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If you're the type of gastronaut who treks to deepest Brooklyn, East London, or Paris’s Tenth Arrondissement to find the most interesting new restaurants, it’s time to add Oakland to your list. The city’s diversity, creativity, and relative affordability are a bright counterpoint to the more, shall we say, highly conceptualized scene across the Bay Bridge. Here, the local, seasonal ethos of neighboring Berkeley and its lodestar restaurant, Alice Waters’s Chez Panisse—where many of Oakland’s most exciting new restaurateurs cut their teeth—has been applied to a wide range of cuisines.
Recent breakout stars include Nite Yun, who at her restaurant, Nyum Bai, serves an award-winning take on Cambodian street food, in a Mexican mini-mall near a transit hub, and her equally celebrated neighbor, Reem Assil, the Syrian-Palestinian chef behind Reem’s California, a sunny bakery specializing in flatbreads topped with magical spices, spreads, and meats. Assil’s newer restaurant, Dyafa, is on the waterfront in Jack London Square, not far from Belcampo, a restaurant with a focus on sustainably sourced meat.
After a decade in West Oakland, Tanya Holland, who lures consistent crowds with her fried chicken, cornmeal waffles, and pulled-pork sandwiches, has moved her restaurant, Brown Sugar Kitchen, to a space about twice as big in Uptown Oakland. Seven years in, Ramen Shop has taken over its surrounding storefronts thanks to customers eager to slurp down the seasonal, organic—and exceptionally cool—approach to Japanese noodles on offer by Chez Panisse alumni Jerry Jaksich, Sam White, and Rayniel De Guzman.
After decades at Chez Panisse, chef and cookbook author Cal Peternell just opened the Lede, a writers’ coworking space and podcasting studio by day and casual Cal-Italian restaurant by night. It’s across from Swan’s Market, a thoughtful all-day food hall. The anchors there are Miss Ollie’s, a Caribbean-inspired restaurant where Sarah Kirnon serves jerk shrimp and split-pea and okra fritters, and Cosecha, a California-Mexican spot helmed by another Chez Panisse alum, Domenica RiceCisneros, where regulars come for the yam quesadillas and pork-belly tacos.
At opposite ends of Oakland’s taco spectrum are two of its best. Tacos ElPaisa@.com is an authentic affair, where you load up at the salsa and pickled vegetable bar, down too many horchatas, and use at least one of the meal’s many napkins to wipe away tears of joy. Newcomer Oscar Michel’s Tacos Oscar is a modern revelation: a shipping-container restaurant painted in Luis Barragán hues that satisfies its lines with papas fritas tacos and vegan beet tostadas.
But don’t think Oakland isn’t on Michelin’s radar. James Syhabout’s tasting-menu counter, Commis, has two well-deserved stars. And at Hopscotch, the Japanese-accented American comfort food (think burgers with griddled beef tongue and sesame aioli) and seasonal cocktails served in a former diner earned three stars from the San Francisco Chronicle.