Hawker Fare Aims to Go Out With a Bang

If James Syhabout's pioneering Lao-Isaan eatery wasn't safe, no restaurant in Oakland is.


James Syhabout at Hawker Fare. - ANDRIA LO/FILE PHOTO
  • Andria Lo/File photo
  • James Syhabout at Hawker Fare.

Restaurants close all the time. If you write about food for a living, that’s par for the course. Still, my jaw dropped when the news broke a couple of Fridays ago that the Uptown Oakland location of Hawker Fare was closing permanently. Its last day of business will be February 18.

The reason behind the decision is a tale as old as time: A group of investors bought the Webster Street building and are rumored to have plans to build housing on that block. Given the going commercial real estate rates in that neighborhood, chef-owner James Syhabout anticipated that his rent would likely more than double. He decided to get out before he was forced out.

You may have heard some version of the story of how Syhabout, a refugee kid who grew up in Oakland, trained under some of the world’s most famous chefs before returning to his hometown, where he opened Oakland’s first Michelin-starred restaurant, Commis, on Piedmont Avenue. But the real homecoming was when Syhabout took over the lease on his mother’s old Thai restaurant — which he reopened as Hawker Fare in May 2011. It’s the kind of story Oakland’s civic leaders like to tout as one of the city’s great successes.

So, if Hawker Fare can get displaced from Oakland, what hope do the little mom-and-pop restaurants without widespread critical acclaim and a Michelin pedigree have?

Part of my surprise also had to do with the personal connection I felt with the restaurant: I ate lunch at Hawker Fare on the day it opened and filed a blog post about the meal — one of the first bits of food writing I ever did for the Express. “You’ll eat well, and relatively cheaply,” I wrote. “And, if your experience is anything like ours, the smell of fish sauce will linger on your fingertips for hours afterward.”

Over the years, I watched the restaurant grow up from being a place that only sold crowd-pleasing rice bowls to one that pivoted, about three years ago, toward the fiery and funky Lao-Isaan family-style meals that Syhabout grew up eating. Suddenly, Hawker Fare became the place where many Oaklanders first learned how to eat sticky rice the proper Lao way, using it to scoop up the assorted larbs and chili dips with their hands. My Asian-American friends and I would marvel at the amount of daring you had to have to serve some of this stuff to the mainstream American dining public — the kind of food that many of us grew up on, but were scared to ever eat in front of our white friends for fear that we’d be teased.

And so, even though I’m neither Lao nor Thai, I felt some small sense of pride that a restaurant like Hawker Fare existed — not only that it existed, but that people seemed to like it as much as they did. It’s one of the reasons Hawker Fare was on a very short list of Oakland restaurants that I always recommended to out-of-town visitors. Almost without exception, they would report back that they loved it.

Of course, any sense of “safety” in the restaurant business is always an illusion. Popular restaurants close all the time; restaurants with name chefs close all the time. Still, it’s hard not to feel some sense of injustice to see the familiar pattern. When Hawker Fare opened, it was part of a wave of new restaurants that, along with the art galleries and the monthly First Friday festivities, helped make Uptown a cool and desirable place to live or set up a business. It certainly won’t be the last restaurant to get driven out, in part, by its own success.

“Money’s driving Oakland right now,” Syhabout said. “That’s going to trump all. What can you do?”

The newer San Francisco location of the restaurant will remain open. Eventually, Syhabout would like to open another restaurant like Hawker Fare in Oakland, but for now he said isn’t ready to start thinking along those lines. Instead, he’s focused on giving the Uptown Oakland shop a proper sendoff.  

“We should go down with guns blazing,” Syhabout said. He said he wanted to bring back some of the occasional specials he took off the menu because they were “too Lao” — because customers would complain about how stinky and intense-tasting they were. For these last two weeks of business, he’s thinking about putting a beef bile larb on the menu, and maybe some different whole-fish preparations.

“We’ll try to make a statement. It’ll be our closing statement, I guess.”