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  • Manny Crisostomo / mcrisostomo@sacbee.com

    Grand Avenue, east of Lake Merritt, blends the best of old and new Oakland with a mix of vintage businesses, trendy shops and restaurants.

  • Manny Crisostomo / mcrisostomo@sacbee.com

    The 1926 Grand Lake Theater, anchors Grand Avenue. Outside, it's an art deco gem; inside, it's state-of-the-art with two 3-D projectors.

  • Manny Crisostomo / mcrisostomo@sacbee.com

    San Francisco resident Michael Papenburg tries the chicken sandwich from Bakesale Betty. Behind him, a long line stretches down the block.

  • Manny Crisostomo / mcrisostomo@sacbee.com

    John Schroder's dog Gumbo samples the water outside Fenton's Creamery, a Piedmont Avenue institution founded in 1894.

  • Manny Crisostomo / mcrisostomo@sacbee.com

    A screen made of plastic spoons fills the window at Scream Sorbet in the Temescal neighborhood of Oakland.

Time to update that mental image of Oakland – it's way more hip now

Published: Sunday, Sep. 9, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 1H
Last Modified: Monday, Sep. 10, 2012 - 9:32 pm

OAKLAND – At first the line forms slowly, a few solo diners slouching over their smartphones, just killing time until the noon opening of Bakesale Betty on Telegraph Avenue.

Then, all at once, as if by a trick of time-lapse photography, several hundred lemminglike lunchgoers materialize and clog the sidewalk stretching a full block.

They are men in business suits, moms pushing strollers, hipsters in rolled-up jeans and bright red high-tops. They are construction workers in reflective vests, teens in ripped T-shirts advertising the latest anti-social band, hair-netted ladies from nail salons. They are white, black, Asian, Latino – a veritable census-form questionnaire come to life. They are immigrants from Eritrea and Israel, commuters from San Leandro and Concord.

All come to this increasingly trendy Temescal neighborhood of Oakland for that narrow window between noon and 1:30 when the funky ironing-board tables are unfolded, that magical time when Bakesale Betty actually opens for business.

What they are waiting for is, essentially, a fried chicken sandwich. Nothing else. Sure, it's a succulent slab of buttermilk-breaded poultry on a torpedo roll, garnished with jalapeño-flecked slaw and prepared by a blue-bewigged former chef at fancy Chez Panisse. But, still, it's just a chicken sandwich, people, and a $6.90 chicken sandwich at that.

As the queue inches forward, a homeless man limps by in floppy shoes sans laces. He eyes this mass of hungry humanity warily, it seems. He doesn't ask for money or food or anything for himself. He does, however, ask a question to no one in particular.

"You all standing here for a sandwich?"

A few people nod. One guy in line chuckles and says "Yeah."

The homeless man limps off, seeming more amused than angry, spitting out a certain epithet featuring a fricative consonant. People in line bow heads back into smartphones, as if abashed.

Scenes similar to this, incongruous and slightly preposterous, are played out daily in several pockets of Oakland's vast urban landscape. Gentrification and renewal, those two politically charged terms of civic engagement, have transformed several neighborhoods from ramshackle to retro chic in dizzying fashion.

Art, music, fine dining and trendy shopping have sprouted like so many roses in what once was considered a weed-choked vacant lot of a city.

In the past decade, people with money and a creative bent have migrated out of high-rent San Francisco and brought their upscale aesthetic and discriminating palates to once-working-class Oakland sectors like Temescal and Grand Lake. Even blighted downtown areas like the Uptown neighborhood now teem with hip bars, trendy art galleries, food-truck culture and top entertainment at the gussied-up Paramount and Fox theaters.

Yet, Oakland still has trouble shaking off its bad reputation, mainly because much of it remains valid. Crime and unemployment continue to run rampant, and the violence stemming from the Occupy Oakland movement's activities in the past year thrust it back in the national headlines.

But this city, for all its challenges, is not one to be avoided. A day trip to dine and shop, or an evening's entertainment, can be as enriching as any to be had at that glittering jewel on the other side of the Bay Bridge. The New York Times' travel section even went so far as to put Oakland as No. 5 on its "45 Places to Go in 2012," wedged between London and the Chilean Patagonia region.

Many longtime Oaklanders, too, are reveling in this revitalization. Lake Merritt resident Bob Fisher, who said he moved to the East Bay from San Francisco in the early 1990s "under protest," now says he wouldn't go back.

"This is like San Francisco was 20 years ago," he said. "There's a neighborhood feel, and there's a vibrancy and an eclectic mix of people. There's a lot to like."

Tourists can perhaps best experience Oakland by taking to its streets – four streets, in particular – all reasonably safe and reflecting the character of a true, thriving neighborhood.

Piedmont Avenue

(between 38th and 44th streets)

His scrawny little terrier, Ghost, was wending his way among the outdoor cafe's tables, greeting passers-by on the sidewalk before reconnoitering with his human companion, Tim Dennehy, relaxing with the newspaper.

"I've lived here 40 years," Dennehy said. "I remember when Cesar (an upscale watering hole) was a Longs Drugs. Stole my first Reese's Peanut Butter Cup there. Now I'm becoming the gray-haired guy watching the kids go by. But it's still got a homey feel."

This stretch of Piedmont Avenue – running between I-580 and the Mountain View Cemetery and decidedly not to be confused with the wealthy enclave of Piedmont nearby – has found itself in recent years undergoing a transition from working class to high class.

On the one hand, you've got the old guard of Fenton's Creamery (since 1894) and the Piedmont Grocery (since 1902). On the other, you've got the Michelin-star-rated Commis, the James Beard Award-winning Adesso, and BayWolf, the height of California nouvelle cuisine.

Beyond gastronomy, Piedmont Avenue maintains a delicate retail balance between the upscale upstarts and down-to-earth old-timers.

Among the old guard is Black Swan Books, whose owner, Bonnie Lucas, has managed to stem the tide of online competitors by augmenting her new and used book selection with Japanese woodblock prints and, as she puts it, "lots of tchotchkes." On weekend nights, when the line for Fenton's reaches well past her store, she gets barely a blip of increased business.

"Ice cream eaters are not necessarily book people," she said, "but book people definitely eat ice cream."

Frozen treats or no, book people apparently do still flock to Piedmont. There are four bookstores on the blocks, and Issues, a newsstand (featuring magazine titles as obscure as Modern Drunkard and Dairy Goat Journal) just off of it.

"People don't come to Piedmont Avenue as tourists," said Noella Teele, co-owner of Issues. "But they might come here if they're visiting family or friends. Once they know about this area, they'll come back."

Many discoveries are to be made. Here's one: Every Monday night at Baja, a Mexican restaurant, there's an extended bluegrass jam well into the evening – with nary a velvet-suited mariachi performer in sight.

Over at Rare Bird, a boutique featuring handcrafted works such as cardboard sculptures from local artists, general manager Tom Gonzales turned down the volume on Billie Holiday coming from a turntable and raved about what he calls the "weird mix" on The Avenue.

"You really see it at our Third Thursday art walk," he said. "Our area's getting a lot of word of mouth."

Most of that is due to what goes in the mouths of Bay Area foodies, perhaps among the nation's most discriminating, at places like Commis, whose chef James Syhabout has achieved rock-star status.

Fenton's may be less haute, but nonetheless a hot spot. On a weekday afternoon, the joint was packed. Bill and Yvonne Clark had driven in from Pleasanton to escape the 100-degree heat. They've frequented the place for five decades.

"It's still great," Bill said.

"But the price has changed a little," Yvonne added.

Temescal

Telegraph Avenue, between 51st and 42nd streets

Long before Bakesale Betty owner Alison Barakat left Australia to work at Chez Panisse and ultimately become the chicken-sandwich darling of Telegraph Avenue, there was Genova's Deli, a neighborhood staple since 1926.

The lunch line may not be as long at Genova as at Bakesale Betty, but the deli has a loyal following for its homemade fare, such as ravioli.

"It's real food, not shrink-wrapped," said customer Lona Beeson. "They treat you right. One day, one of the regular guys behind the counter, he says, 'Let me help you out.' He didn't say exactly why or what, but there was some criminal things going on in the parking lot and the police were coming. Now that's good service."

Temescal's closeness to downtown Oakland might conceivably scare off some business, but not much. In fact, Carlo Busby, president of the Temescal Merchants Association, says the gentrification of the neighborhood "grew organically" over the years.

"These days," he said, "it seems a neighborhood gets created, but this has grown slowly, and that vitality has attracted newer people from San Francisco and other areas."

Many of those newcomers park at high-end restaurants such as Pizzaiolo (helmed by another Chez Panisse alum, Charlie Hallowell) or Dona Tomas. But perhaps Temescal's most celebrated dining establishment is its most enduring, Asmara, an Eritrean restaurant owned by Kesete Yohannes since 1985.

Asmara's success has spawned a dozen other Eritrean eateries in the general area, but Yohannes says neither the Eritrean rivals nor the so-called haute cuisine has hurt his business.

"This neighborhood has changed, and I like it," he said. "All good, especially for us. People are coming to this area now. You should come after 5 (p.m.). It's a zoo. People everywhere."

Foot traffic has increased so much on this stretch of Telegraph Avenue that businesses are shoehorning in to get retail space. Around the corner, just off Telegraph and 49th Street is The Alley, alcove-sized mini-businesses with an eclectic bent – Crimson Horticultural Rarities, Mosswood Mercantile, Temescal Alley Barber Shop.

Not everyone raves about the neighborhood's sudden hipness. Pamela Mays McDonald, shopping for razors for her college-bound son, said Temescal may be losing its cozy neighborhood feel.

"We love having the area uplifted," she said, "but the people from San Francisco come in here thinking we're all a bunch of idiots and yokels and criminals because they've been reading about the bad image of Oakland. They believe that, but it's just not true. So they walk around all nervous and scared. You can't talk to them. I've been in places where they won't even wait on me.

"And then there's that place called Sorbet. Have you ever tried to go out and buy that stuff? It's, like, $5 a scoop, a little bitty scoop."

No one was going into Scream Sorbet around lunchtime. That's because the line for Bakesale Betty blocked the entrance.

"I just moved down here from Portland 12 hours ago," said Lacey Beth Peck, standing a hundred deep in line. "People I know in Portland told me about Bakesale Betty. I don't know what I'm about to experience, but I'm looking forward to it."

Rockridge

College Avenue, between the BART station and Manila Avenue

Rubbing up against the affluent Oakland and Berkeley hills, Rockridge has the reputation as the city's priciest shopping district.

It is no exaggeration.

Yet, there is much to interest those in the 99 percent. Speaking of which, windows of several College Avenue businesses display signs stating "We Are the 99% Working for Oakland," either as a vow of solidarity or a hedge against vandalism – or both.

Because visitors can step off a BART train and instantly be immersed in commerce, this is a great area for browsing and impulse buys. After all, who wouldn't want to pick up, on a whim, doormats made from reclaimed fishing rope from Maine lobstermen? Or perhaps Abyss Super Pile Towels ("a super hefty 700 grams") from DeWoolfson?

Those can be had at Maison d'Etre, on College Avenue for 16 years. Owner Fred Womack says his customers expect artisan wares and American-made merchandise.

"A lot of people in Rockridge will not buy anything from China," he said. "They'll say that to me. (But) you can't exclusively be American. I've tried that. It's hard. But people here are loyal and supportive. They'd rather shop here than go out of town."

A strong locavore streak runs through College Avenue. Nowhere is that vibe stronger than at Market Hall, a fresh produce, butcher and dry goods store coupled with upscale eateries and cafes.

Rochelle Matonich came to buy fresh trout and some vegetables and then decompress with some coffee on the front patio at Highwire, a cafe.

"It's kind of expensive, but people get locked into the convenience of it," she said. "My friend always gets on my case because I eat too much fish."

Isn't fish a healthy food choice?

"Yes, but she thinks I'm depleting the ocean."

Local is the overwhelming vibe at College Avenue's two bookstores, Diesel and Pegasus. Both routinely feature local author readings, and it just so happens that several of them are national figures.

Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Michael Chabon is a Diesel regular, so much so that he asked store owners if his publisher could temporarily transform Diesel into a '70s record store for a film promoting his forthcoming novel about Oakland, "Telegraph Avenue."

"We like to make the store a community place," said Susannah Long, one of the booksellers. "In the winter, our fireplace is popular. People will go next door, get a hot chocolate and bring it in here."

Next door is the Bittersweet Chocolate Cafe, featuring every type of hot chocolate one could imagine. Its speciality coffees includes "The Obama Blend," beans from Kenya, Hawaii and Indonesia

There will be a Romney Blend, a barista promised.

Type of beans?

"Decaf," she said.

If that's not provocative enough, there always is a funky boutique called Who's Your Betty?, where the custom-stitched purses and decorative works are 90 percent locally handcrafted.

"People are sick of buying stuff from overseas," owner Danielle Marinovich said. "They want to keep the money in their community. I might get in trouble saying this, but I know there's lot of 'Made in China' on this block."

There is something else people on College Avenue prefer to keep sub rosa: crime. Yes, people do get robbed in upscale Rockridge.

"They got the jewelry store (Pave) and busted into Pasta Pomodoro (restaurant) and Body Time," Marinovich said. "Around Christmas time, we had a lot of apologetic robbers. Like, 'I'm sorry, but give me your money.' The people around the neighborhood said the robbers were very sympathetic and everything."

Grand Lake

Grand Avenue, between I-580 and Boulevard Way

Just five blocks long, this stretch of Grand Avenue east of Lake Merritt could serve as a microcosm of Oakland old and new, how they can co-exist and even band together to fight a common foe – the city government, in this case.

Old Oakland can be found at the Grand Lake Theater, a 1926 Art Deco gem that features a Wurlitzer pipe organ in the main auditorium on Friday and Saturday nights; at Walden Pond Books, run by the Curatolo family for 40 years and still staving off the Amazons; at the Alley piano bar, where Ron Dibble has tickled the ivories for decades; and at the Grand Bakery, where owner Bob Jaffe says he provides Northern California's only "full service" kosher bakery.

New Oakland can be found at upscale eateries such as Camino, featuring another Chez Panisse alum, Russell Moore, and Boot and Shoe Service, a bookend to Hallowell's Pizzaiolo in Temescal; at high-end Michael Mischer Chocolates; and at uber-expensive urban designer Monkey Forest Road.

What you won't find on Grand is chain stores; those are on the other side of Lake Merritt on Lakeshore Drive.

"I always had high hopes for Grand Avenue," said Mischer, the chocolatier. "On Grand, I always had a feeling the people who cared, the owners, actually worked at the business. That's what really attracted me. We're all trying to do unique things."

The heart of the neighborhood, what other businesses call "the anchor," is the Grand Lake Theater. Independent owner Allen Michaan, over the years, has spent at least $500,000 in renovations since 1980, not to mention installing twin 3-D projectors a few years ago.

Still, he says the theater loses money because of what he terms "draconian" parking fees by the city of Oakland. Michaan rallied his fellow merchants to have parking fee hours reduced to 6 p.m., instead of 8 p.m., but he maintains that the $4, two-hour maximum on streetside parking is hurting businesses.

"What happens if I can't make it?" Michaan asked. "The whole street goes down, I guess."

Jaffe, however, is not so pessimistic. He stepped outside his bakery onto the sidewalk, looked around.

"We have black, white, street people, Latino, straight, gay and in-between, all co-existing, man," he said. "People know each other here. This street's got character. This town's got character. Can't kill that."


OAKLAND


PIEDMONT AVENUE

Between 38th and 44th streets

RESTAURANTS

• BayWolf: 3853 Piedmont (www.baywolf.com)

• Dopo: 4293 Piedmont (www.dopoadesso.com/dopo)

• Commis: 3959 Piedmont (www.commisrestaurant.com)

• Baja: 4070 Piedmont (www.bajaonpiedmont.com)

• Fenton's Creamery: 4226 Piedmont (www.fentonscreamery.com)

SHOPS

• Black Swan Books: 4236 Piedmont; (510) 428-2881

• Issues: 20 Glen Ave., at Piedmont Avenue (issuesshop.com)

• Rare Bird: 3883 Piedmont (therarebird.com)

• Nathan & Co.: 4025 Piedmont (www.nathanandco.com)

• Dr.Comics and Mr. Games: 4014 Piedmont (drcomicsmrgames.tumblr.com)

• Piedmont Lane Antiques: 4121 Piedmont; (510) 654-4706

ENTERTAINMENT

• Piedmont Theater: 4186 Piedmont; (www. landmarktheatres.com/market/.../PiedmontTheatre.htm)


TEMESCAL

Telegraph Avenue, between 51st and 42nd streets

RESTAURANTS

• Bakesale Betty: 5098 Telegraph (www.bakesalebetty.com)

• Asmara: 5020 Telegraph (www.asmararestaurant.com)

• Dona Tomas: 5004 Telegraph (donatomas.com)

• Pizzaiolo: 5008 Telegraph (www.pizzaiolooakland.com)

• Genova Deli: 5095 Telegraph (www.genovadeli.net)

• Lanesplitter Pizza: 4799 Telegraph (www.lanesplitterpizza.com)

• Arbor Cafe: 4210 Telegraph (http://oaklandarbor.com)

SHOPS

• Article Pract (knitting): 5010 Telegraph (www.articlepract.com)

• Sagrada (spiritual gifts): 4926 Telegraph (www.sagrada.com)

• Shaver and Cutlery Shop: 4930 Telegraph (www.shavecutstore.com)

• Crimson Horticultural Rarities: 470A 49th St. (crimsonhort.com)

• Ruby's Garden (children's clothes): 5095 Telegraph (www.rubysgarden.com)


ROCKRIDGE

College Avenue, between the BART station and Manilia Avenue

RESTAURANTS

• Oliveto: 5655 College (www.oliveto.com)

• Rockridge Market Hall: 5655 College (rockridgemarkethall.com)

• Rockridge Cafe: 5492 College (www.rockridgecafe.com)

• Crepevine: 5600 College (www.crepevine.com)

• Cactus Taqueria: 5642 College (cactustaqueria.com)

SHOPS

• Bittersweet Chocolate: 5427 College (www.bittersweetcafe.com)

• Maison d' Etre: 5640 College (maisondetre.com)

• Diesel, A Bookstore: 5433 College (www.dieselbook store.com/oakland-info)

• Pegasus Books: 5560 College (www.pegasusbookstore.com)

• Who's Your Betty?: 5517 College (whosyourbetty.com)


GRAND LAKE

Grand Avenue, between I-580 and Boulevard Way

RESTAURANTS

• Camino: 3917 Grand (www.caminorestaurant.com)

• Boot and Shoe Service: 3308 Grand (bootandshoeservice.com)

• Day of the Dead Coffee Shop: 3208 Grand (510-868-8705)

• Lynn & Lu's Cafe: 3353 Grand (510 835-5705)

SHOPS

• Walden Pond Books:

Michael Mischer Chocolates: 3352 Grand (michaelmischerchocolates.com)

• Grand Bakery: 3264 Grand; (510) 465-1110

• Monkey Forest Road: 3265 Grand Avenue (www.monketforestroad.com)

ENTERTAINMENT

• Grand Lake Theater: 3200 Grand (www.renaissancerialto.com)

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

Read more articles by Sam McManis



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