Living Oakland

By
November 7, 2002

Mills College Weekly

The city of Oakland is 150 years old, and its stately downtown reflects the history of the area. With many ornate landmark buildings, some of which have been restored in recent years, downtown Oakland gives off an aura of authority and past grandeur.

With the City Center, Convention Center, Jack London and Old Oakland areas thriving, there’s increasing excitement about Oakland’s prospects for the future. The Preservation Park area and Broadway corridors are also attracting a lot of attention from long and short-term residents alike.

Indeed, on any weekday the streets are full of people bustling around City Center at 14th and Broadway, an area that has been the city’s center since the third city hall was built there in 1911. It’s there that most of the city government and many non-profit organizations are located. Weekends bring people out for farmer’s markets and brunch, though it’s much quieter.

Downtown is also the cultural center of Oakland, with museums and galleries, dance and music concerts and enclaves like Chinatown. It’s the heart of a constantly changing, diverse and undeniably great city, one whose potential has surfaced again.

Downtown

Historical Landmarks

Some of Oakland’s history has been preserved in its beautiful old buildings. Some date to before the turn of the century while others are fine examples of Art Deco design, so when you’re walking or riding around downtown, be sure to look up and around.

Restaurants

Koffee Pot – The Koffee Pot is probably the last place you can get eggs, hash-browns, toast, and a cup of coffee all for $4, so it’s a great place to know if you’re hungry and poor. Two people can have breakfast and tip the proprietors, a friendly Korean couple, for under $10. If you find authentic diner atmosphere charming, be sure to stop by – the place is tiny, little more than a greasy counter and a kitchen.

The Vo’s – Eat at the Vo’s if only for the pink chopsticks. Seriously, though, the Vo’s is a beautiful restaurant with a classy staff and lovely dining and banquet rooms.

The food is excellent. There’s a wide selection and they make tapioca drinks, which are fabulous. If you’re lucky, a Vietnamese action movie will be playing silently on the television above the bar.

Coffee

Papa Buzz Caf‚ – Papa Buzz is along the new Telegraph arts corridor, right near galleries like 21 Grand. It’s a bit of a gallery itself, with constantly changing art displays on the walls. It’s also a fun hangout, with a pretty, relaxing back patio.

Bars and Nightlife

The Paramount – Built in 1931, the Paramount Theater is a fine example of why Oakland is considered one of the top cities in which to view Art Deco architecture.

Renovated in the ’80s, the Paramount is now home to the Oakland Symphony and the Oakland Ballet, and is widely used for plays and concerts.

That’s all beside the point, though, if you’re a movie buff. Six times a season, the Paramount shows classic movies. It’s the best $5 you’ll ever spend.

There’s a live organist and a whole pre-movie show, with old news reels, cartoons or shorts, and a preview for coming classic films.

The best part is the Dec-O-Wheel, an old prize wheel. During the spinning, ushers run around the audience awarding prizes like dinners to local restaurants and Dec-O-Wheel pins. It’s the kind of classic fun that renders the movie itself almost secondary.

Radio – Radio is definitely the hippest, trendiest bar in downtown Oakland. It caters to the young, scenester set and is a fun place to stop in and have a drink, to see and be seen. The d‚cor is fabulous, with mirrored columns and red lighting. Every now and then it gets a little smoky, but not so smoky that you’ll go home with smelly clothes.

The Ruby Room – Owned by the people that own Radio, the Ruby Room is the homey sibling of its mirrored counterpart. Also with a red lighting scheme and tattooed patrons, the set at The Ruby Room is cool, but not exclusively so. The Ruby Room also boosts a pool table, but put your name on the list immediately if you plan to play. The wait can be long.

If you have a good, ironic sense of humor, check out soul night (Wed.). You’ll never see more skinny, white boys shaking their groove thing (assuming, of course, that they can even find their groove thing).

The Stork Club – There’s no smoke at the Stork, though there are collectible Barbie dolls behind the bar and the Christmas decorations stay up all year long. The Stork is one of the few live music venues in Oakland to play rock. Fortunately, cover is low and drinks are reasonably priced.

Oasis – Oasis is a great bar with great music. They put on an awesome hip-hop night and often have experimental artists playing. There’s also an attached restaurant, the Museum Kitchen, where you can get a great Nigerian meal.

21 Grand – This art gallery and music space is a fine example of the recent surge in the arts in Oakland. It’s a great venue for progressive music and art. Visit www.21grand.org for listings.

Chinatown

Oakland’s Chinatown isn’t so much a Chinatown as a Pan-Asiantown.

With large Vietnamese, Thai, Korean and Chinese populations, this area in downtown Oakland is home to open air markets and herb shops, travel agents and excellent Asian restaurants.

Some people actually feel it’s a more authentic Chinatown than San Francisco’s because it hasn’t yet been commercialized.

Perhaps that’s what makes it such a great resource.

You can get amazing Chinese food, that special chalk that keeps ants away and obscure squash and root vegetables, along with medicinal herbs and cell phone accessories all on the same block.

There’s also a lot of history. The current site of Chinatown is actually the third Chinatown Oakland has had.

Chinese immigrants came to Oakland with the California Gold Rush and later with the Transcontinental Railroad, and have been a strong force in the city since.

Overcoming once legal discrimination, Chinatown has gone from being an exclusion zone to a thriving commercial and residential area in its 130 years of history.

There’s also a lot of physical history in Oakland’s Chinatown, from stately old buildings with moon gates, the Kum Hay Teahouse, which is currently being renovated, to the cobblestones at 7th and Webster streets which are purported to be from 1869.

Resources

Asian Branch of the Oakland Library – With a focus on English language materials about Asian cultures and large sections in 14 different languages, the Asian branch of the Oakland Public Library is an amazing tool for multilingual readers and researchers. The staff is also multilingual and available to help.

Asian Resource Center – Set in a landmark French Gothic building from 1924, the resource center offers community development services.

Restaurants

The Silver Dragon – One of many large, ornate, Chinese restaurants in Chinatown, the Silver Dragon has fine food and reasonable prices. Because of the genial atmosphere, it is a very pleasant place to dine.

Old Oakland

The Old Oakland area is a small square of blocks west of Broadway, between the Convention Center, Clay and 8th streets.

Because of its concentration of historic and well-preserved commercial Victorian buildings, the area was selected for redevelopment in 1980 by Storek and Storek, the architectural firm that manages many of the buildings.

This area was the first commercial center in Oakland and has been a hub of activity since the 1860s.

Though the city expanded northward, the area that is now Old Oakland didn’t experience a decline until after World War II, when many people left the city for the suburbs and Oakland experienced significant economic depression.

Fortunately, the beautiful buildings were spared and have now been renovated. Some are historic hotel blocks and others were commercial spaces.

They are now stately mixed-use buildings. They are home to art galleries, restaurants, stores and non-profit organizations.

It’s a little incongruous to see a Smart and Final in the grand Wilcox building, which was the first three- story building in Oakland, but the revitalization of the area has added a needed boost to downtown Oakland.

Another notable building is the Sanford, the oldest masonry building in Oakland, which dates back to 1865. It’s definitely worth a visit to see the beautifully preserved architecture and to experience the historic farmer’s market.

Highlights

Farmer’s Market – This three- block farmer’s market is the oldest and largest in Oakland, dating back to the time when the area was a major marketplace. Here you can get wide varieties of fresh produce, flowers, and even live poultry and fish.

MoCHA – The Museum of Children’s Art is both a gallery and a learning center, where art programs are held for kids of all ages.

Ratto’s – Ratto’s International Market and Deli makes the best sandwiches downtown.

At lunchtime, the line stretches around the store and sometimes out into the street, so if you’re planning to eat, go early or late.

If you just want to browse or buy food, it’s easier. Ratto’s carries everything from bulk pasta to vintage Oakland postcards.

They also have a mouth-watering array of imported European candies and bulk spices. Ratto’s has been a fixture downtown since 1888 and the building is beautifully preserved.

The Bookmark – This mostly used bookstore is run by the Friends of the Oakland Public Library. It’s full of retired library books and collections donated by library lovers. Prices are quite reasonable because most of the staff members volunteer their time, and the store is always looking for new volunteers for a few shifts a week.

Book stores like the Bookmark are great fun because you never know what they’ll have in stock; each visit is a surprise. They also carry some music and a few movies, but the supply and selection are quite limited.

Toutatis, a Crepe House – Named for a mythical Gaul, Toutatis is a delightful corner of France in a big American city. Crepes at Toutatis are paper thin and delicious, prepared with the care and experience of the restaurant’s French owner.

Enjoy a breakfast inside, where the tables are adorned with Asterix and Obelix comics, pictures of France and wine labels, or sit in the sun outside on the back patio.

The best part of a Toutatis meal is that the portions are reasonably sized, not like huge American meals, so it’s possible to have a savory buckwheat crepe and then share a sweet crepe with a friend for dessert.

Go for dinner if you want crepes flamb‚ for dessert – they’re only served in the evening.


Living Oakland was published on November 7, 2002 in Features

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