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The Best of the East Bay 2016
San Francisco magazine | Photo: Courtesy of Retailers | June 30, 2016
S.F.'s artier, edgier, (slightly) cheaper counterpart is a hotbed of artisanal weed, vintage denim, and raging dance parties.
Factory Tour: St. George Spirits
2601 Monarch St. (near W. Midway Ave.), Alameda, 510-769-1601
Over 34 years, St. George Spirits has made a name for itself as one of the country’s foremost producers of ingredient-forward, small-batch craft spirits. See where the magic happens on the distillery’s tour, offered Wednesday through Sunday ($20). A knowledgeable, funny (but not improv-comedian-hokey) guide will lead you through St. George’s naval hangar turned home base, showing off the equipment that makes your green chile vodka and single malt whiskey. Afterward, you’ll get a chance to sample six different spirits.
Runner-up: Hodo Soy Beanery, Berkeley
Movie Theater: The New Parkway
474 24th St. (near Telegraph Ave.), Oakland, 510-658-7900
It’s rare to find a movie theater with such a rabidly loyal following. This lounge-style two-screen cinema shows a mix of contemporary, classic, and cult films (recent offerings included Purple Rain, Princess Mononoke, and Beyoncé’s Lemonade; from $5). All can be viewed from an overstuffed couch with a craft beer and a gourmet pizza. Management makes a point of hiring Oakland residents and donating a chunk of the profits to local causes, making this a night out you can feel good about.
Runner-up: Grand Lake, Oakland
Date Spot: À Côté
5478 College Ave. (near Lawton Ave.), Oakland, 510-655-6469
Like sex itself, creating a romantic restaurant is easy enough to pull off competently but rarer to truly excel at. Rockridge’s À Côté more than meets all the basic requirements: twinkly, flattering lighting; a conversation-friendly noise level; an intimate, plant-lined patio; unobtrusive waitstaff; a chocolate-forward dessert selection. But what really sets it apart is the actual food, which is dependably well executed and sophisticated without being fussy. Here’s hoping it’s the last thing you’re focusing on.
Runner-up: Penrose, Oakland
Happy Hour: La Marcha
2026 San Pablo Ave. (near University Ave.), Berkeley, 510-269-7374
Among the wonderful things Spain has given us—Penélope Cruz, sangria—perhaps the best is the tapas tradition: free snacks during happy hour. La Marcha brings that welcome custom to Berkeley. From 4 to 6 p.m. and again from 10 p.m. to midnight, you’ll get a plate of your choosing with any beer or wine: fried brussels sprouts, ramekins of Castelvetrano olives, or slow-cooked octopus. Select wine and beer is $4.
Runner-up: Kansai, Oakland
Kid Activity: Berkeley Adventure Playground
160 University Ave. (at Marina Blvd.), Berkeley, 510-981-6720
At this three-decade-old public park, one of the few remaining “adventure playgrounds” in the United States, kids are given hammers, nails, paint, wood, and the mandate to construct almost anything they want. (On a recent visit, that meant many, many forts, most of which will be demolished by future visitors.) In the process, they learn to share, solve problems, and work with their hands. Children seven and up can be dropped off without a parent for a $10 supervision fee, but it’s probably more fun to stick around and watch.
Runner-up: Tilden Park steam trains, Berkeley
2155 Center St. (at Oxford St.), Berkeley, 510-642-0808
After a yearlong transition, the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive has a new building, a new location in the heart of downtown, and new ambitions. That building—a sculptural, light-filled, 83,000-square-foot deco-futuristic masterpiece from the same firm that designed New York’s High Line and Los Angeles’s Broad Museum—makes the museum worth a trip for the architecture alone. This summer’s offerings ($12 admission) include exhibitions of Chinese painting and photographs of the abolitionist Sojourner Truth.
Runner-up: Oakland Museum of California, Oakland
Dance Party: Wine & Bowties
This collective’s genre-spanning art and music parties aren’t frequent, but they’re legendary. At last November’s Feels IV, the Canadian celebrity producer Ryan Hemsworth spun moody R&B in a cavernous West Oakland art gallery, while in the next room the San Jose rapper Antwon whipped the crowd-surfing fans into a frenzy. At 2014’s Hotline, revelers had to call—you guessed it—a hotline for the party’s exact address; the high-octane show featured some of the Bay’s best up-and-comers. Cover typically hovers around $20.
Runner-up: NVR OVR, Oakland
Outdoor Drinking: Mad Oak
135 12th St. (near Oak St.), Oakland, 510-924-2047
When it comes to beer gardens in an increasingly crowded city, size matters. Behold, Mad Oak’s 4,200-square-foot, two-level patio and rooftop garden, replete with plants and picnic tables. With 40 beers on tap, a full liquor license, unobtrusive TVs, and food offerings from a rotating pop-up kitchen, you may never leave.
Runner-up: Westbrae Biergarten, Berkeley
Women’s Wear: Oak Common
3231 Grand Ave. (near Elmwood Ave.), Oakland, 510-285-6629
Among the reclaimed-wood shelving and urban-lodge accoutrements at this small and sunny Grand Lake shop, you’ll find an expertly curated collection of women’s wear by labels like Mollusk, Ace & Jig, Dusen Dusen, and Native Youth. Co-owners Jeffrey Probart and David Yun buy with an eye for easy silhouettes, geometric prints, and sun-bleached neutrals, aiming to keep prices below $200. Oak Common also carries small selections of menswear, home goods, accessories, and bath and beauty products.
Runner-up: Hawthorn, Oakland
Eyewear: Phoenix Optical
5519 College Ave. (near Ocean View Dr.), Oakland, 510-597-1111
Phoenix owner Ray Ascher’s family has been in the business since the 1930s, and his company is vertically integrated—the bulk of the frames are made in the company’s French factory, and the lenses are manufactured in the Rockridge store’s back room. That means Phoenix has dead-stock vintage frames dating back decades, and that its contemporary offerings are highly customizable: Prefer a matte finish? Wish the frame color on those acetate rounds was just a little darker? Have an unconventional prescription or need a special coating? At Phoenix, you’re in luck.
Runner-up: The Optician, Berkeley
2840 College Ave. (near Russell St.), Berkeley, 510-665-5994
There’s a reason Slash has been the go-to place for denim obsessives for more than 35 years. Upstairs, you’ll find new pairs from contemporary brands including Courtshop, Naked & Famous, and Dr. Denim. But the subterranean vintage shop is where the real treasure lies. There you’ll find hundreds of pairs of vintage Levi’s and Dickies stacked floor to ceiling—and, mercifully, owner Carla Bell with a tape measure in hand, ready to help you sort through it all and find your perfect fit.
Runner-up: Jeremy’s, Berkeley
Plants: The Dry Garden
6556 Shattuck Ave. (near 66th St.), Oakland, 510-547-3564
Specializing in drought-tolerant plants, this outdoor garden is arranged with a taste for the rare and bizarre. You’ll also find carnivorous, alien-looking nepenthes and a Furcraea roezlii whose sign warns shoppers that it can grow up to 15 feet tall. Inside is a small selection of ferns, pothos, and philodendrons, as well as pots, planters, and garden tools.
Runner-up: Berkeley Horticultural Nursery, Berkeley
Lingerie: Beauty & Attitude
2116 Vine St. (near Shattuck Ave.), Berkeley, 510-868-1790
Selection reigns supreme at this North Berkeley institution, which offers bras in cup sizes A to J and band sizes 28 to 44. The styles span nearly 60 brands, including Wacoal, Cosabella, and Natori—plus shape wear, hosiery, maternity and nursing wear, and some impossibly luxurious robes and nightgowns. Even so, the store’s small size makes it manageable. Its cheerful-but-not-too-cheerful staff are always available for free fittings and moral support.
Runner-up: A La Folie, Oakland
EAT & DRINK
Bar Food: Blackwater Station
4901 Telegraph Ave. (near 49th St.), Oakland, 510-593-2387
Like the best of its ilk, Blackwater Station doesn’t really make it clear whether it’s a bar with exceptional food or a restaurant that happens to have more than 70 whiskeys on offer. It doesn’t much matter when both are this good. Pair the meatballs (criminally fatty Niman Ranch pork shoulder, brassicas Bolognese, plenty of grated parmesan; $12) with a William Messer (Elijah Craig 12-year bourbon, Botanist gin, walnut and poppy liqueurs; $12) and you’ll know exactly what we mean.
Runner-up: Make Westing, Oakland
Beer Bar: Beer Revolution
464 3rd St. (near Washington St.), Oakland, 510-452-2337
This bumper-sticker-adorned, heavy-metal-blasting place is a far cry from some of the more dignified craft-beer temples you’ll find across the Bay, and thank God. With more than 50 rotating beers on tap, from sours to saisons to quadruple IPAs, plus hundreds more in the coolers lining the walls and an army of beer-fanatic bartenders to help you decide, you’ll get exactly the beer you want, with none of the pretense.
Runner-up: Hoi Polloi, Berkeley
4063 Piedmont Ave. (near 41st St.), Oakland, 510-410-7145
Chris Kronner has turned beef on bread into a spiritual pursuit, and the result—KronnerBurger, the chef ’s first real restaurant after years of pop-ups—is pretty dang divine. Kronner’s signature patty, seared crispy on the outside, juicy and blood-rare on the inside, is slathered with a salty blend of cheddar and mayo and tucked into a soft, generously buttered, and slightly sweet housemade potato bun ($13); all told, the eff ect is nothing short of sublime.
Runner-up: Chop Bar, Oakland
Brunch: The Advocate
2635 Ashby Ave. (near College Ave.), Berkeley, 510-370-2200
This brunch deserves superlatives based on its mushroom toast alone—thick grilled levain topped with a hearty slathering of creamy whipped ricotta, buttery wood-grilled wild mushrooms, pickled red onions, and a scattering of fresh herbs ($8). The menu straddles the line between recognizable classics (eggs Benedict) and fancy-restaurant reaches (wood-baked polenta with pork sausage). The cocktails are on point (most notably the gin-enhanced rhubarb spritz; $10), and the space itself s high ceilinged, light filled, and at once sprawling and intimate. Best of all, there’s never a wait.
Runner-up: Shakewell, Oakland
Cheap Eats: Abura-Ya
380 15th St. (near Webster St.), Oakland, 510-502-7743
At this frills-averse perma-pop-up, the soundtrack is Johnny Cash, the Japanese-style chicken is fried to order, and the prices are cheap: Four pieces of juicy, twice-fried karaage with your choice of one of nine seasonings will set you back just $8. Splurge on one of the many sides—the fried sunchoke ($4) is particularly addictive—and a tallboy, and you’re still looking at a gut-busting, genuinely tasty meal for less than the price of movie tickets.
Runner-up: Gordo Taqueria, various locations
Ramen: Ramen Shop
5812 College Ave. (near Chabot Rd.), Oakland, 510-788-6370
Three years and a 22-seat expansion later, the restaurant responsible for Oakland’s ramen boom is still at the top of its game. The Chez Panisse alums in the open kitchen apply their California-cuisine ethos to pork-rich, noodle-dense bowls of ramen (from $16.50). The specifics change nightly, but you can never go wrong with the vegetarian option, which comes with a light Meyer lemon–shoyu broth and a tangle of seasonal vegetables (recently: oyster mushrooms, roasted carrots, and asparagus), plus half a fatty, salt-cured egg sitting on top.
Runner-up: Norikonoko, Berkeley
Prix Fixe: Commis
3859 Piedmont Ave. (near Montell St.), Oakland, 510-653-3902
The tasting menu at James Syhabout’s temple to precise, modern American cooking will run you $125, and that’s before wine or tip. But it’s a steal when you consider what you’re getting: a three-hour, eight-course, 10-plus-dish trip through the mind of one of the Bay Area’s most imaginative chefs, starting with, for example, an icy noodle of tart frozen pear and green juniper and ending with an assortment of homemade cep-chocolate truffles and root beer–fennel pâté de fruit, all presented with impeccable, polite service in an intimate and low-lit setting. Even if you only do it once, you won’t regret it.
Runner-up: Chez Panisse, Berkeley
Barbershop: Slick and Dapper
3619 Grand Ave. (near Mandana Blvd.), Oakland, 510-251-0796; 4121 Broadway (near 41st St.), Oakland, 510-250-9569
This two-shop local chain (slogan: “High class cuts, blue-collar budget”) offers quick, classic-style cuts with no fuss, little chitchat, and prices that are competitive with your local Supercuts: $30 for a long cut, $25 for a short, $20 for a buzz, and even less if you’re a kid or a senior. Plus: online booking and a free whiskey, beer, or coffee while you’re in the chair.
Runner-up: Temescal Alley Barbershop, Oakland
Cannabis Club: Harborside Health Center
1840 Embarcadero (near 19th Ave.), Oakland, 888-994-2726
The West Coast’s largest medical marijuana dispensary is also its best. Having more than 100,000 collective members nets you a lot of power in the market, and Harborside uses its sway to get customers one of the widest selections in the world. If you’re looking for a high-CBD medical tincture, a gluten- and sugar-free edible, or just some plain ol’ California-grown legal(ish) bud, you’ll find it at Harborside—and if you don’t know what you’re looking for, the budtenders will help you figure it out.
Runner-up: C.R.A.F.T. Collective, Berkeley
Facial: Studio Abasi
Berkeley City Club, 2315 Durant Ave. (near Ellsworth St.), Berkeley, 510-665-5544
The women of Studio Abasi will do to your skin what filters do to your Instagrams. After a consultation and a battery of masks and lotions tailored to your skin type, they’ll go to town on your pores with surgical precision and impressive speed, extracting every bit of oil and dirt before applying yet another mask and sending you on your way (from $110). Abasi also offers acne- and aging-specific facials.
Runner-up: Glow Skin Therapy, Alameda
Mani-Pedi: Organic Bliss
547 Athol Ave. (near Cleveland St.), Oakland, 510-250-9723
It’s the little things: one-way curtains so passersby can’t stare at you with your feet in a tub of water; polishes and products that are organic, vegan, and petrochemical-free; a cell-phone- and walk-in-free policy that ensures a vibe that’s more like a fancy spa and less like an errand; a conspicuously non-chemical smell in the air. Mani-pedis start at $30 and include free gingersnap cookies.
Runner-up: Le Petit Nail Spa, Berkeley
Originally published in the July issue of San Francisco