I love Chicago but I don’t love Chicago winters, a sentiment I’ve discovered is widely shared. The last few years I’ve gotten lucky enough to get out of here and go write in the Bay area. And I’m fond of San Francisco — Bourbon and Branch, Galeria de la Raza , City Lights Books, La Taqueria , The Make Out Room — but what I really, really love is Oakland.
And here’s why:
Every Sunday, all year round, this family and kid friendly open air market offers the best breads, jams, meats, fruits, greens … everybody’s got a sample too, so you can just kinda make your way through it. My favorites? The Hawaiian coffee guy, jams by the Blue Chair Fruit Co. , the dude who’ll write poems for you on the spot, and the folks over at Tasty Salted Pig Parts . We’re especially found of the greens, beets, potatoes and heirloom potatoes at Happy Boy Farms.
Just down the street from the pied a terre, it looks and feels more like a Midwest diner. Service is fast, no nonsense, and the food is good and hearty. For us, a great morning walk, terrific coffee, great people watching in the Laurel.
This is where we go when we wanna treat ourselves. Yeah, I know about Chicago’s chicken’n’waffles – I live on 43rd Street, c’mon – but BSK’s Chef Tanya Holland is an alchemist. Her waffles are light enough to fly, her grits are a smooth creamy manna. I have no idea what she puts in the buttermilk batter in which that chicken marinates, but I know it’s not of this earth. Going here for breakfast or lunch – no dinner – requires commitment. In West Oakland, lines go out the door and down the block by ten o’clock.
Established as “museum for the people” in the heady year of 1969, the best shows here may be the permanent ones about California. There’s an “Art of” and a “History of” California and both are wonderfully accessible, rich and interactive without being condescending.
Yeah, there’s a lot of eating to be done in Oakland. And this place is outrageous (they even have a theme song, just listen on the website). It’s a corner storefront with a line of ironing boards on the sidewalk where people sit and eat and the longest and most constant line in Oakland. While waiting, there’s usually a free coffee or cookies or whatever else is baking. And it moves quick. Staff is friendly, fast and merrily mellow. The menu’s stripped down and that’s fine. What you want is the fried chicken sandwich. It’s a torpedo of love, honest to god: spicy, crispy, overly generous. It’s okay if you can’t eat it all. If you get it without the slaw, which is nicely crunchy and vinegary, then get the slaw as a side.
Also down the street from us, first time I walked in this place, I thought, Lesbian Nation lives! Except for the utter lack of judgment, that is … you can say stuff like, “I had surgery, I take painkillers, I love Western medicine” and folks don’t get weird on you. The acupuncturists here are warm, friendly, and knowledgeable. You get treated in a large community room, stay as long as you like, even nap (the snoring sometimes is pretty amusing). It’s sliding scale pay, honor system. And – most importantly – this really works. After all that eating and doing nothing in Oakland, relaxing in a healthy fashion is crucial.
For me, these two things go together. Lake Merritt is Oakland’s ground zero – a 3.4 mile salt and fresh water lake where all of the local humanity comes to hang out. And yet, bizarrely, it never feels overwhelming. Little old Asian ladies on their daily constitution, sinewy white guys on bikes and ethnically ambiguous families of all ages co-exist here happily. There’s an aviary, the occasional musician, benches folks actually sit and read at, some colorful folks who take care of the feral cats up by the wooded hill, so many strollers, so many young lovers. At the end of our invigorating walk, we usually wound up at the Lake Chalet, originally a pumping station and still headquarters for the Oakland Rowing Club. The drinks are delicious – I usually order a hot bourbon concoction that had the word “furnace” in its name – and the 3-6-9 happy hour – even on Sundays! – makes everything affordable. The calamari is light, fresh, simple and scrumptious.
The oldest black bookstore in the country, it’s spacious, filled with treasures – not just the latest thing – and a whole calendar of great events. We had a great time seeing WBEZ’s Natalie Moore and her co-writer Lance Williams lead a lively discussion about their book, Almighty Black P Stone Nation: The Rise, Fall and Resurgence of an American Gang that drew all sorts of good folks.
Club Martinique, 3000 MacArthur Blvd:
About a block away from us. We wandered in one late afternoon and they were playing dominoes. Place was cozy, friendly, and the company was cool. The bartender, a snappy, stylish gal, told us it was fine if we were there in the afternoons and weeknights but not safe for us Friday and Saturday nights. We took her advice but always felt a pang when we saw all those skintight-fitted ladies and hip hop dudes going in and out of the place. There’s always a crowd outside on weekend nights, firecracker laughter and the later and later, the sharper the heels on the sidewalk from the incessant traffic.
It’s weird: It really is a truck, but it sits in a lot next to a building with the Ojo del Agua logo. Nothing much happens with the building – it’s closed. But there’s crazy good cooking going on in the truck. The tacos are cheap-a-rama, massive, and perfect after you’ve been hanging out all night. The crispy, juicy al pastor practically makes me cry.
There’s so much other stuff: The Mormon Temple, the Grand Lake Theater. But this is a good start.