Scenes from the aftermath in Oakland:
stories of victims, survivors and healers.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

What restaurants mean

Shnetz & Sovitsky turned this into a beautiful restaurant
Often when I walk Telegraph between, say, 46th and 51st, I think about the risks Thomas Shnetz and Dona Sovitstky, owners of DoƱaTomas, took when they moved in to what was then a dreary, empty block. Whenever I weave among the crowds in Uptown, I give them another little Thank You for opening Flora (see right) when nothing else was happening around the Fox Theater.

Driving Mandela on my frequent West Oakland wanderings, I always give a nod to Tanya Holland and her still lonely but always sweet Brown Sugar Kitchen, and pray for the success of her newer, equally welcoming joint, B-Side BBQ, wedged into a desperate stretch of San Pablo Avenue.

Same with Hopscotch, a little down that same troubled street, owned and managed by chef Kyle Itani and Jenny Schwarz. I'm pretty sure the building they're in used to house a porn shop.

Still, even as Oakland's leaders tout the city's ever expanding culinary splendor as a sign of hope for greater peace and a new city reputation, shootings this summer in Uptown and Jack London Square (again) and Downtown (again) make it harder for me to tell visitors not to worry. How can I say it's safe to head to those neighborhoods, to all those Oakland restaurants -- Boca Nova, Chop Bar, Duende, Flora, Ozumo, etc. -- with their gorgeous interiors and lively atmospheres?

Do restaurants make a city better? And if so, for whom? Well, they provide jobs, and I'm told higher levels of employment lead to decreased crime. They introduce neighborhoods to a broader community. I always thought crowds of happy eaters were by and large peaceful crowds.

They make a neighborhood about something besides its day-to-day struggle to survive. They enrich identity, bring life to the lifeless. Or at least they try to bring life. Not every build-it-and-they-will-come restaurant survives, no matter how good its concept and execution. And certainly the veteran businesspeople who've opened places in Oakland knew that.

I marvel at the faith, courage and devotion of every Oakland restaurateur who, over the past 10 years, has moved into some moribund block, built a beautiful space, and then trusted in his or her own talent, ideas and the taste of Oaklanders, to succeed. I don't know if these owners and chefs saw their ventures in part as civic crusades. I doubt they see themselves as saviors. But despite our ongoing troubles, there are days here in Oakland, sometimes in our quieter stretches, even sometimes after a night of new bloodshed, when I do stop and think about what these places mean.

B-Side BBQ on San Pablo Ave. (Pic from their site)

No comments: