Category Archives: restaurants & bars

Beer, bicycles, and my new favorite pub.

So tonight (correction: TOMORROW night – Thursday, thanks Veronica!) is the East Bay Express sponsored Pedal Powered Pub Crawl where hipster beer lovers can bike their way from pub to pub for bike friendly beer specials in Oaktown.  First stop is Beer Revolution between 5 and 5:30 to pick up your beer passport… then on to Merchants, Somar Bar, The Uptown, and finally the Stork Club around 8pm to qualify for prizes and more.

Sounds like a whole lot of fun, but I’m feeling a bit too old for this event, especially after the hangover I received recently at the hands of a 7.5% alcohol IPA the other night.  So delicious going down… so painful the next morning.

In any case, I was surprised to see that my new favorite pub isn’t on the list for tomorrow’s festivities… perhaps it’s a bit too small?  CommonWealth Cafe & Pub.  Introduced to me recently by a friend who proudly declared it her “favorite new place” discovered during the height of World Cup festivities, I have to admit, it’s now mine too.  You can’t help but love this place, with its Euro-heritage blended with a more modern Californian sensibility.

commonwealth cafe, commonwealth pub, commonwealth pub oakland

sunday brunch at commonwealth, bars on telegraph oakland

Opened on a stretch of Telegraph I wrote about awhile back (A Transforming Stretch of Telegraph), this small Scottish styled pub with its warm decor of Victorian velvet wallpaper, vintage beer barrels, and European bottles, features a tidy and delicious selection of handcrafted brews on tap, and fantastic salads and sandwiches (toasties) for lunch and dinner, all reasonably priced too! Each day also features one or two traditional pub-fare specials like Shepard’s Pie or Bubbles & Squeak, as well as soups of the day.

I haven’t been for breakfast yet, though I did order one of their delectable scones with cream and jam for dessert one evening, and it was simply incredible.  They also offer the full suite of espresso drinks pulled from their vintage Mr. Espresso machine, and other breakfasty offerings, not to mention a Sunday brunch that I can’t wait to try.

Pete & Ross of Commonwealth, commonwealth pub oakland

commonwealth cafe on telegraph, where to watch world cup in oakland

Located at 29th and Telegraph, just a hop skip and jump from my old loft, I can easily say this would be my new neighborhood joint if I still lived down the street.  The owners Pete & Ross are super friendly, the vibe is chill, the beer is fine (like FINE!, not just ho-hum), and the food is simply delicious.  In a neighborhood I previously referred to as a bit of a “no-man’s land,” CommonWealth is a more-than-welcome addition.  Be sure to check their schedule (see link above) as they are closed some nights.

More reading here…

CommonWealth on East Bay Express

CommonWealth on Bay Area Food Blog

CommonWealth on Yelp

The Best Falafel You’ve Ever Had!

After we left the School for the Arts near the downtown of Uptown, we headed back up Telegraph to make our way to some of the cool mixed-use warehouse spaces on 26th Street.  A bit off the beaten path, both literally and figuratively, spaces like Uptown Body & Fender (not just your typical auto body shop), Studio Quercus, and Warehouse 416 offer up more of the Oakland that I came for years ago… large, affordable spaces for artists to be creative & funky.

We’ll get to a couple of these later in the week, but first we decided to grab a quick dinner at the Liba Falafel truck parked on 26th. We weren’t the only ones…

oakland art murmur, liba falafel truck, 26th street oakland

liba falafel, falafel truck oakland, art murmur falafel truck

After waiting in line and shelling out a full 10 bucks for a falafel sweet potato fry combo (which at the time – meaning, before eating – seemed a bit steep), we received our falafel packets… fantastically crispy falafels tucked into whole wheat pitas perfectly toasted, loaded with either spicy carrot ribbons (my choice… delicious) or red cabbage with black sesame dressing (friends chose this and quite liked it too) and topped with an optional spicy sauce that the truck’s proprietor (Gail Lillian) highly recommended, I can easily say this was the best falafel pita sandwich I have ever had. But wait… it gets better.

After you’ve had a few bites of your falafel, they call your name again, and hand you a warm bag of sweet potato fries… slightly crisp, slightly soft, and perfectly seasoned. The combo was out of this world and well worth the $10 I had previously been reluctant to part with. The ingredients used by Liba are nearly all organic; the falafel, salads, and condiments are made from scratch daily; and all her take-away products are compostable. Even the cooking oil is ultimately turned into bio-fuel.

Do you feel the love? I know I did.
(Liba means love or romance in several languages.)

More reading…
Liba in East Bay Express
Liba on Yelp
Liba on SF Weekly

Floral Depot ~ Fantastique!

Here’s another stunner… the Floral Depot Building at Telegraph and 18th, just across the street from, and in late afternoon literally in the shadow of, the mighty Fox Theater. Also clad in terra cotta – both the cobalt blue tiling and silver ornamentation, comprising Aztec-style trim interjected with periodic “sprays” of silver reputedly designed to resemble waterfalls – this Art Deco beauty is one of Oakland’s finest. The City’s Cultural Heritage Survey cites it as an “outstanding architectural example of extreme historical importance.” I dub her the crown jewel of Oakland, the resemblance unmistakable to me.

terra cotta ornamentation, floral depot building, flora restaurant oakland

terra cotta ornamentation, floral depot building, flora restaurant oakland, oakland art deco buildings

floral depot building, flora restaurant oakland, uptown nightclub oakland art deco buildings

terra cotta ornamentation, floral depot building, flora restaurant oakland, oakland art deco buildings

Designed by architect Albert Avers and built in 1931, the building takes its name from the old Floral Depot once housed there. See original sign below (image borrowed courtesy of DougPants.org), followed by the renovated sign for my favorite restaurant in all of the East Bay, the incredible Flora, opened in late 2007 by the proprietors of the highly successful Doña Tomas in Temescal.

floral depot building, Oakland Floral Depot Building

Oakland Floral Depot Building, flora restaurant oakland

Thomas Schnetz and Dona Savitsky took a chance on this stretch of Telegraph well before the grand re-opening of the Fox that many hail as the beginning of Uptown’s resurgence.  I would argue that the opening of their prohibition-era-inspired Flora marks the beginning instead, becoming a “symbolic anchor” in an area clearly in transition, “much like San Francisco’s Zuni Cafe did when it opened more than 25 years ago on what was then a depressing stretch of Market Street.” (Flora paves the way… by Michael Bauer)

I’ve written about Flora before in my first post on Art Murmur (First Friday Frolic! ~ ART MURMUR), and I’m sure I’ll write about it again because it’s just that good. I don’t care if it makes me sound like an arugula-munching, latte-sipping liberal. The food & drinks here are simply divine… classic American fare with a California-nouveau twist, inspired by the best seasonal & organic ingredients. Make a reservation, or get there early for a seat at the bar… watching the suspendered-bartenders work their magic is half the fun.

But let’s get back to the building… Other early residents of this building include the J.J. Newbury Department Store, a nationwide five-and-dime chain prevalent during the 20th century. Now closed and available for lease, the old logo still remains…

floral depot building, JJ newbury oakland, uptown nightclub, oakland art deco buildings

Next door, you’ll see the Uptown Nightclub, also opened in late 2007. Embarrassingly, I have yet to see a show here, but they get great props on Yelp, and I’m planning a visit next week in celebration of Women’s History Month. They’re hosting two nights of The Vagina Monologues by Eve Ensler, a benefit fundraiser for her organization V-Day which, to date, has raised something like $50 million dollars in support of groups working to ending violence against women and girls worldwide.  Woah. Please join me, or check out the Uptown’s Calendar for other cool shows…

floral depot building, uptown nightclub oakland, art deco building

What’s Moorish, Indian, Medieval, and Baghdadian?

Stumped?

(I bet you didn’t even know Baghdadian was a word… I didn’t!)

These are just a handful of the architectural influences of our majestic and recently refurbished Fox Theater. I’m kicking off my Art Deco series with the Fox despite its lack of Deco authenticity (we’ll get to more of what that means next week), because frankly, it’s kind of a big deal. And here’s why…

On Sept. 21, 1926 the Oakland Tribune reported “Oakland is to have two new motion picture theaters in the downtown district increasing the assessed valuation of the city by four million dollars or more…” The first of these was The Fox.

fox theater historical photo, fox theater circa 1928

Historical Photo circa 1928 (courtesy Dreyfus Report, 2001)

Originally called the Oakland Theater (or West Coast Oakland Theater) upon opening in 1928, the name was later changed to the Fox Oakland Theater, and at the time it was said to be the largest theater complex on the West Coast, with a capacity of between 3200 and 3800. This was the heyday of large movie “palaces,” dripping with atmosphere and ambiance designed to transport audiences to romantic and exciting distant worlds. “Persian gardens, Italian palazzos and Egyptian courts rose in cities throughout the country offering patrons an exotic afternoon or evening of entertainment.” (Dreyfus Report, 2001)

The architects of the Fox followed suit, drawing influences from a number of exotic cultures, most prominently Indian and Middle Eastern. In fact, the overall structure of the building, with its central high dome, resembles a typical Brahmanian temple of Northern India, and the interior auditorium space is flanked by two enormous sculptures of Hindu Gods. The entire theater was constructed to convey a lavish lifestyle, opulent with exotic woods, richly textured fabrics, jeweled light fixtures, intricate tile and plaster work, and highly decorative metal finishes.

Moorish architecture is “a term used to describe the articulated Islamic architecture which developed in North Africa and south-western Europe.” (Wikipedia) This influence is seen in the parapet (elevated wall) connecting the two primary pylons comprising the main facade of the building, as well as the continuing roof-line of the main commercial wings of the building, with its repeating pattern of terra cotta ornamentation, and distinctive key-hole windows (see below).

moorish architecture, fox theater oakland

moorish architecture, fox theater oakland

The medieval influence can be seen in the gargoyles perched atop the primary pylons (below, right).

gothic architecture, moorish architecture, fox theater oakland

And I’m not quite sure how the Baghdadian comes into play, other than the initial plans to call the theater “The Baghdad,” before settling upon the eponymous “Oakland Theater” instead.

So where’s the Art Deco you might ask?

Well… to be honest, there’s not a whole lot. But there is a bit, much of which was added during modernizing renovations in 1945. “The front façade and interior walls [were] covered with stainless steel sheathing in an art deco style zigzag pattern. The columns [were] sheathed in a streamlined stainless steel shape and the ticket booth replaced with a new one in the art deco style. The original tile floor [was] replaced with terrazzo, and the ceilings replaced by a stepped plaster ceiling in a cloud pattern, with neon accents… While these alterations represent fine examples of the art deco style, they resulted in the loss of a substantial amount of very significant historic material, and are inconsistent with the architectural character of the theater.” (Dreyfus Report, 2001)

Art Deco Terrazzo, fox theater oakland, terrazzo inlay

The marquee was also updated to a more modern art deco style, but was done 10 years prior and is, hence, considered to be a “contributing historic” element. Here’s a shot of the original marquee followed by its replacement in 1935 (now refurbished).

fox theater oakland, historical photo fox theater

Original Marqee circa 1929 (courtesy Dreyfus report, 2001)

art deco theater marquee, fox oakland marquee

art deco, fox theater oakland, art deco theater marquee

The Fox was a premiere entertainment destination for decades, but suffered a decline in attendance in the 1960’s, as did many of the grand movie palaces throughout the country, due largely to the increasing popularity of television and the trend toward smaller multiplex theaters. The Fox tried several options including showing soft-core porn movies such as “Paradisio,” but eventually closed its doors in 1965, opening only sporadically for films and events during the next seven years.

“The Fox survived an arson fire in 1973, but its increasingly shabby condition led it to be derided as ‘the largest outdoor urinal in the world.‘” Still, the theater avoided being turned into a parking lot in 1975, unlike its sister Fox Theater in San Francisco, leveled in 1963 to make way for eventual replacement by high-rise offices and apartments. And thanks to the efforts of Oakland Mayor Lionel J. Wilson, the Fox Oakland achieved city landmark status in 1978.

And then it sat. And sat. And sat. It changed hands a few times and saw a few sporadic performances, but for the most part it simply sat… and continued to deteriorate. The City of Oakland purchased it in 1996 for $3 million dollars. In 1998 an Oakland Tribune editorial declared “the only life in the theater almost two years [after the City’s acquisition] is a crop of mushrooms sprouting from the theater’s soggy carpet.”

Then things started to happen. In 1999, the city spent $1 million to repair the roofs. At the same time, a sub-committee of the Oakland Heritage Alliance was formed, Friends of the Oakland Fox. Their goal: the historic preservation of the Fox Oakland Theater, and its use as a live entertainment venue. The Friends convinced the city to spend more money to restore the marquee and vertical blade sign to generate public interest in the renovation plans. And finally, architectural consultants Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer Associates were contracted to prepare a master plan for the Fox, generating two proposals that were both ultimately deemed undoable.

This is when Phil Tagami stepped in. He is the man who spoke before thousands at last year’s Uptown Unveiled block party to celebrate the re-opening of the Fox and the revitalization of Uptown. He is the hero of this story, the man who ultimately achieved what many said couldn’t be done. And can you guess what he did? Of course you can. The man raised money. And a lot of it. With a background in construction and prior experience restoring old buildings (including Kahn’s department store across from City Hall), he fashioned together a complex funding plan from various sources: private donations, city redevelopment money, grants, federal historic tax credits, large equity investments, and more.

An Oakland native, Tagami essentially donated thousands of hours of his personal time… his gift to the city, where he still lives with his wife and two children. Thank you Phil Tagami! We owe you a huge debt of gratitude.

And thanks as well to the City of Oakland, Friends of the Oakland Fox, and all those involved in this historic project.

The Fox Oakland Theater reopened on February 5th, 2009. Shows are currently booked by Another Planet Entertainment, the same folks who bring wonderful eclectic shows to the Independent in San Francisco. If you haven’t yet seen a show at the Fox, it’s high-time you high-tailed it to Uptown Oakland to check out this incredible gem!

fox theater oakland, fox theater box office, fox theater marqee

Touring the Paramount…

ART DECO DAYS – intro

In my early days in the Bay Area, I used to usher a lot of shows. I ushered shows in San Francisco at the Warfield, the Fillmore, and Bimbos; theater performances at the Berkeley Rep; and concerts at the Paramount Theatre in Oakland. Ushering allowed me to see a lot of shows for free, which is great when you’re young, broke, and don’t mind standing on your feet all night.

The Paramount ushering gig was the strictest of all… not only did you have to wear nearly black-tie attire, but you were required to attend one of their bi-monthly tours to learn the history of the building prior to your first gig, so if perchance a paying ticket-holder asked you a question about the artistry, architecture or history of the venue, you’d be savvy enough to answer accurately.

I took my first tour of the Paramount nearly a decade ago, and if I remember correctly, we spent a great deal of time talking about the renovation of the Paramount, an Art Deco masterpiece built in 1931, refurbished and reopened in 1973. What I also remember about the tour, was a brief discussion of the Paramount’s neighbor, the Fox, a once grand movie palace that, at the time, had been sitting vacant and decrepit for over 30 years. Our tour guide told us that sadly, the Fox might never achieve its restoration as the Paramount had due to economic factors, being simply too expensive to repair in the 21st century.

Well, we all know now that my tour guide was, fortunately, mistaken. The Fox has been restored, but it was a long struggle indeed. We’ll talk more about the Fox tomorrow, and more about the Paramount and Art Deco in general next week. But let this be the official kick-off of my Art Deco Days series.

I’m touring the Paramount again this Saturday at 10am. It costs 5 bucks and is well worth it. I encourage folks to join me if interested…

paramount theatre oakland, paramount theater oakland, art deco theaters

Dave Chappelle played Oaktown!

Ok…  I’m backtracking a bit here, so no spoiler alert necessary… I’m sure everyone and their brother knows by now that Dave Chappelle played a great, relatively new (opened in October 2009), little club in Oaktown called The New Parish.  What folks may not know, is that I was lucky enough to see one of these shows.  Woo hoo!!

First, The New Parish at 18th and San Pablo.  It was called “Town Hall” prior to its new debut last fall, and apparently Dave made a super-secret appearance there in April of 2009 (his first appearance in Oakland since 1996)… not a bad notch to have on your belt.  Prior to its short-lived incarnation as Town Hall, the venue was known as Sweet Jimmie’s after its proprietor Jimmie Ward, who opened the club in 1990 (he had a previous location, opened in 1982, but it was damaged during the Loma Prieta earthquake).

“Sweet Jimmie” Ward died just a couple of weeks ago at the age of 74… I’m going to quote extensively from a blogpost I found about his passing (Sweet Jimmie Ward Dies – Aimee Allison | Oakland Seen) because his story fits neatly into the framework I discussed last week, of that first generation of Southern Blacks who came to Oakland in search of better opportunities, to leave their lasting marks on our city:

A former longshoreman, he was one of hundreds of thousands who came from the South to work at the shipyards or on the Army base during World War II and stayed to raise families and start businesses and shape neighborhoods. Ward made Sweet Jimmie’s into the place to go – dressed to the nines – where old soul from Mississippi and Louisiana and Georgia was alive.

Those in Sweet Jimmie’s generation brought small town manners and blues and political organizing and art. They created a legacy and culture in Oakland that defines us today. Now, Oakland’s black population has plummeted under the weight of unemployment and police sweeps and shady mortgages. But you can still see the storefront of the old Sweet Jimmie’s at 577 18th Street in downtown Oakland. Many people don’t know that for many years it was an important meeting place for African-American political and community organizations. It was a center of influence. And while many celebrate the remaking of culture and nightlife in the city, I am taking a moment to mourn what we lost. See, Sweet Jimmie’s wasn’t just another nightclub, Jimmie Ward just another nightclub owner. He represented an era here in Oakland. And that era is over.

While that era may be over, it is no secret that Sweet Jimmie’s nightclub suffered a decline in its later years.  There are some entertaining stories on YelpEven Dave Chappelle did a riff on this during his show, spoofing on the scene from Sixth Sense… “I see dead pimps… and they want me to do things for them!” The crowd roared in hilarity, because before the whole remaking of the Uptown district of Oakland, this little stretch of San Pablo was known to be hella-ghetto, to put it bluntly.

One era ends… another begins… and I am here to loudly celebrate the new era of The New Parish, Uptown, and Oakland at large.

But let’s get back to the show…

For those who don’t know (I didn’t know) Dave is known for his ridiculously long sets… My friend who went to the late show said she left at 4:15 am and Dave was still going strong! We went to the early show… Thank God!

While we lined up outside, we were told that Dave was across the street at the Piedmont Piano Company.  Doing what you might ask?  Well… I assume playing piano.  And if you’re gonna play piano, this is a pretty sweet spot indeed.

piano company, piano company on san pablo, uptown piano company

Housed in the historic California Furniture building, just one of dozens of Art Deco gems in downtown Oakland (stay tuned… I’m hoping to do a whole Art Deco series next month), the new location just opened a few weeks ago. They’re a family owned and operated business, providing not just new and used pianos for sale, but rentals, tuning services, music lessons (including guitar, drums, and more), and recitals. That’s right… they’re utilizing this gorgeous space for live performances too. Next performance is March 13th at 8:00pm Rebel Tumbao…  “merging Roots Reggae and Roots Afro-Latin vibrations with original compositions and wicked arrangements of Bob Marley’s music, all with a critical progressive social message for our times.”  Sounds pretty cool, eh?

But I digress…
waiting in line, dave chappelle, new parish

As we waited in line, we chatted with all the folks who were equally excited to see Dave in such a small venue. I don’t know for sure but my guess would be that the Parish holds about 300 people. The line ran right past the windows of the new restaurant next door, Hibiscus, where Dave would later eat dinner after he tired of his piano playing. I heard from friends the drinks are good. We’ll have to check them out another day…

The Parish staff were ultra-professional and seriously buttoned-up. Notices were posted along the full length of the line about restrictions on photography, video, and most interestingly, heckling… “NO HECKLING WILL BE TOLERATED.” Who the hell would heckle Dave?! Anyway, despite all the notices, the doorman gave us the full verbal run-down as well… You can’t do this, you can’t do that, you will get thrown out. I asked, “Jeeezzz… Are we allowed to laugh?!” Absolutely. Enjoy the show.

new parish, oakland new parish, oakland music clubs

Above is the one and only picture I took inside, taken well before Dave took the stage… there was no way I was getting thrown out of that gig. It’s a pretty bad shot, but it gives you a feel for the space. I’ve been to one other show at the Parish and there was no seating as there was for this show (to enforce the two drink minimum). Typically there’s a nice dance area directly in front of the stage with wrap around areas on three sides and an upstairs with another bar and prime viewing from on-high.

What else can I tell you? Dave was hilarious. Of course. There was a ton of interplay between him and the crowd and I was surprised how conversational the show was… definitely not a scripted routine. The man is smart. And quick. Of course race played a big theme throughout the show, but not just black vs. white and not your stereotypical race-based humor. The crowd was incredibly diverse, as is our city, and Dave poked fun at all of us equally. The female scientist from Tunisia. The hipster Saudi with his trucker cap askew. And the hippy kids from Nevada who entered the club with backpacks in tow. I could try to replay the jokes, but I know they’d fall flat. I’ll just say we all laughed together, at each other, at ourselves, and for me, it was a truly transcendent experience. Props to The New Parish… Thank you!

Orr-Allen-Guarino Trio at The Stork

So I’m a bit behind with my recap of Art Murmur, which (hopefully) will continue on Thursday and Friday.  But in the meantime, I’m throwing up a video I took at last night’s show at the Stork Club.  I mentioned it in my post yesterday… an experimental improv jazz trio informally known as the Orr – Allen – Guarino Trio, consisting of two drummers and one very loud sax player.  My friend who is one of the drummers said they need two, just to keep up with the sax, if that gives you any idea…

Now I know this isn’t for everyone… but I happen to think it’s quite excellent.  And one of the things I love, and have always loved, about the Stork Club is that they provide a home to all kinds of music.  They like to rock it, but that’s not all they do, and some of the most interesting avant-garde bands I’ve seen, were at the humble Stork.

The video clip below is approximately 12 minutes long, and this isn’t even the full song… I started the video a bit late.   This is no KCSM, no bee bop, no smooth jazz, and certainly nothing your mother would like. But the thing that makes it so cool, is that it’s completely free-form.  There’s very little structure they conform to… no verse, chorus, verse, chorus, refrain, verse chorus playbook.

That playbook’s all well and good… it gives the listener something to hold on to… or resolve as Orr refers to it.  My concept of resolve, and please keep in mind I am not an experimental jazz musician, is that it’s what one expects to come next in the song… what you can predict because you’ve already heard the first two minutes and understand the structure that’s been set up.  Like the blues, for example.  Almost anyone can sing a blues song, can even make up the lyrics as they go, because it’s so damn predictable.  That’s not to say there’s anything wrong with being predictable, but what makes the blues interesting, is not that predictability, but rather the feeling imparted to the song within the confines of that expected chorus-verse structure.

What this trio performs is something else entirely… it’s wide open.  It’s unexpected.  It’s experiential because there’s no possible way of predicting what will come next, so you give up even trying and just experience each combination of notes and beats as they come.  As Orr explains it, “The trio will be improvising non-idiomatic free music. For those not familiar with that term, please see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Free_improvisation.”

And what’s more is that they play their instruments in unexpected ways… extracting every possible sound imaginable.  From throwing cymbals into the audience to bowing cymbals to scratching fingernails on the snare head… this is one wild ride!

For those as dorky as me, there’s another performance though slightly different on February 23rd at the Stork.  That show will feature Orr on drums, Allen on saxophone, and Ava Mendosa on guitar.  If you have an open mind, or don’t but want to have yours blown wide open, go check them out.

Here’s part 1 (about 9 minutes long)… part 2 to come later…

Here’s part 2…