You can usually assume a restaurant is going to be good when you see a lineup to get inside.
On my recent journey to Oakland, Calif., I seemed to run into such gems in just about every section of the city.
I was drawn to Bakesale Betty on Telegraph Avenue because of the number of people going in and out, as well as the unique ironing-board tables outside. With no inside seating, it is mostly a takeout restaurant with a reputation for exceptional desserts and the best chicken sandwiches in the city.
Farther up the street, joining the row of people waiting to get into Cholita Linda proved to be worthwhile, as I dined on some of the best Mexican food I have had in some time, while sitting with other patrons at a wooden, banquet-style table.
Condé Nast Traveler described Temescal Alley as "East Bay’s hippest street." Located between Clarke Street and Telegraph, it is the former home of the original Oakland horse-drawn carriage streetcar line. Today, it’s a trendy street filled with upscale shopping boutiques — and food outlets such as Pizzaiolo, which serves a variety of pizzas and pastas.
A couple of kilometres away on Piedmont Avenue, people have been lining up at Fentons Creamery since 1894. Like Winnipeg’s Bridge Drive-In, the lineups never seem to end. Fentons is also a full-service restaurant and gathering place where the refrains of Happy Birthday seem to be sung repeatedly.
These are all casual, reasonably priced restaurants. Over the few days I spent in the city, I came to define it as a working-class city with a lot of class.
Just across the bay from San Francisco, it has not received its due as a tourist destination.
I stayed at a Marriott hotel on Broadway in the city centre, which made it convenient to walk to most of the attractions that make the city unique.
It is about a 15-minute walk to the Oakland Museum of California, one of the top-rated attractions in the entire Bay Area. Celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, it portrays the complete California story — through technology, art, history and natural sciences.
Lindsay Wright, the associate director of communications, defined the goals of the museum. "This is a museum of the people. It is unique because we present things through the lens of our visitors. It is how we were founded and the way we still present our content," she said.
Perhaps this is best illustrated in the manner young people are included, through displays created especially for them at floor level to let them make discoveries on their own terms. The museum is recommended annually as Oakland’s best place to visit for children.
It is rare to find a large lake in the very centre of a city. Just a few minutes from the Oakland Museum is Lake Merritt, the first designated wildlife refuge in North America. With no motorized personal boats on the lake, it is an idyllic location to get away from the bustle of the city — to rest and contemplate, or join the dozens of joggers, pedestrians and cyclists who form a constant parade travelling around the lake.
On the shore of Lake Merritt, I also dined at the somewhat more upscale Lake Chalet Seafood Bar and Grill. The exceptional fish and tuna poke I had was definitely worth the wait I endured to get in. But I should have made a reservation.
Cities with waterfronts frequently add developments that enhance the community’s lifestyle. Oakland is no exception.
Named after the famous writer, Jack London Square is home to a number of exceptional restaurants and nearby shops. It’s made even more inviting by a number of benches overlooking the bay.
While San Francisco’s Chinatown may be more renowned, Oakland’s Chinatown takes a backseat to no other city’s in North America, including its close neighbour’s.
Settled in the 1850s after the California gold rush, like so many other Chinatowns in North America, Oakland’s now features a mix of Asian cultures. Prefer Korean, Vietnamese or Japanese food? They are all there as integral additions to this 16-block area.
In fact, all of Oakland is a mix of cultures. As Allie Neal, the public relations manager for Visit Oakland, said, "Over 125 languages are spoken within Oakland. So you really see some amazing diversity here. You’ll see this through our restaurant scene, our art scene and through our music."
She added: "Oakland is really an exciting cultural destination that is coming into its own. It’s the reason we were recommended by National Geographic Travel as 2019’s best place in the United States to visit for culture."
Just a couple of blocks behind the Marriott, the Old Oakland Farmers’ Market takes place every Friday, all year round. It was my bonus for being there on that day. It covers a number of city blocks, with the best fresh California produce on display for residents and visitors — as well as local chefs shopping for their restaurants’ evening menu specials.
It also features a large number of the state’s certified organic farmers. I could not pass up some of the fresh fruit that was so enticingly presented.
Adjacent to the market, and open every day, is the indoor Swan’s Market — a gourmet food court. From fresh oysters to homemade sausages, people seem happy to line up here as well, and have their meals delivered to the food-court tables or outdoor patio.
Over four days, I walked a lot and lined up for some of the most popular dining establishments. By doing so, I got a good sense of the city and the way its people live, making for a fascinating visit.
With a name inspired by the former Dodge dealership and repair shop it inhabits, Drake’s Dealership occupies a classic brick building that has been converted into a popular full-service restaurant that serves more than 30 different beers on tap. I chose to dine in the outdoor beer garden, but the inside is fascinating unto itself, as the designers kept some of the original automotive personality.
The Belcampo Meat Co. in Jack London Square is a little more upscale, but it offers quality food and the bayside environment enhances the experience.
For more Oakland travel information, go to visitoakland.com.
Ron is a dedicated traveller, having explored 65 countries around the world as well as all but one province in Canada (Newfoundland).