Literary City Guide | Oakland, CA


Mom always said that the thing about Foothill and MacArthur and all those endless Oakland boulevards was that no matter how far away from home you were, if you found one of those streets, you weren’t lost at all.
— Danyel Smith, More Like Wrestling

Tour Guide: Christina Eng

Christina writes in the Bay Area about food, family and books for a range of print and online publications. She can subsist on Asian dumplings and is a sucker for good cake. She has a bachelor’s degree in English from Brown and a master’s in literary nonfiction from the University of Oregon. (All photos by Christina Eng.)

Q&A

Relationship to Oakland: A native, born and raised, and, aside from stints away for school – twice in the U.S., once to the U.K. – a longtime resident. 

Writer you’d like to invite to dinner: Maxine Hong Kingston

Chef you’d like to prepare the meal: My mom for home-style Chinese foods. Imagine the conversation they could have one woman warrior to another.

Writing soundtrack: NPR during the day. Diana Krall late into the night.

Pen or Pencil: Pen. Pencil for the calendar. Highlighter when reading.

Coffee or Tea: Coffee. But tea always with dim sum.

Paperback or Hardback: Paperback. It takes up less real estate on the bookshelves.


Good Reads


BOOKSTORES

Diesel, A Bookstore. The engine that could, Diesel on College Avenue has been chugging along the independent bookstore track. Open and inviting, it is the kind of place readers like me adore. I can while away time and browse to my heart’s content. The store regularly hosts author events, too.

Walden Pond Books. Large white dogs Kip and Amos welcome folks to this neighborhood mainstay a few blocks from Lake Merritt. The staff makes an extra effort to stock both new and used copies of titles by local writers. A rare books room upstairs attracts its share of bibliophiles.

A Great Good Place for Books. This shoebox of a bookshop in Montclair gives new meaning to the word intimate. It can certainly get crowded. But perhaps that is part of the appeal. Author signings and appearances here feel more like cozy living room book club discussions.  

Laurel Book Store. This corner store in the Laurel district has, as it likes to say, “a little bit of everything and the ability to get the rest.” It is full-service and customer-oriented, personable in a way chains and online retailers could never be. Primed for expansion, it is scheduled to move downtown in the fall. 

Marcus Bookstore. Its site in San Francisco closed not long ago, but Marcus Bookstore on Martin Luther King Jr. Way remains. Named for black nationalist Marcus Garvey, the shop carries a selection of works by African-American writers as well as books on black history, politics, fashion and entertainment. 

LIBRARIES

Oakland Public Library. With more than 15 branches, the Oakland Public Library provides valuable services to readers of all ages and interests. All I need is my card. The Oakland History Room at the Main Library is a boon for researchers who want to learn more about the city way back when. The knowledgeable staff also often curates East Bay-centric exhibits. The African American Museum and Library focuses on the unique culture and history of African Americans in California and the West. And the Tool Lending Library in the basement of the Temescal branch, established in the aftermath of the 1991 Oakland hills fire, loans out home remodel and repair tools alongside books and how-to videos and DVDs. 

READINGS & CONFERENCES

Mills College. The Place for Writers at Mills College pulls together a series of programs and events for readers and writers alike. Works in Progress talks, held twice a semester, are geared toward creative writing graduate students, classmates and faculty members. The Contemporary Writers Series brings award-winning novelists and poets to campus for readings and discussions. Guests over the years include Peter Ho Davies, Andrew Sean Greer, Cherrie Moraga, Joyce Carol Oates and Robert Arellano. 

OTHER FINDS

De Lauer’s Super News Stand. Outside the 12th Street/Oakland City Center BART station, De Lauer’s is a century-old downtown business. It sells local newspapers and broadsheets from around the country as well as hundreds of magazines, including periodicals from the U.K., Italy, France and Germany. For fangirls and fanboys, there are comic books. And for those so inclined, there are postcards, greeting cards and other souvenirs. There is a second location in Alameda.

Issues. If there were more hours in the day, I could spend a big chunk of them here. The shop carries journals and magazines from across the country and abroad. Walk a few paces farther down residential Glen Avenue to spy a little free library, too. 

Heinolds’ First and Last Chance Saloon. Legend has it Jack London met seafarers in this waterfront tavern who later appeared as characters in his adventure novels. Now a national historic landmark, the saloon retains its rough and tumble ambience. But claustrophobes – the bar might seat 10 maximum – should snag a table on the patio instead. Drinks before or after the nearby farmers’ market on Sundays cap off a lovely afternoon.  


“Watching the lit skyline from the east side of the lake at twilight is to experience a beauty that makes one forget about Oakland’s problems.”

– Ishmael Reed, Oakland Rhapsody: The Secret Soul of an American Downtown

Good Eats


COFFEE SHOPS

Spasso Coffee House. Unassuming and far from pretentious, Spasso on College Avenue is tucked among a slew of longtime local businesses. Venture in to try the Turkish coffee. There is terrific natural light in the back of the shop, perfect for reading and writing.

Awaken Café. More than a coffee shop, Awaken on Broadway is an espresso bar, an organic cafe with salads and sandwiches, a craft beer and wine bar, and a live performance space. During the day, folks toting laptops snag most of the tables. At night, the layout shifts. Poets occasionally take the mike. Small bands play. 

Gaylord’s Caffe Espresso. Open late weekdays and weekends, Gaylord’s on Piedmont Avenue offers something that nearby chains don’t: a place for perpetual night owls to hang. Elbow room is scarce sometimes – not what I would hope for – but the people-watching can get interesting. 

Bicycle Coffee Co. The guys at this little outfit roast beans in-house and deliver them to Bay Area shops and restaurants by bicycle. Their storefront café on Second and Webster streets is a cool addition to the Jack London Square neighborhood.

Blue Bottle Coffee. I can’t talk about coffee these days without referencing Blue Bottle. It takes its third-wave beans seriously. The coffee bar-production facility on Webster Street hosts free public tastings Tuesdays and Sundays. The cafe on Broadway – with impressive floor-to-ceiling windows – also sells and repairs espresso machines.  

A PROPER MEAL

Camino. Anything off the weekend brunch menu here ought to be fine. From the homemade doughnuts to the potatoes roasted in duck fat to the wood oven-baked brandade. And don’t forget drinks. The communal tables make the inviting space ideal for private parties, too.

Tribune Tavern. On the ground floor of the Tribune tower, headquarters long ago of The Oakland Tribune, this place tips its hat to its newspapering past. The food and drink menus, however, are totally contemporary. Think refined pub grub – sandwiches with pork belly, chicken schnitzel or smoked brisket – and specialty cocktails.

Burma Superstar. Others rave about the tea-leaf salad, but I especially like the curries at the Oakland outpost of this Bay Area favorite. The seasonings are spot-on, the flavors exciting. Spoon them over plain white rice for utter comfort on a plate.

Chop Bar. When I feel like a good solid burger, I head to this warehouse district haunt. Theirs is topped with bacon, avocado, tomato and aioli. Juicy all around, it becomes a three-napkin affair. The food sustains me. The vibe is casual.

Boot and Shoe Service. For crisp thin-crust pizza – is there any other? – order a pie at this restaurant from the guys who run Pizzaiolo on Telegraph Avenue and Penrose on the opposite side of Grand Avenue. I also like to catch the action – the hustle and bustle – by the pizza oven. Dinner and a show.

TREATS

Fentons Creamery. This ice-cream parlor on Piedmont Avenue is a veritable institution, featured briefly in Pixar’s Up. Get a cone, share a shake or dig into an oozy sundae with family and friends. Save the calorie-counting for later. 

La Farine. Grab morning buns at any time of the day at any one of three locations. They are just sweet enough and consistently done well. True treats and definite pick-me-ups. The pain au chocolats aren’t bad either. 

Wonder Food Bakery. For egg-custard tarts, I drop into this Chinatown bakery on Ninth Street. Give me half a dozen in a convenient to-go box please. I can have plenty for a group. The custard filling is smooth. The pastry is flaky. 

Doughnut Dolly. If doughnuts are the new cupcakes, then, ahem, say hello to Dolly. The sugar-dusted softballs from this Temescal storefront are yeast-raised and hand-rolled. Cream and fruit fillings are piped-to-order. They have proven so popular a second shop opened recently in Berkeley.

Sweet Bar Bakery. I have liked everything I have tried at this two-year-old bakery and cannot envision the city now without it. The owner remains hands-on, working in the kitchen on items such as bacon-gorgonzola scones, lemon bars, polenta upside-down cakes and chocolate-dipped peanut-butter cupcakes. They are killer.


Christina's 5 Favorites


1. Favorite view: From Sec. 317 on the third deck of maligned O.co Coliseum at a nighttime A’s game. There are clear shots of home plate and the outfield, and, in the distance, the Oakland hills. The sun sets behind me. Win or lose, the view is terrific. 

2. Favorite place to write: Laptop on the desktop in a quiet space.

3. Favorite museum: Oakland Museum of California. The gardens are as much a draw as the art, history and natural sciences collections. Friday Nights @ OMCA events are fun, too.

4. Favorite coffee shop: Blue Bottle Coffee on Broadway has a particularly snazzy interior.  

5. Favorite thing about Oakland: Though I know some neighborhoods like the back of my hand, I find that I am still constantly discovering new things.