Oakland Chamber of Commerce Newsletter
Rocking the Finest Taste Buds
“Sophisticated, yet diverse.” “An amazing place to spend time.” “Fun.” “Convenient.” And, don’t forget, “delicious.” These are some of the many ways both visitors and merchants describe the Rockridge District and its variety of shops and culinary treasures. A stroll up College Avenue, the thriving main artery of the neighborhood, confirms the reviews. Rockridge certainly offers some of the best restaurants and food shops—including a specialty chocolate café—in the Bay Area.
The Rockridge district spans a large area of Oakland, from Broadway at 51st Street to the Berkeley border and then west to Telegraph Avenue with College acting as its heart and soul. The vibrant thoroughfare with more than 400 independent merchants, including a mouth-watering variety of coffee houses, restaurants, food shops and even that infamous chocolatier called the Bittersweet Café, which one patron referred to as “the happiest place on earth.” Other shops of distinction along College include Royal Coffee, where they brew each cup on an individual basis, See Jane Run, which sells activeware for women, and award-winning Zachary’s Pizza, rumored to offer a pizza that sends pregnant women into labor.
Pillars from another Time
Rockridge gets its name from a 1911 land tract with original columns that still stand at the corner of Broadway at Rockridge Boulevard. The area’s residents and merchants are supported by a number of associations, including Rockridge District Association and the Rockridge Community Planning Council (RCPC). RCPC’s Web site provides some history of the area and notes that by the 1920’s, College Avenue had its own women’s and men’s clubs, a firehouse, a bank, a theater, a doctor’s office and pharmacy, a middle school and a branch library.
Jennifer Kaplan owns Rockridge Home, a furniture, accessory and gift store “right next to Pizza Rustica” on College Avenue. Kaplan calls the present-day Rockridge a “vital” community and notes that it is the number one retail district in Oakland.
“It is also the top independent shopping street in California,” she notes, with nary a Wal-Mart or Target to be found. There are no big chain stores located in the Rockridge district and the residents and merchants couldn’t be happier.
Jan Christensen-Heller, owner of the Christensen Heller Gallery which focuses on recycled, sustainable art and fine jewelry, adds that Rockridge has a small town feel, surrounded by academia. The University of California, Berkeley, stands at the end of College Avenue, while California College of the Arts is around the corner at the southern end on Broadway. She says that this has helped establish a sophistication not usually found in small neighborhoods.
Christensen-Heller opened her gallery 15 years ago, shortly after the Oakland fires, during a tumultuous time for the area. Since then, Rockridge has honored the neighbors whose lives were dramatically altered at that time with the Firestorm Community Mural Project. Located outside the Rockridge BART station, the project is a collection of more than 2,000 hand painted tiles that tell the story of the 1991 Oakland Hills firestorm.
Food, Glorious Food
One of the longstanding mainstays on College Avenue in Rockridge, next to the BART station, is the Market Hall. Developed by siblings Sara, Tony and Peter Wilson, Market Hall is a European style market place that boasts a group of fine food establishments. Market Hall Merchants include a bakery (Market Hall Bakery), a flower shop (Bloomies), a butcher (Enzo’s Meat and Poultry), a fish monger (Hapuku Fish Shop), a wine shop (Paul Marcus Wines), and a produce store (Market Hall Produce). Locals spend time choosing their dinner menus, stopping for a cup of coffee or tea at Peaberry’s or sample some of the Bay Area’s best Italian cuisine in either the café or the fine dining room of Oliveto.
Sara Wilson explained that she and her brothers built the Market Hall in 1987 from an empty building that served as a staging area during the BART construction in the 1960’s and 70’s.
“When we were building it, we discovered that in the 1920’s it was a ‘free market,’ which is a store with a variety of independent food merchants. We knew then that we were doing the right thing,” Wilson says.
Wilson notes that Rockridge is the perfect environment for small businesses. Many of the merchants that belong to the RDA live in or near the area and walk to work, are very familiar with the needs of their customers because they are one of them.
“Rockridge is a neighborhood of like-minded people and we cater to a local clientele,” she notes.
Wilson is quick to note, however, that Rockridge appeals to more than just the neighbor folks. Because the area is a transportation hub, with BART and easy freeway accessibility from Highway 24, merchants see visitors from all over the East Bay. Wilson herself is a transplant, originally from New Zealand, she has made her home in Rockridge for the past 20 years.
“I walk to work and I love it,” she says. It seems many of her like-minded neighbors and merchant colleagues wouldn’t have it any other way.