City to Watch: Oakland Rising

Posted by Annie Fitzsimmons in Nat Geo Travel Urban Insider on July 9, 2014

Click here to see the full story on Nat Geo Travel.

Oakland is enjoying a moment in the sun right now, as evidenced by a recent spate of media hits and amorous outpourings on social networks. But after Nat Geo photographer Catherine Karnow and I spent time there on assignment, we both left convinced that the city’s ascent isn’t fleeting, but one that will have a long tail, bolstered by a steady stream of colorful shop and restaurant openings and an influx of equally colorful characters seeking lower rents and a less stressful lifestyle.

That being said, I would stop short of calling Oakland “Brooklyn by the Bay.” I live in Brooklyn, and seemingly everywhere I travel lately, I am met with food, clothes, and culture described as the “Brooklyn of…” or “Brooklyn-style”—terms meant to evoke a less touristy, hipster alternative to a major metropolis that has historically overshadowed its neighbor.

Outside Wood Tavern in the Rockridge section of Oakland, Brad Anderson raves about “the best pork chop [he has] ever eaten, served with smoked bacon, potatoes, mushrooms, and a Marsala cream sauce.” (Photograph by Catherine Karnow)

“If you explore Oakland, it’s not like the Mexican neighborhood is here, the African-Americans are here, and the whites are over here,” the 34-year-old tech strategist said. “If we had yuppies in Oakland, we’d all be here at this coffee shop. But we don’t. It’s so laid back.”

She pointed across the street, to the stretch of College Avenue between 63rd Street and Alcatraz Avenue. “This block reflects the city’s growth today,” she said. Indeed, independent local-owned shops—a bakery, a beer café, a pizzeria, and, a major draw for foodies, the spirited Wood Tavern, among them—make the block a poster child for the Oakland of today.

Here are four of the trends we witnessed as we explored this sister city on the rise:

> Food Phenoms: Oakland’s Dynamic Restaurant Scene

When Rich and Rebekah Wood left a popular San Francisco restaurant to open Wood Tavern in 2007, they kick-started a food frenzy in Oakland. The classy, warm joint was soon brimming with neighborhood locals and visitors from across the Bay Bridge—commanding attention from the San Francisco fooderati and exploding old stereotypes.

Many chefs are following the Woods’s lead, moving in from San Francisco and Berkeley to make their mark on Oakland. In the past three years, more than 200 restaurants have opened their doors in the city. Top Chef contestant Preeti Mistry is at the helm of one of them—Juhu Beach Club, a casual, modern Indian eatery that’s earning rave reviews and repeat visitors.

And you simply can’t talk about the Oakland food scene without mentioning chef Temescal Alley. Formerly home to a horse-drawn streetcar line, the narrow street now houses an eclectic mix of jewel-box-size boutiques and eateries along with the popular walk-in-only Temescal Alley Barber Shop.

Walrus, which started as an Etsy outlet before opening up shop here, up-cycles or refurbishes home goods to fabulous effect. And don’t miss Kickstarter-funded Doughnut Dolly, where the fist-sized treats are infused with your choice of filling—like “naughty cream,” fruit jam, and dark chocolate—before being rolled in granulated or powdered sugar.

It’s worth the trip to head two miles southwest to Uptown, another mom ‘n pop mecca. At Owl N Wood, you’ll find a curated hodgepodge of pieces reflecting the Afro-Scandinavian style of Denmark-born owner Rachel Konte, who worked with Levi Strauss for years as a designer before opening up her own shop.

> Fair-Weather Fun: Out-of-Doors Oakland

When you’re blessed with weather this good (temperatures hover in the 60-70°F range most of the year), it makes sense that much Oakland’s art and culture scene is centered outdoors. The first Friday of each month brings Art Murmur, a grassroots initiative that has grown to include live music and more than 40 galleries that keep their doors open late for the occasion.

A young Jack London, an Oakland native, developed a thirst for adventure while soaking up the atmosphere in Heinold’s First and Last Chance. The historic bar, which provided inspiration for scenes in two of London’s novels, is known as “Jack London’s Rendezvous.” (Photograph by Catherine Karnow)

Oakland’s sizable waterfront is another focal point for outdoor activity. Jack London Square may be experiencing rapid change, but time seems to stand still at 19th-century mainstay Heinold’s First and Last Chance saloon, whose name harkens back to a time when sailors enjoyed a final drink before heading out to sea. The cozy throwback, famous for its heavily slanted floor caused by the 1906 earthquake, fits ten people, at most. Instead, opt for a modern, level chair outside on the ample patio.w)

Across town, the area around Lake Merrittwhere white lights twinkle at night and beautiful, historical buildings are being renovated into upmarket apartments—is emerging a favorite outdoor space in the city. As one Oaklander told us, “If you haven’t seen Lake Merritt in three years, you wouldn’t recognize it.” The neighborhood still has a long way to go before it becomes a tourist destination, but for locals, the changes—including a 3.5-mile walking trail around the lake—are gratifying.

About the Writers

Annie Fitzsimmons is National Geographic Travel’s Urban Insider, exploring the cities of the world with style. Follow her adventures on the Urban Insider blog, Twitter @anniefitz, and Instagram @anniefitzsimmons.

Catherine Karnow is a contributing photographer at Traveler magazine known for her vibrant, emotional, and sensitive style of photographing people and places. Connect with her on Facebook and on Instagram @catherinekarnow.