Home to the oldest wildlife preserve in North America, a bustling weekly farmer's market, and the iconic Grand Lake Theater, the Lake Merritt area has long been considered the "jewel of Oakland." Locals know the 'hood as one of the East Bay's best and most diverse places to live, and the recent beautification of the shoreline has cemented the lake's status as the place to go for an early morning jog or a Sunday stroll — out-of-control goose poop notwithstanding.
It's hard to imagine, but the lake — actually a saltwater lagoon — was little more than a sewage-infested cesspool until the latter half of the 19th century, when its namesake, Dr. Samuel Merritt, funded a series of improvements. More recently, though, the area had a reputation as a kind of culinary swampland, with few noteworthy dining destinations (aside from the admittedly excellent Arizmendi Bakery). Thankfully, a bevy of new eateries, coupled with some longstanding but lesser-known gems, has now given the neighborhood real gastronomical street cred to go with all its other charms.
For starters, just a few doors down from the theater is Boot and Shoe Service (3308 Grand Ave., 510-763-2668, BootAndShoeService.com), the new pizzeria that's named, somewhat hipsterishly, after an old cobbler shop that used to occupy the space. The restaurant is an offshoot of Temescal's much-lauded Pizzaiolo, and with that kind of pizza pedigree it's no surprise that Boot and Shoe is slinging some seriously excellent pies — thin-crust perfection.
Meanwhile, the gastropub Sidebar (542 Grand Ave., 510-452-9500, Sidebar-Oakland.com) comes close to the platonic ideal for a cozy neighborhood restaurant: convivial, unfussy, reasonably priced. It's as well suited for a promising first date as it is a quick, spur-of-the-moment bite with friends. The burger is one of the best in town, and the cocktails are stellar.
Tucked away on a tiny side street, Holy Land Restaurant (677 Rand Ave., 510-272-0535, HolyLandRestaurant.com) is easy to miss, even though the place has been serving tasty Middle Eastern food for more than two decades. One of the few certified-Kosher restaurants in the Bay Area, Holy Land serves an excellent falafel sandwich, which is best washed down with a cup of made-to-order icy mint lemonade. Make sure you ask for some house-made "zhug," a cilantro-based hot sauce that'll knock your socks off.
Coffee lovers looking for a Peet's alternative should check out Cafe 504 (504 Wesley Ave., 510-922-8785, Cafe504.com), a cozy spot in a residential neighborhood hidden off Lakeshore Avenue. The cafe's current house blend, from a small Sonoma County roaster, makes for a smooth and rich cup of drip coffee, but where 504 really outshines the competition is in its daily selection of baked goods: The house-made muffins, coffee cakes, and quiches are to die for.
Of course there's more to the area than just food, and Uhuru Furniture & Collectibles (3742 Grand Ave., 510-763-3342, UhuruFurniture.blogspot.com) is one shop that's impossible to miss — the sidewalk in front is always positively crammed with stuff. The folks who run Uhuru might be better known for their sometimes-controversial political stances, but the store is one of the best places in town for furnishing your apartment on the cheap.
Independent video rental stores are a dying breed, but the Silver Screen Video Center (3850 Grand Ave., 510-465-8766) is a reminder of what can make them so great: The staff is friendly and knowledgeable, and the selection of foreign and indie films puts Blockbuster to shame. The best time to rent, by the way, is on Sundays — when you can get four movies for less than $10.