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Best of Oakland

Where to find the best Oakland, California has to offer with Oakland's top arts and entertainment, music and nightlife, restaurants, shopping and services (hotels and health and well-being), sports and outdoor recreation picks as the Oaktown locals at Oakland and the East Bay's East Bay Express see it and including Best of Oakland 2001, 2002 and 2003.

Best Oakland Arts and Entertainment

Best of the East Bay 2003Ardency Gallery
Winner - Best Oakland Art Gallery
709 Broadway, Oakland CA; Tel. 510.836.0831
The entrance hallway isn't usually a highlight of a visit anyplace, but Ardency's corridor is plastered with cool and weird postcards featuring bizarre advertisements and gaudy celebrities from decades past. Owner Lou Rigali bought out the stock of San Francisco's Quantity Postcards a few years back and now reprints them at his downtown Oakland art-and-framing shop. You can buy them in bulk or as singles; we're still trying to convince him to produce a collector's box with one of each. Gallery director Michele Ramirez curates rotating exhibitions in the adjoining space. Ardency shows Bay Area artists exclusively -- most recently featuring Alexander Cheves, Janet M. Denninger, Gabriella Laz, P.G. Meier, and Nada Savic. With openings attended by ardent art fans, local artists, and assorted hipster hangers-on, it's become a mainstay of the East Bay's gallery scene in a very short time (turning two years old in August). This month, Ardency features Felipe Flores ("Flirting with Death I Found Holiness") and in June, a group show called "Under the Nails: New Prints." (Review: East Bay Express)

Best of the East Bay 2003Shotgun Players
Winner - Best Oakland Theatre Company to Hunt High and Low For
Tel. 510.704.8210
The Shotgun Players are a lot like Elvis: You never know where they'll show up next, but it'll definitely be a vivid experience. Longtime Shotgun followers know that while some things fluctuate wildly -- the space the actors use, the days on which they use it, and sometimes the play (it doesn't always match what's in the subscription brochure) -- the basics are always present: fearless choices, intelligent plays, and the passionate commitment of everyone involved. For the past couple of seasons they've been working over the Greeks. Still on tap this year are Dylan Thomas' Under Milk Wood, The Death of Meyerhold, The Water Principle, and a David Hare (Via Dolorosa) adaptation of Brecht's Mother Courage and Her Children that'll be performed for free in Berkeley's John Hinkle Park in August. Dreams, ghosts, show tunes, and a theatrical wunderkind crushed under Stalin's thumb: You may not know where to find them until the last minute, but the Shotgunners are invariably on target. (Review: East Bay Express)

Best Oakland Music and Nightlife

Best of the East Bay 2002The 5th Amendment
3255 Lakeshore Ave., Oakland CA; Tel. 510.832.3242
The Serenader has a great name and a great sign, but once inside it's not as cool as the 5th Amendment. Sure, the 5th Amendment's got the cool facade of a dive, including its don't-blame-me-I'm-just-a-drunkard moniker, but inside holds some of the best weekend parties in the East Bay. On Saturday nights Lloyd Gregory & Friends tear shit up with an R&B, jazz, and blues bent, and he always features fantastic guest vocalists. Sundays are reserved for Yancie Taylor, jazz vibraharpist. Both men have been performing regularly there for more than ten years. And all you electronica techno freaks can learn something from the jazzy funk bass of Curtis Ohlson on Wednesdays. On a real good night, Soul Beat regulars such as Stan the Record Man wander in as well, but don't expect him to sing. The 5th Amendment is an Oakland institution: familiar, fun, and intimate. (Review: East Bay Express)

Best of the East Bay 2002Hotsy Totsy Club
601 San Pablo Ave., Albany CA; Tel. 510.524.1661
It's best to head into the Hotsy Totsy without any pretensions. For one, the regulars are probably sick of people who stop by just to check it out because they've seen it written up like this. And you're not going to enjoy yourself if you don't just relax and take in what the place has to offer: Unpredictable, perhaps incoherent, but always interesting conversation; great bartenders who pour 'em strong (no need to order a double at Hotsy); and a low-key atmosphere. If you're in a meet-your-neighbor mood, settle into one of the comfy seats at the bar; if not, the rest of the place is basically filled with bar seats and high tables for patrons to gather round. You've got your diversions -- a good jukebox, shuffleboard, a pool table, a couple of video games -- but after a few Hotsy drinks you may not need 'em. The weeknight vibe is usually a far cry from that of Friday and Saturday nights. (Review: East Bay Express)

Best of the East Bay 2002Yoshi's
510 Embarcadero West, Oakland CA; Tel. 510.238.9200
This one is so obvious it seems wrong somehow. And yet Yoshi's World Class Jazz House & Japanese Restaurant is indeed the best place to listen to live jazz in the East Bay -- and on the entire West Coast, for that matter. But don't take our word for it. Destination: San Francisco calls it "the crown jewel of North California jazz culture." Guidebook writer Carla Labat, in her book Steppin' Out, says: "This ultra-cool club feels and sounds more like a grand concert hall, only the tuna sashimi is better." And guitarist Pat Metheny enthuses: "I thought clubs like this only existed in the movies." Metheny, and just about every other major jazz artist that's toured the United States in the past twenty years, has played Yoshi's. Most rave about the place. The sight lines are clean, the sound system is magnificent, and the Japanese food is solid, if not innovative. This Bay Area landmark has come a long way since live music was first presented in the upstairs lounge of its old Claremont Avenue location as entertainment for diners waiting to eat sushi. (Review: East Bay Express)

Best of the East Bay 2002Ashkenaz
1317 San Pablo Ave., Berkeley CA; Tel. 510.525.5054
There are several East Bay spots that showcase world-music acts, but few can boast Ashkenaz's diversity. Its monthly calendar usually features live Balkan, Cajun, Scottish, African, Caribbean, bluegrass, jazz, swing, ska, and salsa music -- as well as the infamous Grateful Dead DJ Nite. Evidently word has gotten back to Jamaica that the venue is also a big roots-reggae supporter, because quality headliners such as Mutabaruka, the Mighty Diamonds, and Big Youth have given stellar performances here. Ashkenaz has been voted "Best Dance Floor" in past Express Bests because it's a place where people actually dance, not just stand at the bar and make eye contact. You can wear most anything you want at Ashkenaz, but we recommend loose-fitting clothing that won't restrict your gyrating booty. (Review: East Bay Express)

Best of the East Bay 2003Cato's Ale House
3891 Piedmont Ave, Oakland CA; Tel. 510.655.3349
There are few moments more grueling than the ones leading up the moment when you finally meet your Craigslist buddy in person. Oh, they were witty with the e-mail banter, and their CD player is (allegedly) stocked with tasteful tunes. And the picture they sent gave you reason to swoon. But in the back of your mind, you know e-mail can be deceiving. You know CDs don't tell the whole story. And you know, God, do you know , pictures do lie -- especially on Craigslist. So the last thing you need is a bogus meeting spot to mess with your game. Cafes don't provide enough cover, restaurants are too heavy for a first meeting, and dive bars, quaint as they may be, may say the wrong thing about you, you alky. For just the right ambiance, where all the bases get covered, we suggest Cato's Ale House on a weekday night when the pressure isn't too intense. The low-key hipster vibe suggests you've picked out a good pub (you're thoughtful) that still hasn't been discovered by the TGIF crowd (and now you're tasteful). There's a wall full of beers to chose from, supplying a gimme icebreaker: "Never tried the Appalachian Mountain Black Tar Summer Edition Malt Ale Pilsner? Then let's order two!" Cato's also serves unpretentious pub grub, so if you stammer through the first drink and want to prolong the date, the cuisine won't fail you. On some weeknights, a bluegrass band rakes washboards and plucks banjos, adding to the overall cozy chemistry. After that, you're on your own. (Review: East Bay Express)

Best of the East Bay 2002The Ruby Room
132 14th, Oakland CA; Tel. 510.444.7224 2001
It might not be everyone's cup o' tea. After all, it's too crowded and dark, and, um, let's just say "hard to breathe" in. But the Ruby Room is still an exciting addition to what was essentially a one-horse town. Actually, it was a no-horse town, unless you think the Old Spaghetti Factory is a good place to get loaded. Great music, very few fights about the pool table, the bar already has a certain "we've been here a long time" feeling to it, and lighting that drowns out your zits. What more could you ask? Oh -- cute bartenders, you say? The Ruby Room's got those too. (Review: East Bay Express)

Best of the East Bay 2002George Kaye's
4044 Broadway, Oakland CA; Tel. 510.547.9374
Most jukeboxes are full of all the old clichés you've heard a million times: "Jumpin' Jack Flash," "Roadhouse Blues," "Purple Haze," "Hound Dog," "Respect" -- you know 'em. Not to dis the stuff; it has its place, but it gets a bit tiresome to walk into the same old dives and to see the old crowds of soused off-duty truckers wailing: "She's a haaaaaaaaaaaawnkey-tonk woooman." From the outside, Kaye's looks like the same kind of place, but its jukebox would challenge the sensibilities of any self-respecting hick. Sure, they've got the Doors, Hendrix, Aretha, and all that. But this machine has a refreshing variety, with the Pixies, X, Devo, and Boss Hog rubbing shoulders with Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Al Green, and Lynyrd Skynyrd. There's Irish drinking fare such as the Pogues and the Chieftains to accompany your pint. And while Kaye's includes the '90s East Bay punk compilation Shit Gets Smashed and Big Black's Songs About Fucking, it's not too punk for Steely Dan's Aja. Don't forget the crooners (Sinatra, Orbison, and Brenda Lee); some country (Patsy Cline), and even Pavarotti, all of whom tag-team with the likes of Squat, Jawbreaker, and the Buzzcocks. It's probably the only jukebox on earth that carries obscure Italian new wave band CCCP. Of course, there are a few obvious genre gaps: Pack some choice hip-hop CDs into this sucker and it'd be golden. (Review: East Bay Express)

Best of the East Bay 2003The Saddle Rack
42011 Boscell Rd., Fremont CA; Tel. 510.979.0477
Wanna-be urban cowboys used to have to mosey all the way down to San Jose to take a ride on the mechanical bull at the venerable Saddle Rack, a legendary country music hot spot. But now bull-riders don't have to go quite so far with the recent reopening of the Saddle Rack in Fremont's Warm Springs area. Like the old one in San Jose, the Fremont location is huge -- it holds more than nine hundred patrons, with two dance floors and four bars. That means bull-riding novices should get there early when the club opens at 7 p.m. to get in some practice before the big crowd arrives. Cover charge is $5 on Wednesday and Thursday nights and $10 on Friday and Saturday nights. Free line-dance lessons are offered nightly from 7:30 to 9:30, when the live music begins, but there are no lessons offered for the Bull. (Review: East Bay Express)

Best of the East Bay 2003The Serenader
504 Lake Park Ave., Oakland CA; Tel. 510.832.2644
This probably ain't the Anticon scene, but if you're polite and not claustrophobic and you love the blues and you're up for whatever, the Serenader is the best damn party bar in the East Bay. You must understand this place is not much bigger than your living room and it has a full bar, a killer band, a pool table, and maybe a hundred folks in it! And you often have to walk through the band to get into the bar. Good golly, Miss Molly -- no matter who's playing, they always know how to cook. Ain't nothin' but the blues, but you'll see guitarists who could make Keith Richards want to switch to tambourine. Hell, just watching the drinks waiter weave through a bumpin' crowd with a full tray is pure entertainment. The best place to do your thing is on the microscopic dance floor. You might as well bust a move, 'cause you ain't gonna get one of the six or seven small tables, or even a seat at the bar. Get used to it. Everyone is friendly and the drinks aren't watered down, and they are reasonably priced. Have fun, but don't tell. It'll be our little secret. (Review: East Bay Express)

Best of the East Bay 2002The White Horse Inn
66th & Telegraph, Oakland CA; Tel. 510.652.3820
Best isn't really the question when there's basically only one in town. And such is the White Horse's situation. (Okay, there's the Bench and Bar in Oakland, but that's really a dance club.) While the same old tired house music fills the air, you will find a decent cross section of the local GLBT scene: from sweater queens to academic homosexuals to queer students to local homies to granola dykes (yes, they still exist) to gorgeously regal African-American queens, both male and female and just about every other color and creed you can imagine. The good news is that the White Ho', as it is affectionately known, is like a small-town gay bar where everybody has to go. That is also the bad news. It is a fine place to drop in, chill out, and even dance to very ancient disco with some standard house thrown in. Perhaps start your evening here, then move on. Or -- equally valid -- show up for that final nightcap even if you don't feel like attending the sidewalk sale! (Review: East Bay Express)

Best Oakland Dining

Best of the East Bay 2002Angelfish
883 Island Drive, Suite C-2, Alameda CA; Tel. 510.749.0460
Tucked into a well-appointed strip mall on the south end of Alameda, tiny Angelfish serves the standard complement of Japanese entrées (tonkatsu, udon, teriyaki) and sushi that tastes as if it were pulled straight from the water: thick, sweet slabs of buttery hamachi, crunchy, savory salmon-skin rolls, and uni so fresh that it tastes more like a scoop of deep-sea ice cream than red-tide scum. Owner Takao Minatoya runs a relaxed sushi bar, joking with patrons and slipping treats to the regulars. Even if you can't sit at the bar, order from the specials menu, which often showcases what simple, elegant Japanese technique can do with seasonal California ingredients. Evidence of the restaurant's allure: We know a San Franciscan who routinely offers to drive her pals to the Oakland Airport just so she has an excuse to slip across to the island for an Angelfish fix. (Review: East Bay Express)

Best of the East Bay 2002Café Colucci
6427 Telegraph Ave., Oakland CA; Tel. 510.601.7999
It's been said that Ethiopian and Eritrean food is so good, you can eat it with your hands. In fact, that's exactly what you're supposed to do with this sumptuous, flavorful cuisine. The fresh herbs, tantalizing spices, mouth-watering meats, and tasty vegetables might just explain why King Solomon fell in love with Queen Makeda back in Biblical times. True, you don't have to be the King of Kings or Queen of Queens to enjoy East African specialties like doro tibs (boneless marinated chicken sautéed with onions, peppers, and garlic), mitten-shuro (seasoned chickpea powder), or kitfo (lean, minced beef, flavored with cardamom and zesty butter). Still, you might feel like a conquering lion or lioness after washing down the above with a carafe of tej (sweet honey wine) or a glass of harar (Ethiopian ale). Colucci gets top marks for its authentically tangy teff injera, the pancake-like bread that's a staple of the Amharic diet. (Review: East Bay Express)

Best of the East Bay 2002César
1515 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley CA; Tel. 510.883.0222
Whether or not you should be taking a full meal at César is still under question. It's a bar in the Spanish style, for heaven's sakes, with small, salty drinking snacks to accompany the large and varied wine list and the mixologically ambitious cocktails. But start with a plate of the paper-thin jamón de serrano and paprika-crimson chorizo, and you may not yet be satisfied. Then your tablemate might have to try those tart, pungent, pickled white anchovies that César imports from Spain. And you just can't leave without that heap of the slivered, herb-flecked fried potatoes. By that time, you'll probably have downed a couple of glasses of sherry, so you might as well finish yourselves off with one of the bocadillo sandwiches or more substantial items such as the plank-roasted halibut fillet topped with a fiery cilantro pesto. And then there's dessert. (Review: East Bay Express)

Best of the East Bay 2002Cha-Ya
1686 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley CA; Tel. 510.981.1213
Vegetable-lovers, you can leave those fears of bland monotony and scant selection behind at Cha-Ya, located in Berkeley's Gourmet Ghetto. Cha-Ya's ingredients are partly organic, completely animal-free, and authentically home-style. (Yes, you will love fermented soybean and pickled daikon.) There is no such thing as picking a wrong dish at this little gem of a restaurant. Be prepared to stand in line outside; its tiny dining area is part of Cha-Ya's charm. (Review: East Bay Express)

Best of the East Bay 2003The Cheese Board Pizza Collective
1512 Shattuck St., Berkeley CA; Tel. 510.549.3005
Once upon a time, Henry Ford said you could have your car in any color you wanted as long as it was black. The Pizza Collective has a similar philosophy: You can have any kind of pizza you want, as long as it's the one vegetarian pizza they're making today. The good news is that -- no matter what they're making, even when it includes Gorgonzola or eggplant or potatoes -- it is simply the best pizza you'll taste. These are celestial pizzas for the gods. But don't take our word for it. Just ask any of the hundreds of folks who make the pilgrimage daily. You can see them having picnics in the middle of the Shattuck median strip. You can see them parked at the tables inside and outside this teeny-tiny pizza parlor. You can see them lined up, blocking the sidewalk and scurrying off to their cars, pizza boxes in hand. The selection is limited, but the quality is exceptional. Pizza $2 a huge slice. Upscale imported soft drinks $1.25. Microbrewed bottle beers $1.75. Great glass of wine $2.50. It's lunch. It's dinner. It's good. (Review: East Bay Express)

Best of the East Bay 2001Chez Panisse
1517 Shattuck, Berkeley CA; Tel. 510.548.5525
They say California cuisine was invented right here circa 1970 by chef-owner Alice Waters, whose penchant for seasonal greens has made arugula a household word and put North Berkeley on the map. Dinner at the world-renowned restaurant downstairs is a landmark experience and requires a reservation; it's prix-fixe and pricey and its reputation precedes it. The cafe upstairs offers Ó la carte pastas, salads, and more. Long after other Stars have risen and fallen, Chez Panisse continues to shine, putting out fresh and exciting fare. Alice Waters, we salute you. ((Review: East Bay Express)

Best of the East Bay 2003Citron
Winner - Best Breakfast/Brunch, Best Chance of a Table at the Best Local Californian Restaurant
5484 College Ave., Oakland CA; Tel. 510.653.5484
It's still nigh impossible to get a last-minute reservation on the weekends, but the upside of the soft economy means that at certain times you may actually be able to get a walk-in table at Citron. It's definitely not because the restaurant has fallen from the top of its form. Looking over the menu is like walking through a farmers' market, the surest marker of the seasons in our marginally seasonless climate -- everything is locally grown, sustainably harvested, and pick of the crop and, like the service, elegantly orchestrated. A recent dinner menu featured the best of late April and early May: spring asparagus soup with green garlic, pork loin saltimbocca over chanterelles and pappardelle noodles, and Pacific grouper with prawns and artichoke and baby fennel barigoule. And it's easy to forget to order when you're meandering through the stunning, almost anthropological wine list. Going early may also mean being allowed to sneak past the stately dining room onto the romantic back patio, where you can dine under vine-covered trellises. (Review: East Bay Express)
Book a table online.

Best of the East Bay 2003Doña Tomás
Winner - Best Place for Evening Cocktails, South-of-the-Border Style
5004 Telegraph Ave., Oakland CA; Tel. 510.450.0522
Although it's best known for its classy Mexican cooking, Doña Tomás also mixes up fabulous cocteles especiales that are worth a trip to this popular Oakland restaurant. Purists and cocktailistas alike will find something to like on its extensive drinks menu. It offers classics such as hand-shaken margaritas and Cuba Libres made with real Mexican Coke, as well as trendy hits such as minty mojitos or the Michelada -- a zesty combo of beer, chile salsa, lime, salt, soy sauce, and Worcestershire sauce. And if you want something with an authentic kick, at last count there were 22 different varieties of tequila and seven types of mescal available. On warm spring or summer evenings, hanging out on Doña Tomás' backyard patio with a stiff drink makes for a civilized way to end a week or start a weekend. And the food is worth sticking around for. While the prices are a bit steeper than they are down Mexico way, your taste buds will be glad you made the investment. Reservations are recommended on weekends, but waiting to be seated doesn't seem quite so bad if you start sipping early. (review: East Bay Express).

Best of the East Bay 2002Everett & Jones
2676 Fruitvale Ave., Oakland CA; ; Tel. 510.533.0900
8739 E. 14th St., Oakland CA; Tel. 510.638.6400
126 Broadway, Oakland CA; Tel. 510.663.2350
1955 San Pablo Ave., Berkeley; Tel. 510.548.8261
We suffer an embarrassment of riches in the East Bay when it comes to barbecue. There's Flint's, Doug's, and the local Everett & Jones chain. All have their charcoal-flavored charms, but for the most reliably delicious dishes, we recommend Everett & Jones. If you have trouble finding one of their locations, just take a good whiff and let the inviting aroma of smoked animal flesh guide you. Once there, don't let the wall of bad bumper stickers scare you away (example: "Back off -- I'm gonna fart!"). And when the siren behind the cashier beseeches of you, "What you havin', baby?" be armed with the knowledge of whether you want mild, medium, or hot sauce (warning: hot is tongue-scalding) on your chicken, sliced beef brisket, pork ribs, or links. Single meat plates come in two different sizes -- "sandwich" (lunch size) or "order" (dinner size), ranging from $6 for a chicken sandwich to $9.80 for a beef order. Both sizes come with a scoop of potato salad. Two- and three-way combos are also available. (Review: East Bay Express)

Best of the East Bay 2003Golden Lotus
1301 Franklin St., Oakland CA; Tel. 510.893.0383
Come for the food -- stay for the hipster quotient. Oakland's Golden Lotus restaurant, run by devotees of a cult figure calling herself Supreme Master Ching Hai, serves up an udderfull of fake meat dishes, all in a quixotic attempt to recapture the lost carnivorous glory of the newly vegan. The result is a tasty brew of various "just kidding" meaty delicacies, from fake fish to Clintonesque chicken. You can select from over one hundred items on the menu, a remarkable accomplishment given the lack of variety that usually characterizes vegetarian restaurants. The vegetables on a bed of crispy noodles swim in a tangy sauce, while the fake shrimp actually looks and tastes like shrimp. The kitchen staff applies the same diligence and creativity to all the meals, providing amusement to die-hard vegetarians who don't really care, as well as comfort to meat-eaters feeling lost. While the quality of service is sometimes less than desirable, the food is reliably tasty and damn cheap -- prices range from $4.25 to $12.95 per dish. But it's the patrons who make Golden Lotus da bomb. If you're in the mood to people-watch, and the 20th-and-Broadway urban art-punk scene makes you go all slack-jawed and gooey, then scarf some glutenesque shrimp vermicelli between three and four in the afternoon, when Oakland's underemployed bohos strap on their feedbags and head over. It's chopstick-lickin' good. (Review: East Bay Express)

Best of the East Bay 2002Jojo
3859 Piedmont Ave., Oakland CA; Tel. 510.985.3003
California cuisine, like Italian and Cantonese, is all about the ingredients: how to pick them and how to do as little as possible to them in order to show off their innate perfection. Though the genre's inventor, Chez Panisse, is without rival, Jojo excels in this approach to cooking. Its tiny menu zeroes in on foods at their peak and cooks them quite simply. Claiming tiny family-owned French bistros as their inspiration, chef-owners Curt Clingman and Mary Jo Thoresen both work on the three-person line, keeping the kind of control over their food that one expects from higher-priced restaurants. Since Thoresen worked at Chez Panisse as a pastry chef for a dozen years, anything involving flour, butter, and eggs should be ordered. Other standouts are the crisp-edged, creamy-centered fries in the steak frites and the saffron- and Pernod-tinged Provenĉal fish stew. The other pluses are Jojo's intimate space and informally competent staff. (Review: East Bay Express)

Best of the East Bay 2002Jupiter
2181 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley CA; Tel. 510.843.8227
Unfortunately, most places that advertise a beer garden emphasize the beer far more than the garden, and most serve up their offerings in what amounts to an open-air cement patio. Not so at Jupiter, where drinkers and casual diners can enjoy a beautiful, bucolic outdoor courtyard with actual live plants, flowers, and small trees. On a sunny day, it's hard to imagine a more enjoyable setting. And on summer nights, the jazz series draws a great crowd. In addition to beers made on the premises, Jupiter offers forty of the region's best brews, including Mendocino Blue Heron and the ever-popular Arrogant Bastard. The pizzas, sandwiches, and salads transcend mere bar food. One of the many excellent choices is the Galileo pizza, with olive oil crust, spinach, artichoke hearts, mushrooms, garlic, aged Asiago, and a light topping of fontina and tomatoes. (Review: East Bay Express)

Best of the East Bay 2002Koryo Wooden Charcoal Barbecue
4390 Telegraph Ave., Suite J, Oakland CA; Tel. 510.652.6007
If you order two or more meat entrées, the servers will plunk a basket of wooden charcoal in the middle of your table and you can grill your meats yourself -- the spicy pork is best, but the short ribs, chicken, and Korean-style bacon are all good, too. Equally savory are the mung-bean pancakes studded with beef and vegetables, the sizzling stone bowls filled with bright red stews, and the sautéed cuttlefish. But the main dishes are not the main attraction. The panchan that come with every entrée fill that role: ten to twelve tiny plates of pickled vegetables, dried minnows, sweet chile-coated dried radish strips, and blisteringly hot fermented kimchi. Of all the Korean restaurants in the area, this one serves the brightest, tartest, hottest, crunchiest selection. Wear clothes that you can easily wash, since you'll walk out smelling like you just spent a couple of nights toasting marshmallows 'round the campfire. (Review: East Bay Express)

Best of the East Bay 2003La Note
2377 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley CA; Tel. 510.843.1535
Weekend brunch can be a time-consuming prospect in the East Bay. Lines of people sipping coffee and looking hungry signal the inevitable: a one- to two-hour wait at most breakfast spots. If you're willing to put in the time, La Note won't disappoint. Better yet, if you've got a weekday morning free, you can usually waltz right in and sit down to an amazing French Provenšal breakfast at this cozy little place. From the bowls of café au lait and the perfectly flaky butter croissants to "main courses" such as lemon gingerbread pancakes with poached pears and Emmental cheese and ham omelets, La Note serves up consistently delicious and artfully prepared morning nourishment. (Review: East Bay Express)

Best of the East Bay 2002La Piñata Restaurant III
1440 Park St., Alameda CA; Tel. 510.769.9110
Conscientious lovers of comida mexicana who've dropped Taco Bell like a chalupa since the tomato boycott started don't have to miss out on the late-night nachos. An endless supply of fresh salsa and sizzling chips greets diners at La Piñata III, which is open daily until 3 a.m. Specialties include mammoth margaritas and huachinango al mojo de ajo -- red snapper fried in garlic oil. Fajitas are served on a sizzling skillet, and the wait staff keeps you stocked with tortillas, water, and beer. It's that great, basic, savory, and greasy Mexican food you know and love, for people who refuse to eat tacos served in a bulletproof box. The late hours and goblets of tequila are brilliant touches. Meals usually break down to around $9 a person, and the usual party crowd includes families and biker gangs alike. (Review: East Bay Express)

Best of the East Bay 2001Layonna Kitchen
358 11th, Oakland CA; Tel. 510.628.0350
Soft Buddhist chants ease from speakers overhead as you choose a table amid colorful Chinese artworks and shelves chock-full of little books about mindfulness and Zen masters -- all free for the taking. A strictly vegetarian menu surpasses any other on this side of the bay. Anyone who has dined at Buddhist temples in Hong Kong or Taiwan, where monks and nuns earn a bit of income by serving vegetarian meals to visitors, will instantly feel nostalgic here. It's not merely the freshness of Layonna's ingredients -- freshness is basically an East Bay requirement across the board. It's the way these vegetables and tofu and gluten are fashioned into beautiful, deliriously clever imitations of meat. Granted, to appreciate this you have to be the sort of vegetarian who, while soundly eschewing gristle and fat and blood and sodium nitrate, remembers certain aspects of flesh fondly: its chewiness, say, or that hearty, smoky aroma. The restaurant's best deal is its buffet, which you can visit as many times as you like to refill plates with mock drumsticks, mock tripe, steamed buns, vegetable stir-fries, and soup. A righteous sense of purity fills your mouth with every bite, and that chanting lifts you higher and higher. (Review: East Bay Express)

Best of the East Bay 2003Lois the Pie Queen
Winner - Best Quest For Sweet Potato Pie
851 60th St., Emeryville CA; Tel. 510.658.5616
Traveling along MLK from Oakland to Berkeley, astute drivers may have noticed a small sign on the left-hand side of the road. "Lois the Pie Queen," it mysteriously reads, "Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner, and Great Desserts." A red arrow directs traffic off MLK and down 60th into what appears to be a residential district -- into the land, apparently, of pie queens. And, like characters in Saturday morning cartoons, weekend adventure seekers find themselves carried on the imaginary scented waves of the freshly baked goods they hope to find, the idea of discovering this veritable queen of pies, too compelling to ignore. Sadly, after more than forty years of serving up her famous pies and homestyle breakfasts, Lois has passed on. But fortunately, her unassuming castle, tucked discreetly between Oakland and Emeryville, remains. Chris Davis, Lois' son and subsequent prince, carries on the tradition, offering customers buttermilk biscuits, strawberry waffles, and those delicious pies. Flavors include chocolate cream, banana, apple, or berry, but the sweet potato is the best you'll find. Staff is friendly, the atmosphere homey. (Review: East Bay Express)

Best of the East Bay 2003May Hong
Two-thirds of the Vietnamese restaurants in the East Bay specialize in pho, bun, and hu thieu -- the hot and cold noodle dishes eaten for breakfast and lunch all over Vietnam. You can tell, because these joints are packed with Southeast Asian folks during the day and everyone else at night. May Hong, on the outskirts of Oakland's Chinatown, serves noodles during the day, too, but the best stuff comes out of the kitchen at night: Sweet and sour hot pots, tamarind-dusted fried prawns, lotus-shoot salads, catfish claypots, whole roasted crab. The service can feel like the family table (read: unnervingly casual) but the food tastes good enough for jacket and tie. Here's a Vietnamese restaurant where you want to -- in fact, you should -- plop down some bucks. But it's still undiscovered, so there's never a wait, even during the busiest weekend dinner times. (Review: East Bay Express)
Full review available from the East Bay Express.

Best of the East Bay 2002Oliveto
5655 College Ave. Oakland, CA 94618
The joys of Oliveto are subtle but memorable. You'll find no tower food here, no improbable juxtapositions of flavors, no sharp sweets or sours or burns. Taste once, and you may ask yourself why you're at a swank restaurant eating earthy peasant food. Taste twice, and the elegance imbued in each bite comes through. Chef Paul Bertolli has garnered a national reputation -- first at Chez Panisse and later here -- for his exploration of Italian culinary technique. The room, an earth-toned study in quiet repose, is one of the most romantic in the city. Romantics on a budget can drop in downstairs for more informal, rustic small plates. (Review: East Bay Express)
Book a table online.

Best of the East Bay 2003Otaez Mexicatessen
3872 International Blvd., Oakland CA; Tel. 510.536.0909
To get a slice of the vibrancy of the largely Mexican Fruitvale District in Oakland, sit down at a booth at Otaez. It's run by Chuy Campos and family, and offers a menu of classic dishes from enchiladas to goat-meat birria on the weekends. But it's the daily and seasonal specials that are worth tasting, such as milanesa ,breaded fried steak, or caldo de res ,a hearty beef soup, that warms up any winter's day. Recently for Lent, the restaurant served tortas de camaron , fried shrimp-flour patties served with nopales (cactus) in a red chile broth. With shrimp soup as an appetizer, a small bowl of capirotada bread pudding for dessert, and chased down with a sweet mango water, it was a delicious treat. Newly painted murals and a taqueria addition give the whole place a classy Mexican touch. (Review: East Bay Express)

Best of the East Bay 2002Pizza Rustica Café
5422 College Ave., Oakland CA; 6106 La Salle Ave., Oakland CA; Tel. 510.654.1601; Tel. 510.339.7878
Rustica's chichi pizza seems to take a backseat to Zachary's in the polls, but many people swear by it. A lot of times when folks try and get all gourmet about their pizza, it ends up tasting like a pita decorated with an artichoke heart and a miserly serving of cheese. But Rustica's choices are fabulous: Capricciosa (ham, artichoke hearts, roasted garlic, kalamata olives, and lots of cheese) or the Puttanesca, whose name means "for the hookers," so you know it's good (capers, anchovies, garlic, artichoke hearts, and Roma tomatoes). They also serve amazingly tasty and gigantic roast chickens; and the best Caesar salad you've ever tasted. The salads come with a gargantuan hunk of bread and can feed about four as a starter. (Review: East Bay Express)

Best of the East Bay 2002Purple Plum
4228 Park Blvd., Oakland CA; Tel. 510.336.0990
In a year filled with restaurant closures and decreasing sales on both sides of the Bay, it's encouraging to see that the East Bay is still incubating such stellar new restaurants as downtown Oakland's Verbena and San Leandro's Café Zula. But this year -- especially post-9/11 -- Purple Plum hit the perfect note. Combining the deep, gut-warming flavors of Southern home cooking with Californian lightness, brightness, and freshness, the Plum dishes out heaps of satisfaction. Get the spicy, meaty, and deliciously nonbitter braised mixed greens, or the crispy but moist fried chicken. The food is priced so reasonably that even laid-off dot-commers can afford to become regulars. (Review: East Bay Express)
Full review available from the East Bay Express.

Best of the East Bay 2001Quinn's Lighthouse Restaurant and Pub
51 Embarcadero Cove, Oakland CA; Tel. 510.536.2050
Sure, jalapeño poppers and buffalo wings have their deserved place in the pantheon of pub-food staples, but every once in a while it's nice to enjoy really good vittles with that pint or two or three. Quinn's elevates bar food to a higher standard while retaining its integrity as an unpretentious place to hang out and play darts. Built in 1890 -- although not much of the original structure remains -- the Lighthouse still has a seafaring vibe going on. Downstairs is a fancy-shmancy dining room that appears as if it has been decorated by a band of very tasteful pirates. The upstairs pub is more casual -- that crunch you hear is the sound of thousands of discarded peanut shells being trampled underfoot. Huge hamburgers, wonderfully garlicky cioppino, perfect fish and chips, and a stuffed tomato salad are a few reasons why Quinn's is so beloved -- especially, and this adds to its nautical ambience, by guys and gals in the Navy. In summer, the deck area is almost always crowded with cheerful customers knocking back a few from the extensive beer list while enjoying a fine view of the Oakland estuary. So call in sick and get there early. (Review: East Bay Express)

Best of the East Bay 2001Red Tractor
5634 College, Oakland CA; Tel. 510.595.3500
After a day at Tilden Park watching the geese honk and the horses neigh, load the kids into the back of your wagon and rumble down to College for the closest you can get around here to a meal in a barn. With prices in the $6 to $8 range, you won't have to raid your children's college fund to do it, either. Kids love Red Tractor because they can order a PB&J if they're not in the mood for adult stuff; they can color on the tractor placemats -- and for a couple of bucks, they can buy a miniature red tractor and plow a few rows on the table. Adults like the simple, healthy food made fresh every day, and can pretend that the reason they're ordering one of those massive Rice Krispie treats is that "the kids love them so much. (Review: East Bay Express)

Best of the East Bay 2002Scend's Restaurant & Bar
3627 San Pablo Ave., Emeryville CA; Tel. 510.547.9238
Tender catfish, homemade coleslaw, and moist cornbread are just a few of the reasons Scend's has become an addiction for anyone who digs down-home comfort food. There are also addictive red beans and rice and homemade peach cobbler, and what other restaurant offers "100 Wings" on its menu? But Scend's cult following is due to more than its food. While the scent of freshly cooked snapper wafting outside the place helps draw in crowds, its lively atmosphere is what turns it into a community gathering spot. At night the employees crank up the music, fans of the joint's stiff drinks pack the bar, and friends toss darts late into the evening. Anyone demanding fat-free food or a quiet nightspot should probably look elsewhere. But for great chicken wings, perfectly seasoned seafood, and a lively crowd, this is the place. The restaurant no longer has a "Soul Food Sundays" menu, but it still serves its beloved gumbo on the first Friday of each month. It is closed Mondays, except during football season. Anyone cheering against the Raiders probably ought to order to go. (Review: East Bay Express)

Best Oakland Shopping

Best of the East Bay 2003Cody's Books
Winner - Best Book Store
2454 Telegraph Ave., Berkeley CA; Tel. 510.845.7852
Sunday morning on Telegraph Avenue is sleepy, probably because most of its denizens don't get out of bed until noon. But it's the best time to go to Cody's. The staff seems to recognize its Sunday regulars, and recommendations and smiles will make you feel it's your own private library. The magazines are stocked, the Sunday Times is for sale, and you can be alone in an aisle for an hour without any pesky customers reaching around you for a McSweeney's. Cody's has the best recent release tables for both fiction and nonfiction, and the aroma of baking chocolate-chip cookies from Bay King next door will woo you into the children's section. Once the clock hits eleven, though, the masses begin to trickle in, and by noon the Avenue begins living up to its reputation. Time to saunter home and read. (Review: East Bay Express)

Best Oakland Health and Well-Being

Best of the East Bay 2003Piedmont Springs
3939 Piedmont Ave., Oakland CA; Tel. 510.652.9191
It's 6:40 p.m., and while most working drones head home to transfer their forward computer slouch to a backward sofa slouch, you head to Piedmont Springs for a glorious spa treatment. From the outside, it looks like a one-room shop with space for a massage table and an incense burner. When you enter and pass the reception area, however, you see that the spa, a little oasis of relaxation in the middle of the city for more than twenty years, opens up into a multilevel body temple with private outdoor hot tubs. In addition to massage and skin-care treatments, the spa offers a great package of hot-tub time (with or without sauna) followed by massage. You might think that a sunny afternoon or clear, romantic evening would be the most sought-after tub times; but cloudy, hot-cocoa days are the most popular with the regulars. If you have any meteorological forecasting abilities, plan ahead for such rainy days and call early. You are guaranteed to leave the spa feeling like melted butter. (Review: East Bay Express)

Best Oakland Sports/Outdoors

Best of the East Bay 2003Crown Memorial State Beach
Winner - Best Beach
Eighth St. and Otis Dr., Alameda CA; Tel. 510.521.7090
When it comes to rollerblading, the roughly two-mile bike path at Crown Memorial State Beach is the Venice Beach of Alameda, without the pretensions. Smooth and flat, it runs adjacent to an open and uncrowded stretch of sandy bayfront. While a main road runs parallel on one side for about a mile, the view on the other -- spanning from the Bay Bridge to SFO -- more than makes up for your proximity to traffic (which is actually fairly light on weekdays). The path is a generous seven feet wide, so getting past walkers and runners isn't a major struggle, even for the wobbly. The overall vibe is peaceful, and it's especially relaxing if you kick back on the sand to enjoy sunset after your roll in the park. The whole area is well maintained, with minimalist restroom facilities. (Review: East Bay Express)

Best of the East Bay 2003Lake Merritt
Winner - The Best Urban Jog
Downtown Oakland
If you work downtown and prefer running outdoors, jog on down to the lake. Getting in a three-miler a couple times a week can be a true challenge, especially for busy people who always find themselves, er, on the run. That's why Lake Merritt makes it so easy, even for the multitasking, perpetually late wackos among us. Parking is a breeze, and it's difficult for anyone to spend more than 45 minutes making the loop. This time of year, when the sun hangs out much longer and lower, the shimmer along the banks makes it an inviting, even serene place to trot. Runners who choose the softer grass trail, and who have an active imagination, can transport themselves outside our bustling metropolis and into, say, a rolling trail beside a placid creek bed high up in the mountains. (The scent of duck and goose poop may even assist in creating such mind-altering scenarios.) Of course, the reality remains: Lake Merritt is conveniently located smack-dab in the middle of downtown, offering the most accessible urban jog in the East Bay. (Review: East Bay Express)


Excerpts from the East Bay Express are ©2004 East Bay Express and republished with publisher's permission.


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