Home to Oakland Ballet (OaklandBallet.org), Opera Piccola (Opera-Piccola.bbnow.org), and percussionist John Santos, Oakland's Laurel District has an unusual lumping of artists and musicians, many of whom have launched their own enterprises. It's a neighborhood full of hole-in-the-wall performance spaces — the type of rooms where you pay $5 to sit on a folding chair and get bedazzled by saxophonist Howard Wiley or spoken-word poet Joyce Lee. And you'll never get over that initial bedazzlement.
Once such space is Divinity Voice Music & Arts (3609 Maple Ave., AspireBetterCommunity.com/DivinityVoiceMusicArts), a small jazzhouse with Thursday night jam sessions and Sunday afternoon church services. It also holds a regular concert series featuring local talent. Singers Rhonda Benin, Lorin Benedict, and Siaira Shawns all perform there in March, along with pianist Kito Gamble. Turn the corner onto MacArthur Boulevard and you'll find entertainment of a decidedly different variety. Newbie Lounge 3411 (3411 MacArthur Blvd.) lies in the building that used to house the lesbian bar Club Velvet. Emphasizing reggae and dancehall (DJ Selecta Kurious hosts Roots Shack Thursdays every week), stand-up comedy (The Get Down Stand Up Comedy Night happens every fourth Saturday), and local bands (Bands of the Bay every third Saturday), it imports the Uptown vibe into a quiet pocket of East Oakland. Those seeking homier digs can skip across the street to Martinique Club (3000 MacArthur Blvd., 510-530-5808), which is strictly beer and cocktails.
Yet the Laurel is better known for its epicurean tastes. It's the home of Farmer Joe's Marketplace (3501 MacArthur Blvd., 510-482-8178, FarmerJoesMarket.com), a family-owned natural foods store that specializes in locally sourced ingredients. Nearby you'll find the World Ground Cafe (3726 MacArthur Blvd., 510-482-2933), which offers commuter specials on bagels and panini, in addition to espresso. Local nonprofit Oakland Food Connection hosts a Saturday morning farmers' market in the parking lot of Trattoria Laurellinos (10 a.m.-2 p.m., 4173 Macarthur Blvd., FoodCommunityCulture.org), featuring seasonal produce, biscotti, honey, flower bouquets, organic bulk food, and live music. Once a year in August, that whole swath of MacArthur fills with drummers, boogaloo dancers, scraper bikes, food vendors, and roving musicians, all convening for the annual Laurel Street Fair. It's just a sampling of what goes on in the lower east side.
Don't miss: If you're into small mom-and-pop joints, there's always the Laurel Lounge (3932 MacArthur Blvd., 510-530-0158, LaurelLounge.com). With its non-descript facade and vast selection of microbrews, it represents a type of sports bar that's become an endangered species. ... Gerardo's Restaurant (3811 MacArthur Blvd., 510-531-5255) sells fat, cheap, fast burritos for those who have to eat on the run. ... For those who'd rather sit down, Full House Cafe (3719 MacArthur Blvd., 510-482-2200) offers a highly creative brunch menu, complete with frittatas, buttermilk waffles, and vegan hash. ... House of Produce (4020 MacArthur Blvd., 510-530-5158) is one of the best corner grocery stores around. ... And, for all those neighborhood jazz cats, Acme Music (3715 MacArthur Blvd., 510-530-7234) has new and used instruments, sheet music, repair services (including restringing), sound design, CD burning, and lessons — Donald "Duck" Bailey taught drums there. It even has a gallery where local artists exhibit their work.