Great Eats, Good Shops Await on Grand Avenue

By KATHLEEN HILL Special to the Planet
Friday December 19, 2003

At the north end of Lake Merritt, the fabulous urban lake in the center of Oakland, is the “downtown” of a whole neighborhood. Grand Avenue has morphed from an old-fashioned shopping street, highlighted by the Grand Lake Theater with its colorful neon signs, to a few blocks where nail salons outnumber bookstores by eight-to-one and ethnic restaurants abound, along with a chain supermarket and several savings and loans. 

The grand Grand Lake now shows several movies at once, and movie-goers can sustain themselves with Colonel Mustard’s Hot Dogs and a burrito stand right next door, only slightly healthier than expensive popcorn. 

On the west side of Grand Avenue, Yang Chow Mandarin Restaurant’s murky windows insulate tanks of live crab and lobster, as well as great orchids, which somehow survive. Yang Chow offers complete vegetarian dinners, along with 42 “specials of the day” printed on the permanent menu, beef, chicken, and its seafood special a la carte. 

Lee’s Discount Florist is an excellent hole-in-the-wall place to pick up brilliantly colored blooms for that last-minute gift. 

Silver Moon Baby and Children’s Resale Shop offers good quality recycled children’s clothing, and my favorite shop along the street is Donna Ricketts-Ajike’s Cultural Crossroads. Accompanied by her 10-month-old daughter, Adeniko, Donna imports and sells home furnishings and accessories for Africa, India, China, and other Asian lands, dealing only with fair trade vendors. A former exercise nutritionist and programmer with two degrees from Hayward State, Donna also showcases with great pride the works of several strictly local artists. CDs of unusual Cuban, African, and other music from around the globe may be found on the counter, including the pack of Cuban music in an imitation cigar box that goes for $55. 

Next door to Cultural Crossroads at Glow, Jenny Geshwind, a form tech staffing consultant, has followed her dream and create an Oakland-style Sex in the City clothing store swarming with customers looking for trendy affordable clothes such as Blue Cult jeans, Hot Sauce and Beaubois. With a copy of Laura Weisberger’s The Devil Wears Prada next to her ipod, Gehswind and friends have a separate shoe store downstairs with the sort of spiky-heeled shoes by Steven and Luchinney that Carrie Bradshaw would buy. 

Cycle Sports sells bikes and does a lot of work to repair and/or customize your cycle. Locals frequent Jenny’s Cafe for cheap and good sandwiches, while auld sods like The Alley with Rod Dibble at the piano bar and Smitty’s Bar, both still bearing cigarette smoke on the windows and walls from the old days. Lynn & Lu’s Escapade Cafe is a good place for breakfast and lunch, with huge portions of eggs and potatoes topped with sour cream, and a spinach omelet with Muenster cheese goes for $6.95. Slightly dreary Coffee Mill boasts of being “Oakland’s oldest coffee house”—though the staff didn’t even know who owns the place—and offers several flavors of oat cakes, biscotti, scones, coffees and teas from around the world. Music livens up the scene on weekends. 

The percentage of business on Grand that’ve been there less than a year is striking. Many of the restaurants are new, hence very clean, and others are well-established. Millennia Case Szechuan is the spanking new baby of Chung and Kincent Tse, who offer excellent takeout (few tables) with a constant stream of neighborhood folks coming in for the clean, sharp food. The lunch buffet is a bargain at $3.65. 

Ristorante Milano is the only non-Asian dinner house on the street, the second of the Yekta family’s growing restaurant group. Milano occupies what we natives knew as Mitch and Jim’s Sirloin, where for years my parents enjoyed their Old Fashioneds and steaks. Now dramatic lighting, a full modern bar and good Italian food served in especially large portions attract the neighborhood crowd along with many players from the A’s and Raiders who drop in for both lunch and dinner. 

On the east side of Grand is the new BBQ Pavilion, featuring the Korean variety, and the fabulous three-decade-old Walden Pond Books, where three generations of Curtolos oversee a large collection of new and used books, including a wide selection of radical thought of all varieties—a must visit. And, in a drinking neighborhood, Kingman’s Lucky Lounge handles the libations on this side of the street. 

Miakado II offers elegant and fresh sushi, with piles of fresh fish displayed behind the glass of the counter. The menu features many items for under a dollar, along with combination dinners ranging up to $11.95 and seafood dinners to $9.95. 

The hands-down favorite of grand Avenue shopkeepers is Hunan Village, a cozy place with adults and babies everywhere. Lunch specials are mostly under $5, and everything on the menu is excellent. 

To work off all this food—since eating seems to be a prime goal here—stroll, roll, or jog around the lake and park, or take the kids to nearby Children’s Fairyland, a great 10-acre park featuring rides and exhibits designed around children’s literature in fairy tales, nursery rhymes and stories. Adults are allowed only if accompanied by a child, and vice versa. “Small folk” rides include the Fletco Carousel and Jolly Trolly, with family crafts projects also on offer. Admission is $6, free for children under one. 

Created in 1950 by Oakland nurseryman Arthur Navlet, then-Superintendent of Parks and Recreation William Penn Mott and the Oakland Breakfast Club, Oakland’s Fairyland was the nation’s first three-dimensional storybook-themed park. Have fun!