for outdoor activity. Jack London Square may be experiencing rapid change, but time seems to stand still at 19th-century mainstay Heinold’s First and Last Chance saloon, whose name harkens back to a time when sailors enjoyed a final drink before heading out to sea. The cozy throwback, famous for its heavily slanted floor caused by the 1906 earthquake, fits ten people, at most. Instead, opt for a modern, level chair outside on the ample patio.
Across town, the area around Lake Merritt—where white lights twinkle at night and beautiful, historical buildings are being renovated into upmarket apartments—is emerging as a favorite outdoor space in the city. The 3.5-mile path encircling the lagoon has long been a popular jogging and walking route, but as one Oaklander told us, “If you haven’t seen Lake Merritt in three years, you wouldn’t recognize it.”
The neighborhood still has a long way to go before it becomes a tourist destination, but for locals, the improvements—including major upgrades to Children’s Fairyland, a storybook themed park that first opened its doors back in 1950—are gratifying.
Annie Fitzsimmons is National Geographic Travel’s Urban Insider, exploring the cities of the world with style. Follow her adventures on the Urban Insider blog, Twitter @anniefitz, and Instagram @anniefitzsimmons.
Catherine Karnow is a contributing photographer at Traveler magazine known for her vibrant, emotional, and sensitive style of photographing people and places. Connect with her on Facebook and on Instagram @catherinekarnow.
> More from Annie and Catherine’s Trip:
- Five Lessons From a Nat Geo Photographer
- The Perfect Day in San Francisco
- How to Photograph Joyful People
- Dublin for Foodies
- The Perfect Day in Dublin
- Discovering Dublin’s Coastal Villages