As we come into the last days of summer and as the shadows grow long earlier in the day, I find myself craving the nostalgic heartiness of mac and cheese, pulled pork and creamy polenta — all of the things one might generally define as comfort food — as though getting ready to hibernate for the winter.
And as people throughout the ages have found, both comfort food and hibernation are usually better as shared activities.
Hence, we’ve compiled five suggestions for hearty, food-centric date nights, emphasizing the kinds of comforting fare that might, even on a first or second date, encourage culinary come-to-Jesus moments and “Oh man, you have to try this” familiarity.
Note that the following date suggestions follow a very specific date night formula, i.e., good cheap to mid-priced food followed by cultural diversion (Oakland is happily awash in movie theaters, live music and museum exhibits) followed by dessert and/or a nightcap, because why mess with a good formula? That said, by all means take advantage of all that Oakland’s commercial neighborhoods have to offer by way of shops, hot beverages, unusual make-out spots and the kind of spontaneous synchronous moments that might emerge when good food meets flying sparks.
1. JACK LONDON SQUARE: SOUL FOOD AND JAZZ
Souley Vegan (301 Broadway, Oakland) offers, hands down, some of the most ecstatic-tasting food around, and its vegan-friendliness is an added bonus. From savory Southern fried tofu to vegan mac and cheese, the main difficulty here might lie in choosing just a handful of things off of the menu. Alternatively, if you or your date are more interested in a carnivorous meal, Everett and Jones (126 Broadway, Oakland) offers hearty piles of succulent barbecued meat unsullied by greens or grains. Afterward, you can fight off a pleasant food coma with a jazz show at Yoshi’s Oakland (510 Embarcadero West, Oakland) or a movie at Regal Jack London (100 Washington St., Oakland), where Tuesday showings at just $5. Yoshi’s is also a great casual-but-classy destination for cocktails and dessert.
2. UPTOWN OAKLAND: SO MANY OPTIONS, SO FEW BELLIES
If you’re catching a show at the Fox Theater, Uptown Nightclub, Paramount or another venue in Uptown Oakland, there are any number of comfort food options to choose from. On the pricier side, Picán (2295 Broadway, Oakland) dishes up Southern cuisine that has garnered a devoted following and rave reviews. James Syhabout’s Hawker Fare (2300 Webster St., Oakland) offers crispy fried chicken, fatty pork belly and creamy rice pudding in an upscale take on Asian street food. Our recommendations if you’re going for a more casual vibe: Shan Dong (328 10th St., Oakland) in Oakland Chinatown, a bustling hole-in-the-wall that will win your belly over with chewy hand-pulled noodles and savory dumplings; or Rudy’s Can’t Fail Cafe (1805 Telegraph Ave., Oakland) for diner-style staples and breakfast for dinner. As an added bonus, throw a pebble in Uptown Oakland these days and you’ll hit a date-night-worthy bar.
3. TEMESCAL/PIEDMONT AVENUE: A WHOLESOME BACK-TO-SCHOOL NIGHT
By now, Homeroom (400 40th St., Oakland) has made a name for itself as the place to go in Oakland when you want some good ol’ fashioned mac and cheese. With its friendly, classroom-themed ambiance (including a big chalkboard wall and menus printed on binder paper), dinner at Homeroom is a fine way to dig into the mac and cheese you recall from — or wish you’d had in — your childhood: melty, piping hot, made from scratch using local ingredients and artisanal cheeses, without even a hint of broccoli if you don’t want any. But unlike in your childhood, you can wash this dinner down with a jar of beer. Then walk less than a mile up 40th Street to Piedmont Avenue to a gross-out comedy at Piedmont Theatre (4186 Piedmont Ave., Oakland) and a scoop of legendary Fentons ice cream (4226 Piedmont Ave., Oakland) to share.
4. LAKE MERRITT: FRIDAY NIGHT CORNUCOPIA
There’s nothing like an Off the Grid food truck party to tantalize your taste buds with a cornucopia of comfort food options. Head ye to Friday Nights @OMCA (1000 Oak St., Oakland), where all manner of pocket foods line 10th Street awaiting you and your date: Kati Rolls and samosas from Kasa Indian Truck, Filipino fusion burritos from Senor Sisig and Peruvian wraps from Sanguchon, to name just a few. After dinner, you have the convenience of half-price admission to the OMCA and its world-class exhibits, which stay open ’til 9 p.m. every Friday. And then Lake Chalet (1520 Lakeside Dr., Oakland), with its full bar and romantic nighttime view of Lake Merritt, is just a few blocks away.
5. GRAND LAKE: TRENDY + CLASSIC + ROCK N’ ROLL
Indulge in a serving of melt-in-your-mouth polenta, wine-sauce-drenched mussels, hearty pork n’ beans, goat cheese soufflé, or arguably one of the best burgers in town at Sidebar (542 Grand Ave., Oakland), followed by a leisurely stroll to an only-in-Oakland movie night at the Grand Lake Theatre (3200 Grand Ave., Oakland). Then, to balance out the stiff Bulleit-based cocktail that may or may not have accompanied your dinner at Sidebar, grab a post-movie beer at Heart and Dagger Saloon (504 Lake Park Ave., Oakland), where maybe you can impress your date with your skills at the pool table or the pinball machine.