It’s easy to pick on Oakland. Why? You name it. Crime. The homeless. Civic dysfunction. The rat-infested Coliseum.
But then …
It was a gorgeous Bay Area Tuesday evening. A few wisps of fog had started to blow in from the Bay, but the breeze had cleared the air. We drove down Oak Street toward Lake Merritt, passing the Oakland Museum of California (definitely worth a visit), and pulled into a parking area in front of the Lake Merritt Boathouse, which was built in 1909.
The building reflects the best of old-school Oakland, with its stately design and classic feel. And it’s framed by not only the blue waters of Lake Merritt but the green and gold Oakland hills off to the east.
The old boathouse is now home to the Lake Chalet Seafood Bar & Grill, a surprisingly large restaurant hidden behind a relatively modest front. But once inside, it’s clear the E-shaped seating can hold lots of people. As the picture shows, there are sizable rooms with a long dock in the middle, with tables, umbrellas and its own bar. Naturally the view from the dock is wonderful, but the many windows give the whole place an unobstructed outlook on the lake and the hills.
But from 1950 to 2009, the old boathouse was closed to the public, as first it was used as an office site for the City of Oakland, and then it was simply abandoned.
But up stepped Gar and Lara Truppelli, who had had great success renovating the Beach Chalet in Golden Gate Park (worth a visit too), and understood how special these old buildings can be. Now in its 13th year, and having survived the pandemic, the Lake Chalet is once again filling up with folks out to sample some seafood and bask in the beauty of Oakland. (Yes, there are more than a few beautiful spots in Oakland.)
Tonight’s occasion was a special event with Patron tequila as the focus, and a three-course menu tailored to work well with the agave-based liquor. There were a couple of brief speeches, but the main event took place on the round tables that seated groups of eight. We didn’t know any of the other people, though four were friends, but after the first two tequila cocktails, conviviality ruled – especially in our group. Conversations went around the table, toasts were common, and connections were made, however brief they might turn out to be.
Naturally there comments on the food, which was quite good. Rockfish tostadas and roasted red shrimp reflected Lake Chalet’s seafood focus, while the spicy La Furia cocktail, with its tart bitters, brought the Mexican connection along for the ride.
The entrée, a braised pork New Mexico-style, won praise from even the most critical at the table, and surprisingly, the mixture of anejo tequila and rye whiskey worked really well too.
A chocolate truffle cake completed the meal, but the Patron Extra Anejo, which is aged three years and is concentrated due to evaporation sucking 30% of the water out of the tequila, was the real dessert. The golden brown liquid managed to stay smooth while still having the bite some anejos don’t, and was a fitting end to a party-atmosphere evening.
Really, though, the star of the show was the Lake Chalet and the setting. The restaurant is reminiscent of the days when Oakland’s downtown was a hub of business and shopping, and the setting is a reminder that the city still has a lot to offer. Joggers, strollers and bicycles circled Lake Merritt on this perfect summer evening, all needing only to turn their heads to glimpse a wonderful view of water, hills and trees.
Yes, Oakland has its problems – but it has both a past and potential as well.