The VICE Guide to San Francisco: The East Bay and Oakland
Increasingly, a stay in the Bay means your Oaktown bound.
Lead image taken at Classic Cars West. All photos by Marko Knezevic.
Let's address the elephant in this incredibly expensive room from the outset: Yes, we know Oakland and the East Bay are not San Francisco, and including them in a guide to that city may rub some the wrong way. After all, you wouldn't include Camden in a city guide about Philadelphia. But then again, if Philadelphia residents were being driven across the river in droves by rising rents, and growing expenses, and a good part of the creative personality that made it great was beginning to survive and thrive in the New Jersey city, you might. So we're including the East Bay and Oakland into our VICE Guide to San Francisco, not because it doesn't deserve its own (honestly, we're barely touching on it here), but because not giving it due props would be weird, especially given that the wild transformation occurring in the Bay Area has pressed them so closely together.
San Franciscans used to smugly note the number of months or years it'd been since they crossed the Bay Bridge into Oakland. Lately, though, they're fleeing the city's outrageous cost of living for the relative comforts of the East Bay. Which means Oakland has begun to share San Francisco's problems: skyrocketing rent, rampant displacement, and civic regimes keen to accommodate business interests at the expense of long-standing cultural institutions.
Next year, for instance, Uber is set to expand from its San Francisco headquarters into downtown Oakland, installing 3,000 employees in a previously vacant Sears, recently rechristened Uptown Station. Will the company also bring its homogenous workforce and churlish corporate culture across the bay? Many residents of the city—known in recent years for its especially tenacious site of Occupy, the genesis of #BlackLivesMatter, and the singular excellence of the Golden State Warriors—worry that will indeed be the case. This is, after all, "the soil where rappers be getting their lingo from," as E-40 put it, and the flatlands where Lil B foreran internet rap.
Shifting demographics—namely the expulsion of poor and black residents—is a plain and stark reality, one that's compacted by an absence of tenant protections and a lack of teeth behind politicians' pledges about "development without displacement." But Oakland's legacy of grassroots organization has manifested imminent ballot measures and potent acts of protest, which include an insurrectionary fringe bent on squatting foreclosed homes in the heart of global capitalism.
Amid the precarious, tense climate are simple pleasures, even affordable ones, especially in the way of bars and eateries. There's a vibe in East Bay and Oakland, one filled with a shadowy constellation of warehouses stowing industrial techno, cracked punk, and as-yet unnamed subcultures. What follows is a list of establishments run by immigrant families and bikers and guitarists subsisting on an income from a 20-year-old Green Day recording credit. Some of them have sheltered protesters from frenzied cabals of Oakland cops. Others boast regulars who haven't been to San Francisco in decades.
The Ruby Room Arguably the quintessential Oakland dive, the Ruby Room is a notoriously dark, low-ceilinged, scarlet-tinted hallway—occasionally lit by a flaming bar—that leads to a small but vital dance floor and a separate room where smoking is not only still permitted, it's de rigueur. Expect stiff, cheap drinks and weekend bouts of amateur behavior followed by regulars' swift and merciless judgment. Also, mind the next-door liquor store; everyone does. Once a hideout for legal flacks from the Alameda Courthouse across the street, it became the Ruby Room in 1999, retaining a rock wall that reportedly dates back to the 1950s. For a long while, the Ruby Room featured Trevor Latham—president of the East Bay Rats Motorcycle Club who was recently profiled by author Alex Abramovich in Bullies—as its quintessential Oakland door guy.
A pretty filthy outpost amid a patch of wholesale produce vendors in Oakland's otherwise mightily gentrified Jack London District, Merchant's Saloon was founded in 1916 and for decades largely served nearby dockworkers. The trough that runs along the edge of the bar is no longer intended for sailors' easy relief, but the place still smells like piss. The structural integrity brings "shack" to mind. There's an ancient piano and occasional live music, which skews metal and punk or the sort of haggard country preferred by old punks. The Warehouse, the city's longtime cop bar, stood a mere three blocks away until shuttering earlier this year, which seems to Merchant's regulars like a victory. Here's to the salty watering hole outlasting the newfangled wine place across the street.
Cafe Van Kleef
Uptown wasn't known as Uptown when a Dutchman named Peter Van Kleef opened his eponymous bar there in 2004, blocks from the then-derelict Fox Theater. It was relatively sleepy, populated by artists and homespun cultural fixtures amid the vacancies—a far cry from today's strip of glitzy joints and an incoming Uber headquarters. And yet, Van Kleef looks much the same as it once did, the walls teeming with a colorful, delightfully senseless array of objects: swords and shields from France, an (operable) boxing bell, the stuffed head of a water buffalo, a DNA sculpture, etc. They were all collected by Van Kleef, who died last year. And the locally revered figure told a tall tale about each one. It does a brisk business and often smells of citrus. Bartenders constantly pulp grapefruits for the signature drink, a Greyhound.
The Night Light
Relative newcomer to the Jack London District, the Night Light's ostensible appeal is its old world swagger: brass-tacked leather chairs, lustrous wood, vintage light fixtures, and dark, paisley wallpaper. And the cocktails, which skew whiskey, similarly couple familiarity with detail-oriented craft. But unlike other buttoned-up bars, the Night Light is hospitable to free DJ nights and cheap gigs upstairs, where smaller national touring acts and worthwhile local acts regularly perform. Doug Kinsey, who opened the bar in 2012 with Johnny Nackley, often stalks the sidewalk out front, offering Parliaments to passing acquaintances. Importantly, he lends wide latitude to a rotating cast of local bookers.
The Starline Social Club
Originally built as an Odd Fellows Hall in the 1890s, the two-story building at the corner of Grand Avenue and Martin Luther King Jr. Way evolved through incarnations such as janitorial supply house and hip-hop club before it came into the possession of artists who started to throw underground events. And then one of the artists, Adam Hatch, partnered with noted restaurateur-types to bring the space into compliance with the city and launch the Starline Social Club. Downstairs, a bar winds serpent-like across the room, where patrons working on pricey entrees mingle with others who down cheap beer and stumble toward the karaoke annex. And upstairs there's another bar in the wooden, creaky 400-person capacity venue portion, where programming takes in experimental music, hip-hop, queer dance parties, and recurring events such as "Showga."
Exterior signage limited to a neon martini glass, the Layover attracts with its reputation for a churning dancefloor. Low, black ceilings lend the downtown establishment a cloak-and-dagger allure, which the otherwise colorful, thrifted décor then complicates. None of which seems to matter much on weekends, when one of the city's strongest rosters of resident DJs charge the fairly small room with an outsized club atmosphere. Its success since opening in 2009 is apt given the credentials of the cofounders: Zachary Turner, better known as Foreign Legion's Prozack Turner; and Tim Martinez, who'd previously founded the much-missed cafe, Papa Buzz (later Mama Buzz).
Missouri sounds like "misery," and that's the joke. Dives can indeed be miserable, but Missouri Lounge is mostly a joyful place. Anyway, Missouri is notable for its big, smoke-friendly patio, juicy burgers, and for being Berkeley's oldest dive. Its DJs are good, and beer-and-shot combos retail for $5. Plus, it's a safe enough distance from shitty college bars up the way.
This soulful little place—run by Chez Panisse alum Charlie Hallowell—put Oakland's Temescal neighborhood on the map. Lines formed immediately, made up of East Bayers hungry for a decent wood-fired pie (or rigatoni sauced with pork-rich ragu. Or clams served hot from that same stove, served with toast and green garlic). Reservations are definitely recommended, unless you actually enjoy watching other people eat for an hour and a half. Or you could try your luck at Hallowell's second venture, Boot and Shoe Service, just a couple of miles away.
An evening spent here is the easiest way to hop to Oaxaca, the south-of-the-border obsession du jour. There's no shying away from the theme: Shelves are lined with sugar skulls and a very fine selection of mezcal (booze nerds, take note), while the food is all blue tortilla tacos and pollo en mole pablano. We personally dig the salt air margarita, which comes with a foam made with imported Oaxacan sea salt. Final verdict: Tacos + mezcal + uptown hipsters = an acceptable gentrification of downtown Oakland.
A pop-up experiment made good, Kronnerburger is not for everyone. The burgers are served rare, the ketchup made in house, and the servers are occasionally eye-rollingly pretentious about the whole shtick (and the end of the day, we really are just talking about sandwiches). But if you want a real burger—the kind a shirtless Putin might tear into after riding through the Siberian outback—Kronnerburger is ready for you with its swarthy patty melt and bone marrow sides (served in a real bone). And to be fair, these guys make a mean veggie burger.
B Dama in Swan's Market
Hit this izakaya in Oakland's happening food hall at peak hours, and you'll have to elbow through the crowd to order. Do like we do and just pretend you're in Tokyo: Patiently wait your turn to slurp up sturdy udon noodles and plump, gently fried agedashi tomatoes at the tiny eight-seat bar.
Mama's Royal Cafe
Every city has one: The diner that's stood the test of time, filled with battle-scarred bar stools and seen-it-all waitresses, devoted locals, and its own particular breed of Americana. In Oakland, that place is Mama's and its strain of Americana harks back to the California locavore movement of 1974, when it was born. What that means for you: Straightforward breakfast and lunch made seven days a week from local ingredients (toast for the bacon-stuffed Dagwood sandwich is sliced from Acme bread and eggs for the hearty omelets are plucked from Petaluma chickens). If there's a lull in the weekend rush, ask waitress Sherry about her 1,000-strong apron collection.
Tacos Mi Rancho
Oakland is flush with food carts that too often traffic in hype and gimmickry, but taco trucks are the most reliable fixtures of the city's mobile food culture. Tacos Mi Rancho, the one most likely brought to mind by the phrase "the taco truck," is located just east of Lake Merritt on a one-way strip of 1st Avenue. It's open just as curiously late as the late-night neon psychic services next door. In the wee hours past last call, it's a bit of mob scene. Fixie warriors and scraper cars alike descend on the humble truck, which bears an endearingly disproportionate rural landscape painting on the side. Cheap burritos and tacos come wrapped in foil with a paper bag of off-brand Doritos, and in golden moments, a great eclectic throng of regulars settles curbside to feast.
Oakland's Chinatown, situated just east of downtown artery Broadway, is crowded, loud, and vigorous, but the energy is more quotidian and practical than its better-known San Francisco counterpart. Inside Cam Huong it's much the same. A narrow chute of a restaurant, diners shout orders and foist bills across the counter, then take their food to go or elbow their way into one of the few cafeteria-style tables in back (there's a more spacious outpost in East Oakland). The banh mi—that colonial coupling of toasted French rolls and Vietnamese sandwich ingredients such aspâté—is crucial in meat and vegetarian configurations, especially when curried tofu is involved. And Cam Huong—which accepts cash and cash only—offers even better value than Oakland's very affordable taco trucks. Patrons can leave with a sandwich and rice noodles or pad thai for a mere $5.
Dessert first: Baklava at this squirreled away Lebanese and Greek diner is peerless in terms of taste and texture. Dusted with chopped nuts, the triangular pastry's featherweight layers of filo emit blissful syrup with each bite. And for those who dine in, a small brick of the stuff is included in the cost of an entrée. To enter Wally's, patrons walk past a couple garbage bins and through a gate—or else through a connected, boisterous bar called the Bank Club—then mount a wooden swivel stool at the U-shaped counter and consult the menu. It offers burgers and wings alongside the (preferable) Mediterranean fare. What precedes each entrée—a bowl of garlicky lentil soup, delivered by Wally or a family member—is almost as good as the baklava.
If you can navigate your way around all the artisanal donut shops and taxidermy boutiques, you can probably still find an amazing burrito in the Mission. East Bay heads know, though, the consummate Bay Area Mexican food experience is at the trucks east of the lake. Best Taco Truck in Oakland is a contentious issue, and it's far from unanimous decision, but Sinaloa tends to be the consensus favorite, mostly because it's extremely fucking delicious. The parking lot at the corner of International and East 22nd features two trucks, typically both with healthy lines. Be adventurous, and hit the one of the far side, opposite International, for the fish tacos, because you're cultured and different. You're reading this so you can impress people, remember?
Fourteenth Street between Broadway and Franklin in downtown Oakland includes a three-level hip-hop complex known as Vinyl, but you're more likely to hear wax spun a couple doors down at the sandwich shop Analog. Employees at the small, late-night eatery play VHS on mute while punk and rap records blare and patrons flip a menu from the A-side (meat) to the B-side (vegan). The sandwiches, about a dozen in all, have names like the Young and the Breastless and Like a Vegan. They're all excellent. Acme focaccia cradles generous portions of meat or seared seitan slathered in bold spices and citrusy sauces, all of which pairs with the selection of craft and swill beer. Anyway, there's an 8-bit Nintendo too.
Abura-ya is a permanent pop-up, meaning four nights a week it transforms a quaint salad spot into a source for a style of Japanese fried chicken known as karaage. The logo is a spinoff of the iconic Ramones graphic. Instead of an eagle, there's a rooster clutching a knife in its talon. A scroll in the mouth reads "Domo arigato." Fittingly then, it's a freewheeling place. The improvised kitchen is composed of deep fryers, griddles, and buckets of sauce. But people come to Abura-ya (which means oil shop in Japanese) for the karaage. Preparing the dish involves marinating boneless, skinless chicken in sake and shio koji (mold-inoculated rice) overnight, then battering and frying. (These guys also prepare tofu and soy protein the same way). Finally, customers select from an array of flavors. Patrons order at the counter and tend to linger, drinking.
Family-owned since 1926, Genova Delicatessen is one of the last remnants of Temescal's early-to-mid 20th century Italian character. And like the nearby Colombo Club, Genova waves a proud, bold flag for its heritage. The restaurant and market, which also operates a production facility nearby, peddles imported truffle goods, vats of olive oil, and wheels of cheese in addition to cold meat by the pound and bulk gnocchi and tortellini. But it's the brisk lunch business—expedited by a number system and a team of about 25 svelte men and women behind the counter—that distinguishes Genova as a destination. The sandwiches, in particular, are moist, plump, and preternaturally flavorful; well wrapped in butcher paper and clasped with the Genova seal, they're like branded gold bricks.
Eli's Mile High Club
Hanging in the back of Eli's is a framed 1979 newspaper article telling the story of the murder of its founder, Eli Thorton. Back in the 70s, Eli's was a premier Oakland blues joint before its namesake was gunned down (in the bar) by a jealous side piece. A few decades later, Eli's evolved into a divey, dimly lit hub for all things punky and loud. Whiskey and beer are cheap, there's a big ass back patio with pool tables, and shows featuring local punk and metal scene fixtures pretty routinely hit for five or ten bucks. Plus, Eli's still celebrates its blues and R&B heritage: The walls are plastered with classic concert posters and ephemera, and if you ask nicely, somebody might even show you the toilet James Brown puked in.
Dan Sung Sa (Porno Bar)
The sign outside reads "Dan Sung Sa," but anybody who frequents this hidden gem knows it by a different name. Once upon a time, the location housed an adult book store, and these days, it still retains some skeezy mystique. The outside facade is decorated with erotic Korean vintage ads, and though the contemporary posters and magazine cutouts that line the walls are a little more tame, crowdsourced dick and boob drawings abound.
It's also open till 2 AM, the food is delicious, and soju arrives in gigantic, group-friendly pitchers. The five or ten blocks in both directions down Telegraph are as close a thing as Oakland has to a true Koreatown, and Porno is one of a handful of places in the neighborhood to grab tasty Korean eats and a plastic bottle of Hite the size of a toddler. The food is spicy and greasy, and the soundtrack leans radio rap heavy. Highly recommended for folks who feel good about scarfing down squid noodles with some Ferg in the background.
Lois the Pie Queen
If you're in town long enough to dedicate a full day to sleeping off breakfast, Lois the Pie Queen is probably a good investment of your time. Frills are minimal, but the whole place has a warm, fuzzy family vibe, centered on the mythology of its namesake, Lois Brown, who founded the restaurant half a century ago. The wall behind the counter is decorated with portraits of local heroes, and the fried chicken will fuck your life up. Oh, and obviously get pie. Don't not get pie.
Park Blvd. Records
The great vinyl resurgence of the last decade has had the unexpected effect of making record collecting kinda suck. Pretentious, hyper-curated shops are snobbier and more expensive than ever. And if you happen to like rap music, the boutique record store climate has always been a little hostile, since it tends to cater pretty heavily to crusty rock dad sensibilities and, like, guitar stuff. For those reasons, it's cool that Oakland once again has a rap-centric hub for records and tapes. Park Blvd. Records (read VICE's feature interview about the shop here) is stocked lovingly by a pair of dudes with impressive rap internet credentials: writer and Cocaine Blunts founder Andrew Nosnitsky and Bay rap archivist 12 Man Rambo. Though the shop carries all kinds of music, it's geared to true rap nerds, which means it can get granular (i.e. subsections for Hyphy, Ringtone Rap, and Miami Bass) without being boring or unapproachable. The shop makes a point of stocking bootlegs and local mixtapes, and you can probably scoop just about anything from the $hort Dog catalog on cassette for like ten bucks.
Deep down, we all know the house party is mightier than the shitty dumb bar, and West Oakland's Regulars Only is an institution built on that understanding. A few years ago, the guys who own the house converted their backyard into a fully functional venue, complete with a stage, a fire pit, and a grill station. Functions are sporadic and BYOB, and DJ sets from scene regulars like Erk Tha Jerk and Daghe run the gamut from hyphy classics to old school funk and R&B. Tell a friend, bring booze, vibe out. Just try not to blow up the spot.
The monthly local festival attracts thousands from across the bay. Telegraph Ave is shut down, and the vendors and food trucks roll out. The street is lined with art galleries, live music performances, crafts and clothes for sale, and bars every two blocks. Best of all, it's all organized and staffed by Oakland locals, who knew better than to live in SF.
Mosswood is a historic streetball landmark, the one-time home court for folks like Gary Payton, Jason Kidd, and Dame Lillard. On-court shit-talking aside, it's also just generally a super pleasant place to spend a day. Like all good parks, it's full of lush greenery and open space to stretch out, picnic, and smoke weed publicly.
Betti Ono is the premier space in Oakland's downtown gallery scene for preserving and celebrating the black/POC female voice in the arts. Whether or not you're a critical theory scholar, though, it's a beautiful space full of gorgeously curated, meaningful work that isn't made by a bunch of shaggy trust fund kids, which is always cool. Like everything else good in Oakland, though, it's under siege from gentrification and in need of some serious support before its space becomes HQ for an app that turns children's tears into enterprise-scale cybersecurity solutions. Stop in, check it out, and tell a friend.
Mountain View Cemetery
If you spend a little too much time in New Oakland's hippest, trend-waviest neighborhoods, you might find yourself thinking you'd rather hang out with a bunch of dead people. Mountain View is a good place to embrace your morbid side, but it's also scenic and gorgeous and good for long walks. Spread over 200-plus acres are thousands of graves, including elaborate crypts and mausoleums housing old California industrialists and politicians. Mac Dre's also buried there, so leave a Heem offering if you feel so inclined.
Good Mother is one of those obnoxious cool kid hangouts that's even more obnoxious because it's actually cool. Founded by three art school dudes in their 20s, the gallery leveraged an artist network into packed out shows full of work from who's who Bay Area art scene folks. Colorful, eye-popping stuff from folks like Justin Hager and Michelle Guintu lines the walls, punk bands pop up for noisy shows, and a small army of kids on skateboards with PBR tall cans invariably spills out into the street. Read: good times.
One of the most excitedly anticipated recurring parties in Oakland, Feels is a public service provided by the homegrown art and culture blog Wine & Bowties. The events, which have occurred roughly every four months since 2013, take place in warehouse spaces and unite disparate camps of the city's visual art and music communities in a way that, like the parent publication itself, feels thoughtful and deliberate, yet no less bacchanalian as the evening wears on. They're the parties where IamSu flits about on a hoverboard, then performs a secret set; where kaleidoscopic visuals project onto aluminum siding; where what feels like a backyard affair features internationally celebrated headliners; and where worklamps illuminate cavernous interiors and taco trucks post up out front. And the hip-hop programming is especially informed and even prescient, featuring emerging local rappers such as Tia Nomore and Queens D. Light alongside out-of-towners such as Teklife artists DJ Earl and Taso, who test regional styles from elsewhere on audiences reared on hyphy.