Grand Lake Kitchen: worth the wait, especially on a sunny day. Photo: Larissa Cleveland

Chef concierge • April 2017

James Syhabout’s foodie guide to Oakland (and beyond)

James Syhabout
James Syhabout


The two-Michelin-starred chef has put Oakland on California’s culinary map with his fine-dining restaurant Commis. Here he shares his favourite haunts across his hometown’s diverse dining scene

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.

Brown Sugar Kitchen

Weekend brunch worth battling the queues for 
Chef Tanya Holland’s menu at Brown Sugar Kitchen (above) 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.

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 cheap – only about $3.

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 flavourful. I usually get the steak tacos but they also do tripe, carnitas (a confit of pork) and pork-rind tacos.


Where to impress on a date
I’d have to say Commis (above) 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.

Best 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.

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.

Grand Lake

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 (above) – 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.

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 as if they’re having a big garage sale with all the memorabilia everywhere. They serve great Greyhounds (vodka and freshly squeezed grapefruit juice) for just $7. 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.

Interview by Rachel Truman

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

British Airways flies to San Francisco International and Oakland International Airport. Discover more at

This article has been tagged Food + Drink, Travel Tips