Oakland Is America’s New Queer Food Capital. Here’s Where to Eat

·6 min read
Oakland Is America’s New Queer Food Capital. Here’s Where to Eat

Queer chefs have been flocking to the Bay Area since the mid-20th century, searching for a place that could buoy their culinary aspirations and allow free expression. Somewhere to be out, and cook damn good food. But while San Francisco used to be the center of the queer food universe, it’s the city across the bridge that’s ushering in the newest era of queer dining. In Oakland, an emerging crop of queer-owned, queer-run, and queer-frequented spaces serve up dishes (and vibes) that are sexy, political, unapologetic, and most important, delicious.

Oakland’s queer landscape is constantly evolving. Sarah Kirnon, chef-owner of the legendary Afro-Caribbean restaurant Miss Ollie’s, has closed her brick-and-mortar space in Swan’s Market and will open a take-out window called Holder’s House in July. Chef Booli Huerta of Fish and Bonez hosts pop-ups at local breweries and other venues, serving mushroom, sweet potato, and yellow jack tostadas, along with albóndigas breakfast sandwiches. Oakland has long been a city of community and political organizing; adding to this legacy is Queer Wave Coffee, a decolonial coffee roastery that aims to shift the relationship between those who grow the beans and those who sell them by partnering with a profit-sharing collective in Honduras. Then there’s the Baqueery, a made-to-order sweets project that will create just about anything you request, from berry pie to vegan Pride-themed cupcakes.

Want more? Here are some must-visits:

Friends and Family

468 25th Street

Even before this queer-owned downtown Oakland bar officially opened in April 2020, there were whispers in queer circles about the space on 25th Street that offered upscale cocktails, a rotating menu, and regular programming to spotlight local artists and artisans. Sit in the backyard or find a cozy spot inside, where the low lighting sets the mood for dancing and flirtatious conversation. Order Mom’s Carrot Cake, which is, you guessed it, made by owner Blake Cole’s mom, and a San Michele…My Belle cocktail if you’re in the mood for vermouth.

The Sophia Loren, a cocktail with Aperol, bourbon, lemon, rhubarb bitters.
The Sophia Loren, a cocktail with Aperol, bourbon, lemon, rhubarb bitters.
Photograph by Carl Macar
The Daing na Bangus at FOB Kitchen.
The Daing na Bangus at FOB Kitchen.
Photograph by Carl Macar

FOB Kitchen

5179 Telegraph Avenue

Serving customers since it began as a pop-up in 2015, this lush and leafy Filipino spot moved into its current location down the street from Kingfish Pub & Café in the Temescal neighborhood in 2018. The restaurant is led by chef-owner Janice Dulce, and its name is an effort to reclaim the often insulting phrase “fresh off the boat” and challenge the demand to fit in with a dominant white culture. I always order the daing na bangus, milkfish fried to perfection and complemented by an acidic cherry tomato salad; the ensalada talong, a wonderfully cooked eggplant salad brought to life by soy vinaigrette, jicama, and pieces of rice cracker; and, of course, pancit, a comforting salad of rice noodles and vegetables. Some of the cocktails pay homage to iconic Bay Area hip-hop artists. Start your meal with a Blow the Whistle, perhaps?

At Super Juiced, the smoothies and juices nourish and heal. 
At Super Juiced, the smoothies and juices nourish and heal.
Photograph by Carl Macar

Super Juiced

540 Ninth Street

This Black- and queer-owned juicery lives inside Swan’s Market, a century-old institution that sits at the heart of Old Oakland and is still home to many beloved local eateries. Operated by community organizers Emanne Desouky and Rana Halpern, Super Juiced serves smoothies and juices that nourish and heal with the belief that caring for one’s body is a radical and necessary act. All the ingredients are organic; most are sourced from local farms; and the space makes its own nondairy milks in-house. Order the Blue Moon, a mixture of house-made almond milk, blueberries, banana, spinach, and almond butter. Or try the Sunset Glow, with orange, carrot, apple, ginger, and orange blossom water, and drink it while walking around nearby Lake Merritt.

The staff at Lion Dance Cafe. From left to right: Mary Ann Chou, Ariana Zhang, Sunshine Velasco, C-Y Chia, and Shane Stanbridge.
The staff at Lion Dance Cafe. From left to right: Mary Ann Chou, Ariana Zhang, Sunshine Velasco, C-Y Chia, and Shane Stanbridge.
Photograph by Carl Macar

Lion Dance Cafe

380 17th Street

Chef C-Y Chia and their partner in life and work, Shane Stanbridge, opened this modest storefront a block over from queer club Que Rico in 2020 and quickly developed a following. The menu is a rich blend of Chia’s upbringing—they were born in Singapore to Chinese Singaporean and French parents, spent some of their young adult years in France, and received formal culinary training in New York. Chia’s favorite item on the menu is the laksa, an intoxicating coconut rice noodle soup, outfitted with tofu puffs, yuba, seared shishito peppers, Urfa chili sambal, laksa leaf, and pumpkin seed garlic chili crisp. Be sure to order anything that comes with house-baked sesame-crusted bread. (If you’re lucky, you might get a sesame-covered savory doughnut, lovingly stuffed with pea shoots and fava beans.) What drives Chia is what they call “radical inclusive hospitality,” a queer ethos that includes “treating our workers a certain way. It’s also being responsible for choices we make, such as choosing purveyors that have values that align with ours.”

At Alkali Rye, a 2021 vintage from Emme Wines is enjoyed.
At Alkali Rye, a 2021 vintage from Emme Wines is enjoyed.
Photograph by Carl Macar

Alkali Rye

3256 Grand Avenue

This bottle shop is named for a grass native to the East Bay, and owners Jessica Moncada Konte and Kori Saika Chen want to introduce customers to spirits made by underrepresented BIPOC distillers, brewers, and winemakers. The vibe is chill and the aesthetic is minimalist, with bottles organized on whitewashed bookshelves by liquor type and price. There’s coffee, tea, and tools of the trade for sale as well.

Understory's vegan ube leche flan.
Understory's vegan ube leche flan.
Photograph by Carl Macar

Understory

528 8th Street

This brightly colored, collectively owned community space with high ceilings and a long bar in downtown Oakland is as much an organizing hub as it is a restaurant. “I inherently think of a queer space as a political space,” says Jenabi Pareja, one of the worker-leaders on staff, explaining that Understory hosts local artists and offers some menu items on a sliding scale. The menu sports dishes that reflect the identities, backgrounds, and cultures of the team, like a North African–inspired lamb tagine or Filipino ube flan.

Hi Felicia’s dramatic interior.
Hi Felicia’s dramatic interior.
Photograph by Carl Macar
Salmon aguachile with pickled onion liquid and chili oil.
Salmon aguachile with pickled onion liquid and chili oil.
Photograph by Carl Macar

Hi Felicia

326 23rd Street

This self-described “vulgar fine dining” restaurant offers a $195 tasting menu, with courses that change regularly. Think mushroom and black bean tamales followed by quail tostadas accented with gochujang and miso crème fraîche. The space is dungeon-like, with black floors, black walls, and a black ceiling—creating a dramatic backdrop for the luxurious 12-course menu. “What I’m providing is delicious food in a space that feels safe, coming from a team of predominantly queer, nonbinary, and BIPOC people,” says chef-owner Imana. Right now she is particularly excited about the fried chicken with mole, collard greens, and grits.

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Originally Appeared on Bon Appétit