Oakland’s best bites

By James Syhabout, Michelin-starred chef.

Photography by Larissa Cleveland 

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January 2018

Oakland’s culinary scene is booming, largely thanks to Michelin-starred chef James Syhabout, who has put the city on California’s foodie map with his fine-dining restaurant Commis. Here he gives the lowdown on where to eat in his hometown. 

Breakfast spot worth getting up early for

I love dim sum for breakfast – it’s the kind of food I grew up on. My favourite place is East Ocean in Alameda. I’ll order dumplings and some of their speciality dishes like braised offal and chicken feet. It’s a little different from the usual pancakes and waffles but, for me, it’s more comforting.

Weekend brunch worth battling the queues for

Chef Tanya Holland’s menu at Brown Sugar Kitchen is full of soul food – gumbo, grits with shrimp, waffles and fried chicken. I also love that it’s in West Oakland – you get a real sense of Oakland here, away from the commercial zone. I always order the cornmeal waffles, they’re delicious with the crispy buttermilk fried chicken, brown sugar butter and apple cider syrup.

Café Van Kleef is quite divey, but great fun. They serve great Greyhounds – vodka and freshly squeezed grapefruit juice.

Best ‘grab-and-go’ eatery

Ba Le Vietnamese Sandwiches on International Boulevard in East Oakland is my go-to for something quick and delicious. I usually get the combo banh mi with pâté, cheese, pickles, jalapenos and fresh herbs. The baguettes are made to order and really good value.

  • Take a trip to Brown Sugar Kitchen, where exciting international flavours meet local ingredients.
  • Stop by Grand Lake Kitchen for coffee and classic bites ©Larissa Cleveland.
  • Pick your perfect brew at Blue Bottle Coffee.

Food truck worth tracking down

Tacos La Perla opposite West Oakland’s BART train Station. There’s something about their tortillas that makes them stand out – they’re smaller and much more flavoursome. I usually get the steak tacos but they also do tripe, carnitas (a confit of pork) and pork-rind tacos.

Lunch spot for taking care of business

Kronnerburger on Piedmont Avenue because of its central location, casual atmosphere and privacy. You can get a great burger and drink, and talk business without feeling like you’re having a power lunch. I always order the beef burger – they cook their meat very rare so it’s almost like seared steak tartare.

Where to impress on a date

I’d have to say Commis, as it’s very intimate and quiet and the overall experience makes it a special night out. We have an open kitchen, which is unusual for a two-Michelin-starred place, and the menu is set so you can just sit back and enjoy the experience without worrying about what to order. The menu always changes, but one dish that we can’t take off the menu is the poached eggs with smoked dates and malt. It’s so popular.

  • Wile away an afternoon hiking through the Oakland Hills © Getty.

    Did you know…? 

    You can travel to Oakland from San Francisco by ferry, which has a full bar, plenty of snacks and incredible views of the Bay. £521 pp

    Book a trip to San Francisco

Hip hangout where children are welcome

We always head down to Lake Merrit at the weekend. There are parks for the kids and lots of family-friendly restaurants around the lake. We’ll usually eat at Grand Lake Kitchen – it’s very relaxed there with an all-day menu of things like French toast and BLTA (bacon, lettuce, tomato and avocado) sandwiches. You don’t even mind waiting half an hour for a table because it’s such a nice place to hang out, especially on a sunny day.

Foodie souvenir to take home

A bag of coffee beans from Blue Bottle Coffee. There’s a big coffee movement in the Bay Area and Blue Bottle was one of the pioneers in Oakland.

Local independent that deserves to stay in business

Café Van Kleef on Telegraph Avenue is a bit of a local institution – it’s a bar and quite divey, but great fun. It looks like they’re having a big garage sale with all the memorabilia everywhere. They serve great Greyhounds (vodka and freshly squeezed grapefruit juice). If you’re lucky there’ll be live jazz too.

Dining experience worth leaving town for

Manresa in Los Gatos. It’s a benchmark restaurant for a lot of chefs and has been particularly influential on me as I used to be its chef de cuisine. It’s a great place to escape the concrete jungle for some very elegant and delicious cooking. 

James Syhabout is chef-patron of Commis, Hawker Fare San Francisco and the Old Kan Beer & Co. in Oakland 

Interview by Rachel Truman

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