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Daughter’s Diner in Oakland puts a gourmet spin on classic dishes

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The buildings on 23rd Street cast a welcome and cooling shadow across the tables and chairs in front of Daughter's Diner. Open less than a month, the Oakland diner is a lifelong dream for chef Keven Wilson. He was 15 years old when he got his first job washing dishes at one. He then went on to culinary school and subsequently worked for Michael Mina in San Francisco and for Staffan Terje at Perbacco. But the nostalgic feeling from that initial diner job stayed with him throughout his career.

"We'd go there every weekend," he says, noting that the diner was owned by a Greek couple who fostered a sense of community. "That's what we're trying to revive in Oakland."

Wilson opened the restaurant with the help of his wife, Justyna, and they named it in honor of their daughter.

"We live in Oakland and it's always been a fantasy to live and work in the same town," Keven says.

Justyna adds, "We didn't think Oakland needed another French bistro." While attending to a full-time career in marketing, Justyna's also been working through the concept, branding and the look and feel of Daughter's Diner. "There are a lot of families here," she says. "We wanted to take the classic diner and put a modern spin on it, to make it accessible for everyone."

Last summer, the couple almost signed a lease in Berkeley and had they done so they would have been set to open in January. Instead, they settled on opening the diner in Oakland. They've had to change very little from their original concept. For instance, instead of table service, customers order at the counter. The biggest setback was a hold on construction sites that pushed the opening from summer to fall.

"We're one of the silver-lining stories of the pandemic," Keven says.

So far, the diner has been well-received by the neighborhood. "We are approachable and fun, but don't want to be taken too seriously," he says. "But we do take the food seriously."

Justyna notes that the ingredients are all locally sourced and a bit fancier than most.

"You don't think that these would be the ingredients you'd be using at a casual place like ours," she says.

"The way that I write the menu and the way that we present the dishes—I want the ingredients to be able to sing for themselves," Keven says. "We use Starter Bakery's pain de mie. But I don't want to be pretentious about what we're doing. It's white bread."

Under the milkshake description, the chef doesn't write that he's using Guittard chocolate to make the ice cream.

"We just use it and say it's great chocolate ice cream," he says. "But if anybody asks, I'll tell them." He also roasts the strawberries before adding them to that ice cream's custard base. "The idea is to make it more intense," Keven explains. "When you char the outside, the strawberry gets a gooey middle. Adding that depth of flavor lets you know that it's not pre-bought ice cream that we're scooping up."

There's also nothing store-bought about the tater tots. The Wilsons collaborated on a side dish that tastes like dollops of deep-fried mashed potatoes. Combining Justyna's kopytka, or Polish dumplings, with a technique he learned at Michael Mina, the tater tots are essentially deep-fried gnocchi. "We grate the potatoes into a pâte à choux dough," Keven says. "It gets the potato flavor and it gets the light fluffiness from the egg and everything else that's in there."

Their daughter has also influenced certain conspicuously colorful items on the menu.

"My daughter insists on sprinkles on the milkshakes," Keven says.

And the Princess Pancakes are meant to summon up the vision of a domed Swedish Princess Cake. The chef considers it a luxurious dish, with layers of raspberry jam and marzipan on top. The Wilsons had a Princess Cake at their daughter's baby shower and continue to order one every year for her birthday.

"When we came up with this concept, we wanted a place where we would want to eat," Keven says. "This neighborhood is amazing, with really great people who I could be friends with outside of owning the restaurant."

Justyna says that, considering the reality we're in, they've been positively surprised about the community's response. "It feels like people are ready to get out."

Daughter's Diner, open 9am to 8pm Wednesday to Sunday, 326 23rd St., Suite D, Oakland. 510.309.1943. daughtersdiner.com.

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