The charm of Piedmont Avenue in North Oakland is its mix of newness and nostalgia; like a big family, where young and old live side by side.
The matriarch of the clan is venerable Piedmont Grocery, at 106 and still going strong. Assistant manager Dave Howland has worked there 27 years and explains, “When you’re the little guy, you have to have a niche and ours is service, service, service.”
A century ago, that meant food delivered to customers’ homes by horse drawn carriage. Today it means a restyled market with a huge salad bar, wide array of prepared foods and extensive wine selection. Exotic imports like Hungarian hot paprika, Turkish Black Mulberry Vinegar and French hazelnut oil please both consumers and chefs. Howland reports that Michael Wild, owner-chef of celebrated Bay Wolf restaurant down the block, often pops in to pick up some produce or meat. Wild probably appreciates the cadre of experienced butchers—a throwback to a time when workers manning meat counters were all dedicated professionals.
Centered along an eight block stretch with some spill-over onto neighboring streets, the Piedmont family of stores is a self-sufficient one with almost everything one could need; from restaurants that consistently appear on “Bay Area 10 Best” lists, to a library, movie theater, and post office. But nestled between the ubiquitous nail salons and dry cleaners are one-of-a-kind gems that make Piedmont Avenue worth visiting.
Shelly Lowe has owned Piedmont Stationers for almost 20 years and says, “I try to have stuff that you don’t see everywhere.” That includes distinctively French Clairefontaine notebooks, British Tollit and Harvey organizing packets, buttery Italian leather bound journals and teensy Japanese stickers and magnets.
“What I like about Piedmont,” says Lowe, “is the diversity: we get kids on bikes, college students and elderly folks from Piedmont Gardens retirement home—a nice mix of people from funky to upscale.”
Next door, Spectator Books is a bibliophile’s dream, with three large rooms of pre-read books lovingly housed and awaiting their next owners. This is made easier because the volumes are organized on carefully labeled shelves that take you from Infant Care to Home Repair, Civil War to Reincarnation, Cage Birds to Opera.
If magazines are your preferred read, Issues, on nearby Glen Avenue has all the esoteric titles you could want, such as Fly Fisherman, Billiard Digest and Dairy Goat Journal. Readers of Cigar Aficionado are probably well acquainted with the Piedmont Tobacconist across the street, a cozy spot to enjoy pipes and cigars.
Piedmont Cinema on the corner of Linda Avenue is the oldest operating movie theater in Oakland and began showing silent films in 1917. It is now a tri-plex and part of Landmark Theaters, but still holds old-time raffles on Saturday nights, when moviegoers win prizes related to a featured film. When My Big Fat Greek Wedding was playing, the prize was a dinner coupon from Simply Greek restaurant down the block.
No matter what film is being shown at Piedmont Cinema, there is probably a matching restaurant nearby, since the Piedmont Avenue food scene circles the globe. Little Shin Shin is a popular family place with a wall of awards for best Chinese restaurant. Their lemon chicken is crunchy, sweet and satisfying. Lotus Thai’s calming décor is in yellows and purples with flowers and fountains. Remove your shoes and sit at a low table to enjoy zesty grilled salmon served on banana leaves.
You can find friendly fish tacos at Baja Taqueria, Caribbean dishes at Tropix, French country cooking at Jojo’s, Sicilian pizza at Lococo’s, Mediterranean-Thai fusion at cozy Ninna’s and Turkish specialties at Zati’s. What other street could support three Japanese restaurants in one block? Kotobuki for the freshest sushi, Aki Sushi, whose Nabeyaki Soba soup will warm you up on a chilly day, and the diminutive Geta Sushi for a quick lunch.
Some of the “new kids” in the family have already made quite a name for themselves: Spanish Cesar’s trendy tapas, Italian Dopo’s thin crust pizza and Xyclo’s edgy modern Vietnamese get rave reviews in print and in person.
For families with children, Piedmont can supply a host of necessities, diversions and treats. Crackerjacks sells new and used maternity, baby and toddler clothes, baby gear and toys. Kids love searching the aisles at Teddies Party Store for party favors and decorations for every holiday and leaving with a jaunty balloon tied around their wrist.
Dr. Comics and Mr. Games just celebrated its 20th anniversary. The store sells board games, collectible cards and action figures, but its real focus is the collection of thousands of new and antique comics and graphic novels. Classic DC comics like Superman and Batman share the space with the latest Japanese Manga. The store even offers a Saver System for 300 regular customers who have the latest installments of their favorite titles held for them in a special rack.
When the kids clamor for a treat, head to Piedmont Café and Bakery for donuts or Yogurt Delite for frozen yogurt. For more sophisticated palettes, Tango Gelato serves up seasonal flavors like Rosemary and Pumpkin, plus a selection of gourmet chocolates. The oldest sweet stop on the avenue, Fenton’s Creamery, which opened at a nearby location in 1894, would qualify as the indulgent grandma in the family of Piedmont Avenue. This beloved, family-owned, independent ice cream store still whips up its goods on the premises. Try a crab sandwich followed by a Black and Tan sundae made with toasted almond ice cream, overflowing with homemade caramel and fudge toppings.
After all the treats, the kids can work off their sugar rush at Kids in Motion Gymnastics which offers classes, camps and birthday parties.
While the kids are busy with gymnastics, give yourself a break. Take a yoga class at Piedmont Yoga Studio or a hot soak and a massage at Piedmont Springs and then relax with a nice cup of tea at L’Amyx Tea Bar or a sip a latte at Gaylords, while you peruse the latest art works on the walls.
Bees Knees is the fashionable auntie of the avenue who will share her treasures: sublimely scented French tulip candles, Romanian crystal goblets, Re-mix retro shoes and a back room with lacey dresses and pleated plaid jackets. Co-owner Alisa Rudloff describes the clothing as, “Fun, creative and definitely not boring.”
Two stores over is A Step Forward, a tiny place, crammed to the rafters with shoes, clogs, boots, bags, shawls and skirts where you can pick up the latest style. Or you can create your own fashions. Pick out material at Piedmont Fabric and stroll over to Sew Images for sewing machine sales and repairs and sewing classes. Piedmont Yarn and Apparel features natural fibers and a knitting circle on Friday afternoons.
Nothing completes a family like a couple of uncles who can be relied on to repair anything. At Jakob’s Watch Repair and the Piedmont Cobbler, Jakob Roudi and Carlos Fuentes have been fixing clocks and wristwatches, heels and soles, (respectively) for decades.
So if your own nuclear family is a bit skimpy, you can always drop in to the merchants on Piedmont Avenue. They will quickly adopt you as one of their own.