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Most visitors to San Francisco don’t make it over to the East Bay. Oakland is seen as dangerous, far away, or just a suburb of San Francisco. It took us until our third visit to the city to finally listen to Oakland’s raving fans and head over there—a whole 13 minutes away on the BART. Oakland is growing in popularity as many San Francisco residents flee the ridiculous rent prices in the city, and we discovered that it has a unique character of its own. There are diverse restaurants, a thriving art scene, a lake in the middle of the city, and best of all, unlike San Francisco, it gets a summer. It’s amazing how just crossing the bridge makes all the difference as we fled San Francisco’s fog and peeled off our layers as we explored sunny Oakland.
I think part of Oakland’s problem is that it doesn’t make as good a first impression as San Francisco does. It certainly didn’t seem promising when we first arrived, passing through the outskirts on the BART past industrial lots, big highways, and the busy port. The downtown area seemed pretty typical, with wide streets and a mix of historic buildings and modern office blocks, but on a Saturday morning it was eerily quiet.
Oakland’s charms take a bit longer to reveal themselves but by the end of the day we were raving about the city to our dubious San Franciscan friends.
Vegan Soul Food
It was food that initially drew us to Oakland. As if San Francisco doesn’t have enough restaurants, Oakland kept coming up as I researched the best vegetarian-friendly restaurants in the area. Narrowing it down to just the two we could visit on a day trip was challenging but I decided on two vegetarian restaurants, both with unique concepts that we haven’t come across anywhere else, even in the vegetarian mecca San Francisco.
We timed our arrival so we could start with an early lunch at Souley Vegan (301 Broadway), a 10 minute walk from the BART station in downtown Oakland. Oakland is full of surprises like this—a vegan soul food restaurant hidden in a nondescript building in the business district. Souley Vegan is a casual restaurant where you order at the counter and sit on bench seats or at the bar if you prefer, with jazz and blues photos on the wall. It’s surprisingly large and I’m guessing the mixed crowd weren’t all vegans—people come here just for excellent comfort food.
As always at vegetarian restaurants we wanted everything on the menu, and luckily Souley Vegan do sample platters for $20. Our plate was piled high with vegan versions of soul food classics.
We aren’t usually fans of vegetarian meat recreations but Souley Vegan do some amazing things with tofu. The southern fried tofu is deep fried in a special batter to resemble chicken, and we loved the moist inside and crunchy exterior (perfect with hot sauce), and the Bbq tofu marinated in a smoky tangy sauce would satisfy anyone missing ribs. Everything else was just as good and full of flavour. The black eye peas and lentils were both really flavourful sautéed in tomatoes and spices, the creamy mac and cheese did not leave me missing dairy, the potato salad was much tastier than the mayonnaise drenched version, and there were also greens, yams, and a moist chunk of cornbread.
The sample platter was more than enough food for us both and sadly we couldn’t fit in the enticing vegan cupcakes that I’d been eying up or the peach cobbler.
We loved our first experience of vegan soul food and being able to sample all the southern classics that we’d usually miss out on. Souley Vegan is good enough to justify the trip to Oakland alone.
Jack London Square
To walk off our huge lunch we headed to nearby Jack London Square, a redeveloped area along the waterfront. On a sunny day the palm trees, wide boardwalk, sail boats, and kayakers in the bay gave it a tropical feel.
It’s a mix of old and new Oakland with the shipping industry cranes as a backdrop to the pleasure boats in the marina and the stylish bars and restaurants around the square. We played “choose the boat we’re going to own one day” at the marina, and took a look at the incongruous Jack London cabin, a replica of the one where Oakland’s native son lived in the Yukon. Next door is Heinold’s, a wild west style wooden saloon where London was a regular, often making notes for his books. You can also take tours on the US Potomac, used as Roosevelt’s floating White House during WW2.
If we hadn’t been so full from lunch we would have stopped at Miette Pâtisserie—we visited their branch at San Francisco’s Ferry Building and their macarons, cupcakes, and shortbread are delicious.
From Jack London Square we headed back into the quiet downtown area, along Broadway past a mix of shiny modern and historic buildings, like the Art Deco Paramount theatre.
The tree lined streets appeared unremarkable but we stumbled across some interesting places like a Trappist specialist bar, the vegan soul food restaurant, colourful street art, and some cool cafes. We stopped inside one, Awaken (1429 Broadway), that is as hipster as any you’d find in San Francisco’s Mission neighbourhood, but without the pretension. In a large high-ceilinged space they serve Four Barrel coffee, draft beer, organic sandwiches made from Acme bread, and vegan donuts; have art for sale on the walls; and host poetry slams and open mics at night.
Art Murmur Saturday Stroll
The main reason we were in Oakland on a Saturday afternoon was to take part in the Oakland Art Murmur Saturday Stroll. We’d missed their more popular First Friday gallery walk on the first Friday of the month, but many of the galleries are also open on Saturday afternoons for a quieter viewing experience.
Armed with the Art Murmur Saturday Stroll map we followed the art trail with most galleries clustered around, or just off Broadway and 25th Street. We chose the galleries at random and some were in between exhibitions while others were mixed use spaces (marked in blue) like shops or cafes that had less art on show. As they were all so close together it was easy to move on to the next one.
One of our favourite galleries was Pro Arts (150 Frank H Ogawa Plaza) whose Navigating the New exhibition had a mix of media and styles, including Rodney Ewing’s dramatic portraits created with ink, water and salt.
There’s a whole series of galleries on 25th Street and a highlight was PHOTO (473 25th Street) which featured a fascinating exhibition by Robert Buelteman who takes photographs without a camera or lens using a complicated process using electricity. The flowers and leaves he photographs are surrounded by a glowing blue aura. Inside the same building there were also small exhibitions of ceramics, paintings, and installations.
Another place worth visiting on 25th Street is the 25th Street Collective (477 25th Street) a large warehouse housing slow food and slow fashion artisans. From wine to hats to dresses, jewellery and shoes, you can see the creators at work and buy direct from them. After looking longingly at the creative O’Lover Hats we chatted for a while with Elwyn the hat maker who travels to Ecuador for inspiration.
From Broadway we headed down 21st Street towards Lake Merritt, Oakland’s recreational area. We’d hoped to visit the hidden rooftop garden on the Kaiser Building (300 Lakeside Drive) but unfortunately the building was closed on weekends. Instead we joined the locals who were walking, running, cycling and boating around the lake—on a sunny Saturday it was the busiest area we visited.
Vegetarian Wine Bar
Like Souley Vegan Encuentro (202 2nd street) has a concept that we’ve never come across before—a vegetarian wine bar. This turned out to be as amazing as it sounds. It’s a small, bright, casual but stylish place with friendly service, an excellent organic/sustainable wine list, and a seasonal menu of small and larger bites. You can order as much or as little as you like and most people order a selection to share. We weren’t hugely hungry after our big lunch but after ordering a few small dishes we couldn’t resist ordering more.
We started with stuffed dates with goats cheese, walnuts and a balsamic reduction. We aren’t huge fans of dates but they were delicious, not overly sweet and paired perfectly with the creamy goats cheese. We also ordered one of the daily specials, a nicely spiced lentil soup, and a couple of the bruschettas—stone fruit, goats cheese, mint and chives, and roasted corn and red pepper summer squash succotash with white bean pesto. They have plenty of vegan options and you can choose one of their vegan cheeses to replace cheese in other dishes, or even get a vegan cheese plate.
The dishes listed as small plates are actually quite big. We shared the ratatouille brik pastry purses with an heirloom and sundried tomato sauce and macadamia sunflower cream. It was beautifully presented and we didn’t miss the dairy in this vegan dish at all.
All the desserts are vegan and the chocolate cake has been on the menu since Encuentro opened three years ago. If you like chocolate, don’t miss it, it’s moist, rich and delicious. This is the kind of place that makes being vegan easy.
Encuentro is pricey but it’s worth it for the creative dishes made from high-quality, organic local ingredients. It’s ideal whether you want a snack with a glass of local wine or a larger tapas style meal. It quickly became one of our favourite vegetarian restaurants anywhere.
Optional Extras for a Perfect Day in Oakland
We only had a day in Oakland but here are some other suggestions that we’d love to do next time.
- We visited Oakland on a Saturday afternoon and the downtown area was very quiet. The best time to visit would be on the afternoon/evening of the first Friday of the month when you can take part in the Art Murmur First Friday Gallery Walk.
- Other options are coming earlier on a Saturday for the Grand Lake farmer’s market or on Sunday morning for the Jack London Square farmer’s market.
- If you visit on a weekday check out the Kaiser Centre roof garden by Lake Merritt. You could also visit the Oakland Museum of California which is near the lake and supposed to be very good.
- There are plenty of delicious sounding restaurants in Oakland. We were tempted by Homeroom which is dedicated to mac and cheese, and the vegetarian platters at one of the many Ethiopian restaurants like Enssaro.
- We would have loved to explore the neighbourhoods further north of downtown Oakland—Temescal and Rockridge sound like they have a great mix of restaurants, cafes and independent shops.
How to Get to Oakland
We took the comfortable, clean BART train from Powell St in San Francisco (the nearest stop to Union Square) to 12th Street/ Oakland City Centre. It took 13 minutes and cost $3.15. You could also take the ferry from the San Francisco Ferry Building to Jack London Square—it costs $6.25 and takes 30 minutes. If you haven’t taken the ferry from San Francisco this would be a scenic option at least one way.
We only got a taste of Oakland on our day trip but we know we’ll be back. The excellent restaurants, sunny weather, vibrant arts scene, lack of tourists, and the relaxed, down to earth vibe make it definitely worth a visit from San Francisco.