Oakland's Lake Merritt has undergone a transformation: Newly paved walkways make the lake a more enjoyable place.
The renovated Boathouse is home to Lake Chalet Seafood Bar and Grill (1520 Lakeside Dr., 510-208-5253, TheLakeChalet.com), with a view of the lake and decent happy hours. The Cleveland Cascade (2300 Lakeshore Ave., ClevelandCascade.org), a set of steep stairs accessible from Lakeshore Avenue, is still a popular spot to get an exerciser's heart racing. "Some of them just run, some run two at a time, some run backward, some crawl up and down," says Barbara Newcombe, who helped rediscover the once-buried "cascades" in 2004 and works to maintain the park. Folks from across Oakland come to the lake for some respite and therapy smack in the middle of the city. Never fear; though some of the area around the lake has been upgraded (much through the voter-approved Measure DD bond), the telltale signs of the old jewel of Oakland are present: its funky aquatic smell and ever-present goose poop.
Silver Moon (3221 Grand Ave., 510-835-2229) is a small kid-gear shop chock-full of great stuff, much of it secondhand from clothes to the latest baby sling. Give your friend's baby that special Bob Marley or Bruce Lee onesie and he'll surely be the coolest baby on the block (and you may just become favorite auntie or uncle), or bring in your own gear and trade it in for something new.
Not too far away is Walden Pond Bookstore (3316 Grand Ave., Oakland, 510-832-4438, WaldenPondBooks.com), a secondhand shop that also carries new titles. There is something great about a little neighborhood bookstore that's just the right amount of musty. Dig through the shelves of used books, pick up a used DVD, or buy that cookbook you've been eyeing. There's a cute kid's selection in back with a small playhouse.
With organic chain stores sprouting up, it's easy to miss the little guy. But Lakeshore Natural Foods (3321 Lakeshore Ave., 510-452-1079, LakeshoreNatural.com) has been on the block for years and carries the latest homeopathic cures, vitamins, cosmetics, chocolate, diapers, and food — a little shop at which you'll find an amazing array of goods. It can be pricey, but frequent shoppers are rewarded with discounts via a rewards card.
Coffee with a Beat (458 Perkins St., 510-835-5282) is just a little off of Grand Avenue. On any given day, you're sure to find a mix of elders and young folks engaged in a lively conversation about politics. The coffee is good, the people even better. It's a place that has a homey feel and a local following.
Don't miss: The latest flicks are at the historic Grand Lake Theatre (3200 Grand Ave., 510-452-3556, RenaissanceRialto.com). Can't beat the free popcorn Mondays through Thursdays, the political messages on the marquee, and evening weekend shows preceded by the "mighty Wurlitzer" for a special treat. ... One of the best pizza makers — and we are definitely spoiled with good pizza here — is worker-owned Arizmendi Bakery (3265 Lakeshore Ave., 510-268-8849), which also carries an array of baked goods. The $2.50 pizza slice changes daily and is always vegetarian. ... Also not to be missed is the Saturday Grand Lake Farmers' Market (Splash Pad Park at Grand and Lake Park aves., 415-472-6100, MarinAgriculturalInstitute.org), with tons of local produce, artisan wares, and hot foods, plus a balloon-maker and bounce house. Add to that live music, and you'll see why this is the mother of all farmers' markets.