Oakland’s 7th annual Restaurant Week is underway with over 100 participating restaurants in neighborhoods across the city. The event, which started on January 19 and runs through Sunday, is a way to engage residents and visitors with Oakland’s local dining scene in a post-holiday month that is typically slow for the restaurant industry.
Any restaurant in Oakland can participate as long as they offer prix-fixe menus within Visit Oakland’s designated and typically discounted price points, with the option of including some a la carte items. The ten-day event gives diners the options of choosing from $20, $30, $40 or $50 lunch or dinner menus that feature a mix of seasonal specials, fan favorites and new items. There’s no buy in for restaurants or diners. A full list of participating restaurants is available online and some offer the ability to make reservations through OpenTable, though they’re not required. This year, diner’s can enter to win gift cards provided by the week’s corporate sponsor, American Express, by using Visit Oakland’s online “Lucky 7” virtual slot machine and during nightly 7 o’clock drawings while dining out.
“Restaurant week has grown exponentially since it first started,” says Frances Wong, Visit Oakland’s senior public relations manager. This is Wong’s third restaurant week since she started working with Visit Oakland during the fall of 2014. “It gives our consumers a chance to try to different things. They can check out a restaurant they’ve been dying to try or go to a favorite,” she adds. Oakland Restaurant Week is a part of California Restaurant Month, a Visit California initiative that encourages travel to California during January.
On Tuesday night, Rebecca Waterbury sat with her two friends around a spread of guacamole, cactus quesadillas and sopa tarasca—a savory black bean pork broth soup topped with avocado leaves and chorizo verde. They’d ordered family-style, a strategic choice at Calavera, a Mexican kitchen and agave bar that sits on the 2300 block of Broadway. Hanging from the restaurant’s high ceilings are collections of hand-carved hummingbirds and alebijes, or spirit animals that Calavera’s executive team brought back from one of their many trips to Oaxaca, a cuisine and travel destination located south of Mexico City. The bar boasts a combination of over 250 different types of tequilas and mezcals, two popular spirits that are derived from agave plants.
Despite the drinks on the table, their focus was on the food. Waterbury, a restaurant week first-timer, dined at Drake’s Dealership, another participating restaurant on Monday night for a $40 prix-fixe menu of featuring a beer flight, crispy pork belly, pizza and short ribs. Tonight, Waterbury’s friends, Ashley Scaccia and Lizzy Schultz, who both work at one of Calavera’s sister restaurants, Lungomare, had invited her.
“As a bartender, I like to be able to give people honest opinions on where to eat,” says Scaccia. “After working through it, you learn it’s a week for people to try new things and to educate [them] about the quality of the food,” adds Schultz, as their second course of stuffed poblano peppers, wild gulf prawns in baked into a bed of Chihuahua cheese and smoky chipotle salsa, and wood-fired Petaluma chicken with a rich, chocolate mole hit the table. A few minutes before, they’d devoured a trio of tacos, a special $10 add-on to their $30 menu.
At Hutch Bar & Kitchen a few blocks away on Telegraph, owner David King, a self-proclaimed “Memphis boy,” honed in on his knack for combining southern succulence with fresh California ingredients. Hutch’s signature house salad, offered routinely and as a part of their Restaurant Week menu, features creamy goat cheese, winter greens and pecans tossed in smoked paprika, cayenne and other spices. (King says every salad he’s ever served has pecans). Served alongside the salad were Hutch’s rich, warm potato and leek soup topped with apple-smoked bacon. The featured entrée was a whiskey-brined and grilled pork chop served with hoppin’ john—a southern staple of rice and black-eyed peas—and a tangy pear and apple agrodulce, a traditional Italian sweet-and-sour sauce that, for Hutch, is akin to Indian chutneys in consistency. Hutch envisions it as a sophisticated upgrade to a typically basic pork chops and applesauce pairing.
King says he came into the Oakland culinary scene as “a newbie” back in 2013, but was welcomed by local chefs Nelson German (alaMar) and Kyle Itani (Hopscotch). He saw them opting into Restaurant Week deciding and, last year, decide to participate for the first time in his restaurant’s four-year history. “You don’t have to cross the bridge to eat at a great restaurant,” says King. “We should all be proud of the community we work, live and play in.”
The walls of Hutch are decorated with giant, multi-panel prints of the old Bay Bridge juxtaposed next to equally giant panels of the De Soto Bridge, an arched bridge that runs across parts of the Mississippi River, through Memphis, Tennessee. Identical circular, concentric circular light fixtures full of old-school Edison bulbs, designed by Kraftworks’ owner and blacksmith Jon Sarriguate, light the modest dining room and whiskey bar. King built all but one of his restaurant’s tables with his father. Hutch’s $40 Restaurant Week menu hangs from a roll of butcher paper, handwritten in typography that recalls old-school tattoo lettering.
“Restaurant Week, I hope, shines a little bit of light on us and [help] locals come in and find a gem. There’s still people who don’t even know we’re here,” said King, who’d just written down a reservation for a first-timer.
“Most of the restaurants in Oakland are small, independent restaurants which means that in some ways, we need as much help getting the word out,” says Chris Pastena, owner of Calavera, Chop Bar and Lungomare. Chop Bar was one of Oakland’s first restaurants to participate in the event’s first go-round in 2011. “We’re working together to showcase the special things that we do and the different things that we do,” says Pastena of the restaurant community in Oakland. All three of his restaurants are participating in Restaurant Week and, like a handful of other participating restaurants, are donating a portion of their sales to the Alameda County Food Bank. This is Visit Oakland’s first time pairing with the food bank.
To learn more about Oakland Restaurant Week’s participating restaurants and special promotions, visit www.oaklandrestaurantweek.org.