When Disco Volante opened near Uptown last year, it was practically a given that it would be packed. The bar-lounge-music venue occupies a striking art-deco building just blocks away from a thriving nightlife cluster, boasts a stable of high-profile chefs and bartenders, has as its owners three of the biggest names in East Bay arts and nightlife, and before it even opened had already been the subject of breathless anticipation from all corners of the East Bay nightlife and dining universe. Indeed, go in around midnight pretty much any night of the week and the place is more or less filled with people: tucked away at two-person tables listening to the live band; giggling and talking in glassy-eyed groups; standing at the bar watching their cocktails get hand-shaken. And eating, definitely eating: arugula salad and chicken-wild mushroom terrine and grilled Point Reyes oysters, served plump and glistening on the half-shell and covered with a layer of butter-soaked breadcrumbs. This is definitely food, and it's definitely late, but it's only barely recognizable as what most people typically expect from late-night eating. It's not even eating. It's dining.
It's also but one of a considerable crop of new restaurants and lounges that are staying open later and serving fancier food as a means of diversifying their offerings and keeping customers happy. Piedmont Avenue's Adesso serves gourmet salumi, oysters, and sandwiches along with wine and cocktails until 1 a.m. on weekends. The menu at Liege, the new Old Oakland lounge, includes dishes like a smoked salmon-avocado-crème fraîche panino and a juniper-ham charcuterie plate. Bar Dogwood, which arrived just a few weeks ago in Uptown, carries locally farmed, hormone-free cheeses and cured meats alongside an extensive cocktail menu. And Plum, which opened to deafening buzz and unmitigated critical praise last fall, serves dishes like potato chicharrones, grilled Manila clams, and tarragon-chocolate chip ice cream sandwiches — all prepared under the watchful eye of Michelin-starred chef-owner Daniel Patterson — until 1 a.m. daily, long after most other restaurants of its pedigree close for the night. Meanwhile, older standbys — like Berkeley's César, which serves upscale tapas until midnight daily; Albany's Fonda, which does pan-Latin small plates; and Oakland's Flora, which offers a well-curated Cal cuisine lounge menu — say they're seeing steady business, both during and after the traditional dinner rush.
While sandwich shops, taco trucks, and fast food have long done bang-up business outside nightclubs and near the Cal campus, this is something new: honest-to-god fine dining after 10 p.m. in the East Bay. Suffice it to say, these places aren't just serving burgers to stoned college kids and hungry barflies — or if they are, it's something like Plum's: juicy and sharded with bits of beef cheek and oxtail, slathered in house-made horseradish, and served on a slate-black plate with fresh, locally grown greens. Call it drunk food for grown-ups.
And call it smart business, too. Restaurants — especially mid-priced ones — were hit hard by the recession, and even as the industry exhibits some signs of picking up, owners are continuing to look for ways to reach new customers. According to Kevin Cook of Disco Volante, the marginal-cost calculation means that once a restaurateur has sunk money into permits, construction, staff, and everything else, keeping the place open a few hours later makes sound financial sense — provided, that is, that demand meets supply, which isn't always a sure bet. But what appears to have changed about that equation recently is that while people will always want to eat late into the night, they're now looking for more upscale options.
It's all about filling a niche, said Plum manager Ron Boyd. "We did feel that we could fit a need that wasn't really there," he said. Though Plum's late-night business has yet to provide a huge spike in revenue, Boyd is confident that it will, and he said Plum is definitely planning to continue to stay open late. And furthermore, he said, profits aside, "It's more of giving the community a piece of something that's theirs and that they wanted. It's just about a better or more interesting choice for someone that wants a snack."
For his part, Cook said he was prompted to keep Disco Volante's kitchen open late after he experienced a few too many nights fruitlessly wandering around looking for food after 10 p.m. And even though he and his partners might easily have gotten away with serving typical bar food, Cook said the choice to serve high-quality food was both a pragmatic and a philosophical one, driven by what the market expects. "We saw no reason to dilute our brand by offering low-grade food at night just because we could," he said. "We didn't want to run a place where we were serving frozen chicken wings at night. It just wasn't part of our vision. If you want low-end food, you can find it. But we think people in Oakland, people who eat well, will know the difference."
Furthermore, as Oakland's bar and club scene continues to bloom, places like Disco Volante and Plum — which are in largely nonresidential areas and may not have seen much late-night business two or three years ago — are now part of a thriving, growing, nightlife corridor that has the foot traffic to sustain them. Many of these places also serve liquor and are positioning themselves as late-night one-stop shopping: good drinks, good food, and, often, live entertainment, all under one roof and open till the wee hours. Both Boyd and Cook said they get a fair number of people arriving in large groups from other bars, or from venues like the Fox Theater and The New Parish, hungry for something salty or sweet and eager for a quiet (or at least quieter) place to sit down.
But even places that aren't surrounded by nightlife are seeing large late-night crowds. Angelo Holland, head chef at Adesso, attributed his restaurant's success in late-night dining to a strong corps of customers from elsewhere in the restaurant industry. He said the place typically slows down around 8:30 or 9, but then picks up again after 10, when they catch waiters, chefs, and bartenders for post-work eating and drinking. Cook, too, said Disco Volante caters not just to Uptown bar-goers but also to the people who serve them: "We have a number of bartender and musician types who have [tip] money in their pockets and are looking to eat," he said.
Ultimately, Cook said, it all boils down to the laws of supply and demand. "If we didn't think it was good business we wouldn't do it," he said. "But people are hungry for this."