Oakland Gets Busy on the DL

by Kelsy Chauvin
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Thursday Oct 17, 2013

Oakland is a city that might be an obvious bastion of California's trademark gay-friendliness, but San Francisco can cast a pretty wide rainbow-colored shadow on its East Bay neighbor. And that may be exactly what's so great about Oakland: It's like a soft-spoken sibling, and it's up to you to tune in.

But that low-key attitude hasn't kept Oaktown from claiming its share of cool. In the past decade or so, the other City by the Bay has undergone something of an urban renaissance. Much like New York's Manhattan-to-Brooklyn hipster migration, many San Franciscans have found a more affordable, manageable and easygoing homeland just a BART ride away.

Begin at the Waterfront

The waterfront is a good starting point for a visit to this port city. At the heart of Jack London Square, you’ll find the friendly and affordable Waterfront Hotel, where the nautical theme goes perfectly with the scenic views from the wraparound balconies.

Easy access to the bayside promenade and surrounding warehouse district will lead to a boatload of things of see, do and eat. If you’re lucky enough to be in town on a Sunday morning, the Farmer’s Market should not be missed-for this is California, land of unbelievably fresh and varied produce. You’ll also discover treats and samples from local vendors and proprietors, including crepes and samosas to kale and carrot smoothies.

Fortunately, the other six days of the week also yield delectable dining options. An entirely satisfying way to test many of those flavors is on a Savor Oakland Food Tour, where $49 will get you a hearty taste of at least five restaurants, with a few surprises in between. The Jack London Square tour kicks off at the table of Home of Chicken and Waffles - because why would anyone not start a food tour with Oakland’s most famous fried chicken?

Then on to taste-test local delights including O-town’s famous Blue Bottle Coffee, Miette desserts, local wines from Urban Legend Cellars, East Coast-style Authentic Bagel Co., and handcrafted pizza from Forge - which, by the way, pours only California beers and rootbeer on draught. One major highlight of the tour is the innovative pan-American restaurant Bocanova, where ingredients like jicama and chard pair with dishes like fresh rockfish ceviche and homemade tamales.

Some of the city’s best sushi also is home to one of the city’s best live music venues. Yoshi’s has been around in 1972 (though it moved to its Jack London Square location in ’97) and hosts shows nightly from local and international musicians, as well as serving perfectly prepared seafood-centric dishes in its authentic Japanese-style dining room.

Because this is Oakland, home to one of the country’s busiest ports, some quality old-school dives are still pouring cheap cocktails with a heavy hand from their original well-worn bars-which stand in defiance of the more polished new buildings gradually cropping up around the waterfront.

Don’t miss Jack London’s actual old watering hole, Heinold’s First and Last Chance Saloon, where the earthquake of 1906 tilted the pilings below and the bar still remains on a slant. Another grungy classic is Merchant’s Saloon (circa 1916), where you can throw back dirt cheap Pabst Blue Ribbon and feed the jukebox in the company of old-school Oaklanders.

The walkable waterfront neighborhood will reveal a lot of cool shops, tops among them is Loakal a collaboratively run store and art space proffering locally and handmade artworks and wares spanning clothes, jewelry and home goods. There’s no way you can leave this shop without a uniquely Oakland souvenir. Loakal also is part of Oakland Art Murmur, a local organization that hosts art shows and a free gallery walk every first Friday of the month.

Discovering Oakland’s Queer Side

Walk-or better yet, bike-up to Old Oakland to soak up some of the city’s preserved historic architecture, and find a good swath of newly established, noteworthy restaurants like Tamarindo Antojeria or Desco, or the charmingly old-school Ratto’s Italian market and deli. Hourly, full-day and overnight bike rentals can be found on the waterfront at Bay Area Bikes.

For the queer side of Oakland, you may find that enduring LGBT catchphrase "We are everywhere" to be particularly applicable to this rapturously liberal city. To see what’s on the radar during your stay, check out East Bay Express, The Oakland Press or
SF Queer. FiveTEN Oakland Events also may have fun parties on the calendar, though its main charge is hosting Oakland Pride parties over Labor Day weekend each year. Year-round you can also see what queer dance nights are ahead at Ships in the Night, and at locally run lifestyle magazine AHDM4U.

Like most cities filled with gays, there are few designated gay bars in Oakland-for the homos here feel no need to segregate themselves. Nevertheless, the staple gay and lesbian nightclub is Uptown’s Bench and Bar, where you can get your dance fix and flirtation on. Nearby is the more boy- and Latin-centric Club 21, though it switches up its dance music nightly.

While you’re cruising in Uptown, drop into the new lesbian-owned Feelmore Adult Gallery, which queer director-producer-actor and Oaklander Courtney Trouble calls "One of the prettiest adult stores I’ve ever seen." Trouble also considers the nearby New Parkway Theater a must, not just because it features new, cult and classic films for as little as $5 admission, but because it shows occasional late-night porn flicks-a salacious proposition for a cinema with sofa seating.

Taking a Bite Out of the Bay

Oakland is riding a cool wave of culinary buzz, and one of its most exciting eateries comes from former "Top Chef" star Preeti Mistry, who opened Juhu Beach Club in 2013 to rave reviews. Alongside her partner Ann Nadeau, Mistry has assembled an impressive new gastronomic repertoire that harmonizes a wealth of Indian spices with familiar ingredients-think lamb-meatball sliders, vindaloo chicken wings and masala fries, for starters.

Mistry isn’t alone in ramping up the queer-owned restaurant quotient. See also the forthcoming endeavor of "Top Chef" alumni Jen Biesty and Tim Nugent, Shakewell. Expected to open in late 2013 in the up-and-coming Lakeshore-Grand neighborhood, the restaurant already has tons of buzz following a highly successful Kickstarter capital campaign. If all goes as planned, expect to be tasting its Mediterranean-influenced "Americlectic" menu by the holidays.

Cruise the Temescal-Telegraph district (so named for those busy avenues) for other can’t-miss joints, starting with the fried-chicken bagels at Beauty’s Bagel Shop, and delicious sourdough-crust pizza from queer-friendly Nick’s Pizza.

A Salty Spirit 144 Years in the Making

Like most California cities, Oakland has the lightweight feel of a sunny, healthy homeland. But what makes it special is its sometime loose and gritty underbelly that took root 144 years ago, when it became the west terminus of the first Transcontinental Railroad. Today you can find that same salty spirit flavoring this dynamic little metropolis. It makes you wonder if when you see locals brandishing bumper stickers like "Keep Oakland Dangerous"-maybe they just want to scare away the spotlight and keep their stylin’, easygoing haven as low profile as it ever was.

Quick Guide
Get There
San Fransico International Airport is the seventh busiest airport in the U.S. (based on total passenger boarding for 2012) so you’re bound to find a flight. United and Virgin America offer the most options.

Waterfront Hotel, where the nautical theme goes perfectly with the scenic views from the wraparound balconies.

Savor Oakland Food Tour, where $49 will get you a hearty taste of at least five restaurants, with a few surprises in between.
Juhu Beach Club, "Top Chef"’s Preeti Mistry and partner Ann Nadeau’s Indian comfort food.

Don’t Miss
Heinold’s First and Last Chance Saloon, where the bar is still slanted from the famous earthquake from 1906.
Bench and Bar, Oakland’s premiere gay dance club.

Kelsy Chauvin is a writer, photographer and marketing consultant based in Brooklyn, New York. She specializes in travel, feature journalism, art, theater, architecture, construction and LGBT interests. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter at @kelsycc.


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