On a recent Saturday night, a woman opened the door at Degrees Plato to find a sea of impatient elbows waiting in line. There were no tables available, and children were either crying or scampering across the restaurant floor. With an air of Roz Chast’s patented incredulity she exclaimed, “Can you believe this is our neighborhood!?”
The neighborhood in question is Oakland’s Laurel district, just off the 580 near Mills College. Running several blocks along MacArthur Boulevard to High Street, the Laurel is, as realtor’s put it, a neighborhood in transition. According to Mercedes Sperling, one half of the husband-and-wife team behind Degrees Plato, the building had been empty for three or four years before they moved into it.
When asked about the fate of the weedy, vacant lot on the corner next door, Sperling said that it too belonged to their landlord and that he is now planning to build on the site. Does filling a long-emptied building with three cold boxes of beer sound like gentrification? If so, the crowds inside are happily embracing the change.
In the past five years, several restaurants have moved into the Laurel, including Sequoia Diner, Communité Table, and Fist of Flour Pizza. It’s also rumored that a second location of downtown Oakland’s Cosecha will open in the nearby Dimond district. Recently there have been vigorous online discussions about the fate of the neighborhood, especially after last month’s demolition of the Laurel Theatre and its distinctive 1939 façade.
On nextdoor.com, Emmily Bright commented, “The laurel is growing, and growing, and growing … We can’t fight that. More businesses mean more business for everyone in the district and less driving for people that live here.” In their vision statement on the Degrees Plato site, Sperling and her husband Rich Allen seem to agree with Bright. They consider Degrees Plato “as a positive addition to a walkable, bike-able, and increasingly vibrant neighborhood.”
And what they’ve added to the Laurel is a taproom and bottle shop, along with a few casual Mexican dishes. The friendly barkeep pointed out that the number of taps (23) will shortly be doubling. Currently, there’s a mix of local and not so local beers that average $6 for a 16 oz. serving. On three blackboards behind the bar, the choices are written out in colored chalk and listed by name, style, ABV, serving size, and cost. Fruitlands from the San Diego brewery Modern Times is tart and fruity with hits of passionfruit and guava. Sesh for the Sesh is boysenberry flavored and hails from San Francisco’s Social Kitchen. If you’re in the mood for something cider-like, it’s a better choice than the overly fermented apple one on tap.
The short menu is straightforward and unfussy. You’d order these plates after a day spent on the Santa Cruz beaches. Epazote quesadillas ($7) are novel because the refried beans are black, and the tortillas are drizzled with guacamole. The guacamole itself isn’t memorable but it comes with almost every dish. There is an appetizer of mango guacamole ($7), which promises a twist on the formula but doesn’t really deliver. It’s just the same guacamole with five or six mango cubes sitting on top.
The Sandia Ensalada ($7) was much brighter, a wedge salad fashioned out of baby romaine, dressed with a vibrant orange vinaigrette, and placed alongside dark red morsels of watermelon. After a couple of pints though, you’re going to want a torta or an order of tacos.
Four kinds of tortas (chicken, pork, chorizo or vegetarian) are made with bolillo bread from Pena’s Bakery in Fruitvale. Grilled zucchini strips crowded together inside the calabacitas ($9) with Oaxaca cheese and those black refried beans. Served with a small plastic cup of guacamole, this particular torta longed for a crema or a fresh tomato salsa. Something to liven it up like an order of tacos. For $9 you choose a total of three — carnitas, grilled chicken or squash and sweet potato. All were sweet and savory, and the best entrée to pair with an IPA or Hefeweizen.
Before Degrees Plato opened, the neighborhood would have been hard pressed to say it lacked a taco bar and taproom. Now that the place is packed on the weekends, everyone must be wondering what will light out the territory next.
Degrees Plato, 4251 MacArthur Blvd., Oakland, 510-269-7755 or degreesplato.com