Straight Outta Oakland: Restaurant and Lounge Entrepreneurs Drive Renaissance

May 17, 2011  |  

by Steven Barboza

To some, San Francisco is glitz and glamor while Oakland is grit and grime. To the cognoscenti of cool, however, Oakland is ground zero for California’s second gold rush, one open to black entrepreneurism. The city’s glitzier restaurants, many of them owned by African Americans, are among the nation’s hottest; its clubs are among the coolest, catering to mixed crowds.

Black entrepreneurs are helping to drive change in Oakland, kicking things up a notch in a city with a deep and funky legacy (Oakland gave us Sly and the Family Stone, Tupac, Huey Newton and Bill Russell). These entrepreneurs head up many of Oakland’s most popular restaurants and nightclubs, including Pícan, Brown Sugar Kitchen, Air Lounge, Karibbean City, Maxwell’s, Mimosa, Paradiso, and Era.

“None of us have those red and white checkered tablecloths,”said Michael LeBlanc, owner of Pícan, a mecca for foodies seeking Southern cuisine dressed up California-style.

“We get accolades for being one of the primary forces for the Oakland renaissance restaurant-wise. What I’ve done is created a different paradigm for people to think about, and if homeboy can do this here in a restaurant, why can’t [others] do this in business? And I don’t have any restaurant experience!”

The former Polaroid executive and New Orleans transplant is now co-chair of the local restaurant association and board member of the chamber of commerce, which last year gave him an award for “making a difference” in Oakland. His first business venture in Oakland was Brothers Brewing Company, the nation’s first black-operated microbrewery.

The city has something to suit every taste and wallet. Oakland’s black restaurants range from chicken-and-waffle diners to Ethiopian restaurants to finger-licking barbecue joints. The lounges range from champagne bars to art bars, which serve up art and artisan drinks. Many are successes.

“I built Pícan for the Huxtables,” said LeBlanc, referring to the upper-middle-class black family portrayed on “The Cosby Show,” but he is pleased to see that it attracts a mixed crowd – 50% white, 35% African America and 15% Asian, according to his own survey.

This mix reflects the incredible diversity of a city with 50 distinct neighborhoods spread over 56 square miles. Oaklanders speak more than 100 languages and dialects. More than a third of city residents (34%) is age 25 to 44, and one in every three people is black. The median age is 33, making Oakland a relatively youthful city, open to change. “I don’t think any other city anywhere in the world is as integrated as Oakland is,” LeBlanc said.

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