Where To Eat & Drink Near Lake Merritt guide image


Where To Eat & Drink Near Lake Merritt

The 25 best places to grab food before or after a trip to the lake.

Lake Merritt is Oakland’s crown jewel. On any given day, you might see drum circles and community barbecues on the grassy three-mile perimeter, or people soaking in the sun on the lawn. And not only is Lake Merritt a fantastic place to spend an afternoon, but it’s also a fantastic place to eat. Tons of great restaurants, bakeries, and cafes are within walking distance (or a quick drive) from the lake—so use this guide whenever you're in the area. Just don’t feed the geese.


photo credit: Ed Anderson

Yonsei Handrolls review image

Yonsei Handrolls


1738 Telegraph Ave, Oakland
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Spots for temaki, or handrolls, are opening up faster than we can say, well, “handrolls.” No complaints here, especially when places like Yonsei Handrolls exist. The Uptown spot feels like a relaxed bistro with high-top seating and neon lights. It’s an ideal setting to appreciate soy-cured ahi tuna, spicy scallops, king crab, and other sushi fish stuffed inside seaweed. Their versions are pretty straightforward (there isn’t any gold foil or speck of caviar in sight) but also playful, so you'll see one with kimchi fried rice and spam. The casualness here is part of its appeal, and why this place is well-suited for intimate yet lively group dinners. One option is to order handrolls a la carte, but we prefer making life easy and going with one of the three sets (five handrolls, $29-$52).

photo credit: Lani Conway

Calabash review image




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Calabash is an all-day spot serving breakfast, lunch, and dinner—which is one reason we already have plans to spend every waking hour at this spot near Uptown. The other is the fact that this place is from the chefs behind the excellent (and soon-to-close) Kingston 11 and Komaaj. They’re doing feel-good Afro-Caribbean and Iranian dishes, from sweet plantains with black bean sauce and roasted lamb leg salad to eggplant and sumac labneh mezzes, and serving in a plant-and-couch-heavy space that looks like a lounge crossed with a fancy, sun-filled cafeteria. Expect this place to be the backdrop for casual conversations, especially since it has two bars.

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Lion Dance Cafe, a vegan Chinese-Singaporean spot in downtown, serves food that'll inspire you to do a happy dance every time you take a bite. This place for plant-based dishes has gone through a few iterations over the years, but it's now a full-service sit-down restaurant serving incredible dishes from a rich laksa to mushroom goreng. Make sure to get their signature A.S.S. (almond, sesame, and shallot, naturally) cookies for dessert.

Lovely’s serves fantastic smashburgers on a vibey outdoor patio shared with Two Pitchers Brewing Company. The keys to their greatness: a squishy sesame seed roll that soaks up all of the juices from the meat, the creamy house sauce, and the caramelized patty that pretty much melts in your mouth. After your first visit, you’ll probably wake up every night at 3am, inexplicably craving one like clockwork. If you’re not in the mood for a burger, Lovely’s also has a fantastic hot chicken sandwich, plus flaky fish and chips, hot dogs, soft serve, and sundaes. 

You don’t need to see the crowds that pack Enssaro each night to know that this Adams Point spot serves some of the best Ethiopian food in town—like perfectly sautéed or simmered chicken, lamb, and lentils plated over spongy injera bread. Get the meat or vegetable platters, so you can mix and match dishes, trying all the different spices and textures that make Ethiopian food so incredible. The food at this casual restaurant is meant to be shared, which is why you’ll always see tables of big groups and, at dinner, a line out the door.

Going to Mama in Adams Point is like scooting into your friend’s breakfast nook and recovering from a hangover over eggs and coffee—but instead of breakfast, you’re getting a delicious Italian dinner. Mama does a three-course prix fixe dinner for only $37 that changes weekly. And on any given night, you can get things like a salad with roasted delicata, pomegranate, and pear, beet ravioli with spaghetti squash and ricotta, and polenta cake with baked apples for dessert. If you’re looking for more of a classic, the spaghetti with Mama’s tomato sugo, beef, and pork is amazing and never leaves the menu.

photo credit: Rawan Elhalaby

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If you've ever considered getting a garlic bulb tattooed on your left rib, you'll be a fan of the garlic toum from Shawarmaji, a counter-service Jordanian-style shawarma spot in Uptown. The thick, pungent toum is made with canola oil, lemon juice, and what tastes like an Olympic pool-sized amount of garlic. It's used in their fantastic chicken shawarma wrap—which is thinner and longer (like, forearm-length long) than most you’ll find in the Bay. Chicken is marinated in yogurt and spices, and slow-roasted on a vertical spit until juicy and crispy on the outside. It's wrapped up in a flatbread with that toum, cucumber pickles, and optional fries, and griddled until golden-brown.

This small restaurant is located on a residential corner in nearby Ivy Hill—just a few minute's drive from the lake—and focuses on Lao, Thai, and Vietnamese specialties. Come with a group and order the Champa Sampler (a name we’d get tattooed on our left rib), which shows off the restaurant’s star dishes—Lao sausages, fried rice ball salad, crispy spring rolls, and lettuce wraps.

If you’ve ordered a mezcal margarita at any point in the last month, there’s a very good chance you’ll want to become a regular at Odin. The mezcalería near Jack London Square has an impressive 300+ collection of agave spirits, plus excellent cocktails, mezcal flights, and Happy Hour with a mezcal special of the day. Odin is a rebrand of the Mexican restaurant Nido, and now pop-up Tacos El Precioso is a permanent fixture here, serving light, bright Mexican dishes. Odin’s updated interiors are dark, and dare we say sexy, with slate-colored walls, hand-shaped chairs, and long church pews. It’s exactly where we want to be sitting while we drink chilled coupes filled with tequila, chilis, and orange bitters.

Viridian is the rare bar where you can sip on a sweet (but balanced) cocktail infused with White Rabbit candy in a moody space inspired by Hong Kong cinema. The Uptown spot is a kaleidoscopic dream, with glowy neon lights and hanging lanterns inside. And high-tops and lounge-y couches in the back are ideal for cozying up with someone you’re trying to impress. The cocktails and food, a celebration of Asian American flavors, are presented like works of art, and taste great, too. We're especially blown away by the desserts, like the boba bowl covered in Thai tea granita and airy peanut meringue.  

We head to this American spot in Oakland's Lake Merritt to have weekend brunch and pitchers of mimosas on their spacious patio. Morning options include challah french toast, eggs benedicts, chilaquiles, and more. They also serve dinner, if you’re looking to eat something good and also get your fresh air quota later in the day. We like the solid "mini burgers" filled with fried chicken or pork belly, and the herbed garlic french fries.

The always buzzing Lakeshore location of the worker-owned bakery is home to pastries, bread, and excellent scones that are nice and moist inside. They also serve daily-changing vegetarian pizzas on tangy sourdough crusts—you can get one half-baked and finish off in your oven at home. Arizmendi is the perfect spot to load up your tote bag with muffins, croissants, and cinnamon-sugar twists en route to the lake.

A Señor Sisig burrito and a picnic by the water are a match made in heaven, like apples and peanut butter, or Alan Kim and a flock of baby chicks. The Filipino takeout window is just a few blocks from Lake Merritt, so head here to pick up a well-stuffed stunner. We like the versions stuffed with adobo garlic rice and tocino or spicy pork and french fries. This place also serves tacos, loaded nachos topped with a fried egg, and sisig fries.

If you only make one good decision today, let it be getting the fried chicken at Aburaya. A second good decision: ordering it with dry seasonings like the umami salt or garlic miso. The izakaya in downtown is a fantastic spot for lunch or dinner, and has other great dishes like oyakodon, fried tofu with miso ranch dressing, and tater tots finished off with katsuo bushi. They’re currently open for takeout only.

You’d think Vegan Mob was hosting a Supreme drop with the lines it attracts every day—but once you get closer, you’ll see that the crowds are there for their impressive plant-based soul food. The menu highlights entirely-vegan versions of shrimp, spicy fried chicken, brisket, and more—our favorite dish is the lumpia made with Impossible meat and served over fragrant garlic rice. The mob plate, which comes with your choice of protein, plus sides like coleslaw or mac and cheese, is also a great bet. Walk up, or order ahead to avoid waiting.

Leaning Tower has been around for years and is instantly recognizable by the Italy-themed mural painted on the outside wall. Inside, Leaning Tower does really good thin-crust pies that are made with quality ingredients, have nicely charred edges, and come in 12- or 16-inch sizes. The pizza spot serves other things too, like housemade bread, pastries, and espresso drinks from nearby roasters Haddon Hill Cafe.

This casual Vietnamese restaurant is one of our go-to spots for great phở—steaming hot bowls are filled to the brim with fragrant soup and bouncy noodles. The fully loaded pho dặc biệt or any of the beef phở options are the way to go. But they also have rice plates with grilled pork and shrimp, plus vermicelli bowls and appetizers like lotus root salad or chicken wings, if you're not in a fill-up-on-soup mood.

photo credit: Krescent Carasso

TrueBurger imageoverride image


Perfect For:Quick EatsWalk-Ins

This fast-food-style spot has mastered the art of three things: burgers, fries, and shakes. We’ll start with the burger—juicy grilled patties with tomato, lettuce, and garlic mayo on slightly-toasted egg buns. The fries are thin and perfectly crispy. And the not-too-thick milkshakes evoke more joy than the Bay views from nearby Grizzly Peak. There are two TrueBurger locations, but the original one on Grand Ave. is only a few blocks from the lake.

What makes Rico Rico Taco special? Let us count the ways. First, their tacos come on thick, flavorful, housemade corn tortillas, the perfect base for all the delicious toppings—like the well-marinated al pastor finished with chunks of pineapple and the lightly battered fish slathered with an incredible chipotle crema. Then there’s the carnitas, which are flattened like a pancake and fried, making each bite perfectly crispy. When you sit in the small dining room or order takeout (they also have sidewalk seating), you can watch their taco sorcery happening in the kitchen from behind a large glass window.

No matter what time or what state you’re in, rolling up to this permanently parked Mexican food truck is an absolute must—especially if you’re craving al pastor tacos or a 15-inch super burrito late at night (they’re open until midnight nightly). And don’t forget the red or green sauce—they’re both on another level.

It wouldn’t be a Lake Merritt guide without a nod to an Oakland institution: Colonial Donuts. The counter-serve spot on Lakeshore is open 24 hours, and, throughout the years, has powered us through countless lazy Sunday mornings and late nights. From sprinkle cake donuts to maple bars and classic glazed old-fashioneds, if you need something sweet and fried, you’ll find it here.

There are lots of coffee shops in Uptown Oakland, but our go-to for long coffee dates (or to get some work done) is Farley's East. Like its sibling location on the other side of the bay in Potrero Hill, this cafe serves excellent coffee, tea, and juices, plus bags of beans to go. And since you're here for a while to flip through one of the many magazines on the shelves, or talk about your week with a friend, look to the food menu, which includes club and BLT sandwiches, soups, and an incredible, hearty cobb salad. This place also has a good amount of seats inside.

Hanging out by Lake Merritt is a city-wide pastime, and an afternoon at Lake Chalet, a rite of passage. The popular restaurant and lounge right on the city’s famous lake serves things like oysters and risotto on their stunning dock. The food doesn’t always live up to the beautiful setting, but when a visit to Lake Chalet is more about drinking something cold and relaxing near the water, it’s a detail we can easily forgive. The ultimate move is to come here on Taco Tuesday for fish, chicken, carne asada, or veggie tacos ($3.50 each).

When you want to keep soaking in the sun like a lizard, consider a trip to Mad Oak. The two-story bar near Oakland's Lake Merritt comes with a massive patio and an even bigger rooftop deck with lots of communal seating and a second bar. You can enjoy a beer (they have 40 on tap) and excellent cocktails, plus a rotating selection of snack-friendly food including beef sliders and chicken karaage. This usually crowded spot is also a gathering place for people who know their touchdowns from their triple-doubles—there'll likely be sports playing on one of the TVs.

Ordinaire is a wine shop in Oakland on Grand Ave. near Lake Merritt with an impressive selection of natural wines. Yes, you can pop in and peruse the long shelf stocked with local and European reds, whites, ciders, and more (you can also order online). But you should plan to post up for a while, because this place doubles as a wine bar with reasonably priced wines-by-the-glass, and a selection of snacks like cheese, charcuterie, and fancy almonds. Since Ordinaire has been around since 2013, expect a well-oiled operation run by knowledgeable wine people. There's limited seating inside, so the probability is high that you might be huddled around a wine barrel outside. This wine bar is as chill as they come.

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