Take a Gondola to Eat at the Oakland Zoo

The Oakland Zoo opens The Landing Cafe, a restaurant with a panoramic view, and you have to ride way up to get there.

Airplane food pops up in all the lame comic routines, but it’s airport food that’s the real insult to fliers’ intelligence. If you have restrictions or sensitivities, a logistical error or a layover at weird hours can leave you without any options at all — not even patently terrible terminal staples like Sbarro. (That’s why savvy travelers through SFO know that Napa Farms Market in Terminal 2 is the place to go when you have an extra minute and can’t handle the thought of five hours in the air with only a three-ounce bag of pretzels for company.)

Napa Farms is a dream. But the underlying point is this: Places where food was once reliably godawful are becoming places where food is increasingly decent. The Oakland Zoo is now such a place. As the first part of an enormous expansion push that will eventually double its 100-acre footprint with habitats for grizzlies, condors, jaguars, and mountain lions, the 95-year-old institution has opened The Landing Cafe, a $13 million, 190-seat eatery on the ridge above the current zoo, accessible only by gondola.

Airports were on my mind as my zoo-date and I got to the top, because from there, the almost-fully-enclosed, Swiss-made transport system looks like it could run straight to Oakland International, far below. From the outdoor seating deck, you can see clear across the Bay to Downtown San Francisco and beyond. It’s not quite Mt. Diablo, but Mt. Diablo doesn’t have hummus-and-avocado toast.

Or burgers or a chicken torta. Serving meat at a site that’s nominally dedicated to the research and conservation of animals — or hundreds of feet above one, technically — risks getting a little knotty, especially when Yelp reviews can easily snowball. (There was an outcry a few years ago when a Burlingame restaurant offered $70 lion skewers. Because lions are categorized as threatened but not endangered, it was legal, but the court of opinion convicted Mokatanya Yakitori on, like, nine bajillion counts of jerkness.)

There is nothing even remotely like that at the Landing Cafe, which has almost as much poured concrete as a SoMa live-work loft. You almost don’t even know you’re at a zoo at all. Considering the fracas surrounding SeaWorld, the questionable death of Harambe the gorilla last year, and the unsavory culling practices at some European zoos, you can see why the folks in charge want to avoid controversy at all costs.

With its emphasis on local-ity and sustainability and its dedication to serving approachable items, I don’t see a social-media shitstorm descending on the Oakland Zoo. Basically, there are two questions here. One, is the Landing Cafe enough of a draw in its own right to make, say, a childless adult want to visit the zoo more? And two, if you’re already there, is it a marked improvement from the typical food you probably associate with zoos (or stadiums, airports, movie theaters, and the like)?

I would answer no and yes. The Landing Cafe feels like something a concessionaire that one of the country’s more visited national parks would have built in the last few years. The view is incredible, nothing about it evokes the Rainforest Cafe, and the major decorative motif is strollers. They are everywhere. Ideal habitats for juvenile specimens of Homo sapiens though zoos may be, this menu doesn’t have chicken tenders and fish sticks (and definitely no gimmicks like sustainable zebra meat). Instead, there’s Santa Maria tri-tip sandwich and Gilroy garlic fries, which you can get as you push your black plastic cafeteria tray down the railing from one station to the next on your way to the cashier. With the exception of a fountain soda ($5) and a 20-ounce bottles of Smartwater — $6? WTF?! — nothing feels like you’re being fleeced the way you might in Death Valley Junction, where the nearest town is 75 miles away.

Judging the Landing Cafe’s food against mediocre sacks of popcorn and overly airy soft-serve, it’s great. Judged against what it claims to be, it’s not always so great. Take the $12.95 tri-tip sandwich, which lists salsa fresca, garlic aioli, and a toasted ciabatta as its accompaniments. The meat was slightly tough, but hey, OK. The bread was definitely not toasted, and after a few mouthfuls of pillowy ciabatta, I reflexively open up the remainder and start picking out the insides. That aioli was good, and the salsa was visible but undetectable. Spread some mustard on that and you’re set.

The $3.95 fries were much better. Now that McDonald’s is aboard the Gilroy garlic train, this concept is starting to shed its novelty, but these would pass muster on any bar’s happy-hour snack menu. (You can also get the fries plain, or in a parmesan-truffle version.)

But for some slightly underripe peaches — which, like the un-toasted ciabatta, weren’t “grilled” as the menu claimed — a salad made with lettuce, tomatoes, almonds, and goat feta with a snappy Champagne-honey vinaigrette ($9.95) was as good as it gets: seasonal, fresh-tasting, and not overdressed. I’d eat it again, anytime.

A white pizza ($10.75) made with tomatoes, arugula, and balsamic was nicely balanced (if very doughy). Still, the price is right, and you have to applaud this team for installing a pizza oven on a hilltop and baking the pies right in front of you. And if the Landing Cafe simply prepared everything the way the menus say they do, it might be the best zoo restaurant in America apart from Albert’s, the treetop restaurant with a full bar inside the San Diego Zoo.

But really, you have to view everything in context. First, a trip to the zoo for two adults who drove will already run you $54 right off the bat, because admission is $22 per person and it’s $10 to park. (While the ski-lift-esque Sky Ride that goes over the bison pen costs $3, the gondola to the Landing Cafe is free.) For that, you get to see giraffes, lions, dozing hyenas, siamangs, and other supernumeraries from the “Ah Zabenya!” scene in The Lion King. Personally, all I really ever want to see are monkeys and other primates, even if they’re irritable and throwing poop at children. (They weren’t.)

Something about the animals overrides everything else in your brain. The one time I ever went to Lubbock, I had excellent Texas barbecue, but all I really remember is the Prairie Dog Town. (Their little heads!) So, what I’m going to remember about my first trip to the zoo in 10 years or more isn’t the garlic fries or the salad, or even marveling at how big the Salesforce Tower really is from 12 miles away. It’s that we rode a gondola and got to laugh at the baboons’ ischial callosities — that is, their swollen pink butts — as two playful juveniles ran around some drowsy adult females in the harem, and we didn’t feel ripped off because we had to eat terrible hot dogs at a sticky table. In a way, that means the Landing Cafe does its job exactly right.

The Landing Cafe, inside the Oakland Zoo, 9777 Golf Links Road, Oakland, 510-632-9525 oroaklandzoo.org

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