New restaurant in Oakland an oasis in food desert
on September 9, 2016
An aging bald man waist-high in trash rummages through a dumpster outside Stay Gold Delicatessen. Residents walk by and yell, tell him to stop messing with junk, but he keeps sorting through it as if he can’t hear them. Just over a fence covered with black fabric and grapevines, another Oakland exists.
There, the beer garden is hopping.
The Friday afternoon scene on either side of the fence offers a glimpse of what was and what might be on the corner of San Pablo Avenue and 27th Street in a patch of West Oakland, known for its high rates of poverty and crime.
While many might see a sign of new money in the beer garden, residents say the recently-opened deli also provides what is sorely needed in the neighborhood: a place to go out in what has for decades been a food—or at least restaurant—desert.
“I used to go to the Telegraph, that burger bar in North Oakland,” said 28-year-old Robert Garcia. “But now I just come here because it’s right up the street.”
Garcia has lived in the neighborhood for six years, and he has come to Stay Gold a few times a week since it opened in late May. He said the sandwiches are good. But the main reason he comes to the deli is that there’s not much else around.
He’s right. Construction lots, empty storefronts, an AutoZone and a print shop surround Stay Gold. The closest gem is Tamales La Oaxaqueña, a taco joint a couple blocks east.
Walk through the deli’s front door and customers like Garcia see a small grocery store and a deli counter, where people can order coffee and sandwiches that range from $5 to $10. There’s a rotating barbecue plate special, with brisket and ribs smoked on-site.
Old-fashioned bar stools sit between some craft beer taps and an indoor seating area decorated with hanging plants, succulents on diner tables and a wall of vinyl records that ends at a row of pinball machines. Classic rock and soul music pump through speakers.
The restaurant’s name comes from S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders, the book that popularized the phrase “Stay gold, Ponyboy.” Jason Herbers, co-owner of the restaurant, says he’s a big fan of the movie.
The name really has nothing to do with the place being an oddball in the neighborhood, he said. But the designation seems fitting. Many of Stay Gold’s customers echo Garcia’s sentiment, characterizing the restaurant as an oasis of fun and flavor.
“I can come here, be accepted and just chill out,” said customer Marcus D. Thomas, who is from Oakland but now lives in Patterson. “It’s not too hip, not under-hip. It’s right there.”
The owners agree.
“In the end, we’re providing a public service for everyone,” said Herbers, a West Oakland resident who owns the deli with two others and up until last year owned Eli’s Mile High Club.
Herbers said most of his customers work in the service industry or for community groups, and that is what the owners wanted—a space that anyone would feel welcome in, including West Oakland’s low-income residents.
To that end, Stay Gold does seem to attract a diverse crowd. There’s the grandma who shuffled out to the patio with a beer in one hand and a cane in the other. There are the tattooed and pierced hipsters with bright green and blue hair, with chosen names like Real Ideal Phake and Huckleberry. And there’s the 55-year-old Pak N’ Save employee, Kevin Moore, who comes all the way from East Oakland for the deli’s hot ginger tea. “I don’t like West Oakland,” he said as he mixed sugar into his tea at the drink station. “I just like this place.”
Another regular lives out of a car, Herbers said, and members of the East Bay Rats Motorcycle Club flooded the place during its grand opening in late August.
For co-owner Michael Dright, the restaurant’s address is a bit more personal. Dright, now an Alameda resident, grew up in the neighborhood. He said the area has always needed a hang-out spot, and he wants customers to linger, play foosball, meet their neighbors.
“People act out because they don’t have a place to express themselves, and let their hair down,” Dright said. “That’s what helps people really embrace a community.”
But the owners say they also wants to attract those who can afford Stay Gold’s pricier wines and dinner plates, which are expected to roll out next week.
“Some people, once they see someone pushing a shopping cart of cans through the street or their car gets broken into, they get intimidated by it,” Herbers said of Stay Gold’s location. “At the same time, those same kind of people have a thing for oddities and weird stuff and they kind of like coming down to a bad neighborhood. It gives them a story for their rich friends.”
The seemingly contradictory ambitions—a hangout spot for everyone and a dinner place for those who can pay for pricier meals—are another development in 2635 San Pablo storied past.
William Belford—a community activist who died in a car crash in 2005—bought the place in the 1960s. Belford was known as “the Godfather” of nearby McClymonds High School for founding the youth basketball team, Belford’s Believers. The spot on San Pablo was first the Believer’s Drive-In, back when the Black Panthers called West Oakland home.
The property was transferred to his wife, Evelyn Belford, in 2000, according to city assessor’s records.
Over the last 15 years, Evelyn Belford leased the building to a number of failed ventures, most recently a soul food restaurant and an LGBTQ youth agency. Neither could keep up with rent, Belford said. She turned down several business proposals for the place before signing a lease with Stay Gold.
Belford said she thinks Stay Gold is a positive addition to the neighborhood. “We needed a deli, but we also need a grocery store, a bank,” she said of the neighborhood. “Hopefully all of this stuff is coming down the corridor.”
For now, residents like 28-year-old Cheyenne Cannon are just happy to have a restaurant closer to home. Much of her three years living in in West Oakland, she said, have been spent on Telegraph Avenue in Temescal. Now the jeweler is at the deli a few times a week, eating sandwiches, sipping beer—or wine, if she’s feeling fancy, she said.
When asked how she feels about a hip deli coming into the neighborhood, Cannon is torn. She said Stay Gold offers a unique vibe compared to the bars and restaurants on Telegraph, which, she said, are frequented by throngs of techies—something she’d like to escape. Cannon said she doesn’t expect the tech crowd to come to her neighborhood; you need grit to live and hang out in this neighborhood, she said.
“They’re not trying to be something that they’re not,” Cannon said of Stay Gold. “They’re trying to beautify their community without gentrifying their community. Unfortunately, those two things seemed to be tethered together.”
Garcia also summoned the “G word” when asked the same question. “If you consider gentrification to be a real ill then like, it’s up for debate, because most of the people I see here aren’t the people I’ve seen in my neighborhood for six years,” he said. “If that’s problematic, then whatever. But I don’t view it as bad.”
Stay Gold co-owner Stella Lane said she understands the debate. She herself was evicted from her place in West Oakland two months ago after her landlord raised the rent. “It hurt. It hurt real bad,” she said, but later added about the business, “We set out wanting to provide affordable food and groceries for people, and that’s what we’re staying true to.”
Oakland North is an online news service produced by students at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism and covering Oakland, California. Our goals are to improve local coverage, innovate with digital media, and listen to you–about the issues that concern you and the reporting you’d like to see in your community. Please send news tips to: firstname.lastname@example.org.