Kitsch restaurants make easy targets for a critic, but still: There's something revolting about sanitizing and commercializing the relics of punk bad-assery. A perfect example is San Francisco's white-bread gastropub The Brixton (named for British rock venue Brixton Academy), which former Express critic John Birdsall recently called "cynical, fake, and sad." Then there's the East Bay's own Rudy's Can't Fail, the Clash-themed Emeryville diner that opened an outpost in Uptown Oakland this year.
All kitted up in cutesy menu puns, pimping branded merch like onesies and tote bags, the Rudy's conceit made me a little itchy. I don't care that Green Day's bassist Mike Dirnt is co-owner; it wasn't clear if a real diner lurked beneath the gimmickry.
But after a couple of visits, I softened my stance. Ultimately, Rudy's theme is sillier than it is cynical, provoking more eye-rolling than anger ("This is bullshit, man: The Clash used to mean something!"). The food isn't great, but its spirit draws you in.
On my first visit, during Art Murmur, the streets were humming: a heady fog of weed, pitbulls eating hot dogs, drunk girls pirouetting, shirtless dudes trying to wrestle. But inside, Rudy's was a straight-up diner. Too-bright lights, waitresses zipping around with pots of coffee, lonelyhearts tucked into a slice of pie at the counter. Outside had a tinge of unpredictability and chaos, but Rudy's was solid and familiar.
There are nightly blue-plate specials, albeit tricked out with stage names like God Save the Chicken and Combat Mac and Cheese. Servers are tatted-up twentysomethings, but there's enough classic banter to qualify some waitresses as an honorary Dottie or Bess. The pie is fresh, the coffee strong, and everything polished and shiny.
But though I've witnessed greasy-spoon magic in the past (eyes on you, Pine Cone Diner in Pt. Reyes Station), straight-up diner food isn't built to be spectacular. Don't expect genre-shifting miracles at Rudy's.
I started with the fish tacos, an odd diner choice: desiccated little mahi cubes, suffocating in a flavorless pico mush that made sinkholes in the mealy tortillas. Buffalo chicken tenders were of the Sysco food-service variety, big GMO-modified breast chunks. Sousing them with Frank's Red Hot didn't absolve the flavorless meat.
The slider trio was a sampler of Cajun (Thousand Island and Cajun spices), ranchero (BBQ sauce and pepper jack), and blue cheese (with bacon) burgers. While I could've done without the frilly accoutrements, the juicy pink meat and sweet, grilled onions proved Rudy's can sling a decent patty. Puffy, hand-cut fries were a bonus.
The classic Reuben got top honors, served on Semifreddi's rye with a generous pile of pink, fat-striped pastrami shavings. Tart sauerkraut and a sweet squirt of Thousand Island dressing filled out the package. It's exactly what you're looking for at a diner: the familiar, made well. Also, be sure to get a side of the soothing veggie chili. It's what you'd order if you hitchhiked to a truck stop in the rain.
Wish I could say the same for the ribs. I ordered the half-rack after spying their sheer Flintstones enormity on a neighbor's plate. They were leathery, tough, and inedible, served with a pile of dry slaw. My typically voracious cat sniffed her nose at the leftovers.
Sunday brunch was less spotty in its execution. Rudy's blueberry short stack was diner perfection, steaming, fluffy, and not stingy on the berries. A Southwestern omelet also fluffed out perfectly, encasing mildly crunchy ground chorizo, mashed avocados, and gobs of melted pepper jack. This one was drenched in a mildly acrid salsa verde, but I managed to dispatch most of it to the side.
A range of eggs Benedict was served on hash browns, flat textured rectangles that didn't taste like much. No matter, they were adequate for shuttling the bright, citrus-tinged hollandaise from plate to mouth. The eggs were specimens of a perfect poach, shimmering and wobbly until my fork's edge popped the balloon. The Dutch Treat bennie comes with mild gouda, tomato slices, and an avocado mash, while the Morningstar veggie bennie uses faux-sausage with roasted tomato slices.
The loyalty to diner rules was what pleased me the most about Rudy's. It has a playful little theme, but it doesn't bust you over the head with it. It also doesn't pander to the Bay Area palate with quinoa pancakes and chai-lingonberry syrup. Sure, well-sourced meat would be an improvement, and I could've done without the industrial aftertaste of some items. But these breaches are minor, and forgivable.
Old-school diners exist outside of time and space, providing a sense of continuity even when their surrounding neighborhood has evolved or degenerated. Rudy's may be new to Oakland, but it's tapped into deep-seated traditions that give it instant community draw. I saw glittered-up little girls in parkas, fresh from the nearby ice rink. I saw stoic bodybuilders make eyes at each other over dinner. I saw hungry travelers stowing their suitcases before catching a bus. I saw club kids and senior citizens, carpenters and suits, rockers and bookworms.
The Oakland Rudy's has hard liquor, which some suspected would impart a bar-like vibe. No worries: Unlike nearby Make Westing, the lights are bright, the food is humble, and the music has little edge (no offense, EMF fans). There are cooler places to party than Rudy's; luckily, that's not the draw.