It’s late afternoon, and a woman and her teenage daughter swing open opposite doors of a Sienna minivan parked at the southwest end of Piedmont Avenue in Oakland, near the restaurant Commis. They seem to be engaged in a well-worn squabble. “Mom,” the girl complained in a nasal whine. “I told her I was coming over!”
“That’s just too bad,” the woman shot back. “Deal with it!”
Sure, domestic thrusting and parrying happens in this part of Oakland, where upscale restaurants like Bay Wolf coexist with nail salons and clothing boutiques, but actual knife fights? The question came up last week, after GQ leaked an online tease from its July issue. Resident food writer Alan Richman proclaimed San Francisco the new center of American culinary invention, naming his ten favorite dishes, three of which are in Oakland and Berkeley. Among them: the roast poussin in chamomile butter at James Syhabout’s Commis.
Richman praised Syhabout’s development as a chef. As for the neighborhood, it seemed to scare Richman — a New Yorker — shitless. "A year ago,” he recalled, “when I ate at Commis, I almost swiped one of the rapier-like butter knives to protect myself while walking to my car.”
Friday offered no glimpse of West Side Story-type shiv-wielding punks at Dress Best for Less, a high-end clothing resale shop next door to Commis. Only a window display with a mannequin showing off a sweet little outfit for the Fourth of July: peasant blouse, fun straw hat, and a men’s stars-and-stripes necktie, raffishly tied at the neck like a loop of pearls.
Up the street at home and clothing boutique The Rare Bird, the 25-year-old assistant manager (who declined to reveal her name) told What the Fork she thought the street just beyond the shop’s open door was anything but scary. “In all honesty I feel like Piedmont is really, really safe,” she said.
Meanwhile, Sarah Valor, maitre d’ and wine director at Commis, seconded that, as she folded pale, coffee-colored napkins at a worktable just outside the restaurant’s service entrance. “As a woman, I’ve never felt nervous leaving the restaurant alone at midnight,” Valor said.
Indeed, back at Dress Best for Less, Ashley pointed out that she’s never felt the need to carry a butter knife for protection. “I walk around here even at night,” she pointed out.
Turns out even Richman might feel safe these days on Piedmont Avenue. In a face-saving interview late last week, the GQ food writer told the San Francisco Chronicle that, a year in, things are now quite un-thuglike outside Commis. “That was last year and to show how much the neighborhood changed. This year, it looks like Carmel. It’s become so yuppified,” Richman told the Chron, before copping to the fact that he originally deployed the Oakland-is-hella-scary meme “more for effect.”
Good to know. On the other hand, maybe Richman would be wise to arm himself with pointy flatware after all. Though she declined to talk specifics, Ashley admitted that Dress Best for Less did experience a holdup within the last year, in broad daylight.
“But compared to the rest of Oakland this block is considerably safer,” she quickly added.