Monday, December 13, 2010

OAKLAND STORIES: And In the Beginning there was Luka’s...

Luka's bar- features amazing cocktails
 Episode 3: Rick Mitchell of Luka’s Taproom

Before there was Pican or Flora, there was Luka’s Taproom. At the time Luka’s arrived on the scene, Uptown Oakland consisted mostly of vacant storefronts and dusty sidewalks devoid of much but the occasional panhandler poised outside the ramp down to the BART station. Most of the retail was long gone, so this part of my City was a place to travel through, not a destination. But that has changed. Thanks to places like Luka’s Taproom, Uptown Oakland is a happening spot.

In early October of 2004, Luka’s Taproom opened its doors. The building that currently houses Luka’s is the site of the former Hof Brau, an eatery that my father referred to as a “joint.” A “joint” was any smoky refuge with a full bar and a sandwich. The sort of place my dad might have dropped into for a drink and a bite to eat, before heading to his favorite bar for a night of trivia and cocktails. The Hof Brau sat at the corner of Broadway and Grand Avenue in Oakland, a narrow, dark restaurant with a smoke-filled bar to the left, the rickety stools along its weathered counter top usually filled with one or two of Oakland’s slightly more colorful citizenry. Old men mostly, perhaps war veterans, each with a cigarette and a glass of whiskey, neat. To the right of the bar was a steam table featuring all the specials of the day— and a massive turkey. They never failed to have turkey at the Hof Brau, all day, year round, a permanent Thanksgiving feast. Though it was decent turkey, this joint was little more than a cafeteria. A leftover of another time, another type of dining — a place where the food was fast and cheap, and the ambiance left a good deal to be desired. Hof Brau was long past its prime, as stale as the day old bread wrapped around its sandwiches.

Pomegranate Cocktail
 So when the rumors began that there was to be a renovation of the site by new management, it was exciting news. Those of us who listen intently to Oakland’s heartbeat heard bits and pieces of the goings on at the old Hof Brau. Over time the new restaurant began to take shape. It appeared that the new management planned extensive renovations, which would effectively turn the dusty and unappealing interior into a slick new gastro pub. Rick Mitchell is a savvy businessman, smart enough to ease Oakland into the idea of change with a nod to the past--- he retained bits of the original Oakland memorabilia that had for years adorned the walls of the HofBrau. Past and present would come together in the new Luka’s decor.

Details continued to leak out, providing glimpses into the menu. They had plans to feature mussels, and would also do a magnificent high-end burger. Soups, seafood, Belgian style fries in a cup with several kinds of dipping sauce. They had an actual chef, which was a big step up from the old guy at the steam table with a knife. And so the rumors continued for almost a year. It was heady stuff.

In 2004, the corner of Grand and Broadway was a wasteland of empty storefronts and office buildings. Six years later this area of Oakland, now labeled "Uptown," has a plethora of high-end restaurants. Luka’s Taproom was the turning point. When Oakland’s citizenry embraced fine dining with the advent of Luka’s it paved the way for others to get in on the game, and Oakland has reaped the rewards of their efforts. Endless hum-drum hamburger stands and mediocre sandwich joints have slowly been replaced with white table cloths featuring everything from sushi to foie gras. Those of us who worked in Uptown and who had found a significant absence of decent places to eat lunch were anxious to experience all this change first hand. Granted, there had been a few family style restaurants closer to Downtown that had come and gone, but they were modest little efforts, nothing like the restaurants that come to mind these days when we think of modern dining. Certainly all this new hustle and bustle signaled something good: with the smells of food cooking everywhere, Uptown had suddenly gotten our collective attention.  We collectively asked what's in store? To that end, I sat down with Rick Mitchell, the genius and driving force behind Luka’s Taproom, to ask him a few questions about his enterprise.

Q: Your restaurant is Luka’s Taproom and Lounge. How did the name come about?

RM: After my dog, Luka. She was famous around here.

Q: When you opened, what was your goal?

RM: I wanted to create a space that would be reminiscent of a couple of places I’ve seen [that] I liked. To put those together for an informal, bar-type atmosphere and also open [...] a hip-hop nightclub. I thought that [this would be] something that people in Oakland could identify with [...] So I just cobbled together the different pieces that I wanted.

Q: With all kindness to the memory of the HofBrau, I have to say this is definitely an improvement.

RM: (laughs) Yeah, well the thing about the HofBrau is that they made money the whole time and they were serving very pedestrian food. So, I figured if they made money here with that model, then I figured that I could make some money and perhaps do a bit better on that end.

Q: Why Oakland?

RM: I love Oakland.

Q: Are you from here?

RM: Well I [am now. I] live on the other side of the Lake. I moved here in 1992. I grew up in Culver City.

Q: So, you’re a native Californian?

RM: Yeah I love Oakland. I was working in San Francisco because I was practicing law, very briefly. Commuting every day to San Francisco. I just felt really disconnected from my home and my family, working in San Francisco, I felt I didn’t have anything in common with those people.

Q: Particularly for you kind of neighborhood business, when it’s your own neighborhood, it’s got to be more meaningful. I think that would come through in what you do.

RM: Yes. It’s my neighborhood. My dog was one of the most famous dogs in Oakland. I used to love to walk down the street with her. Nobody ever knew me, but they all knew Luka. Everyone I passed was like “Hey Luka!” It was great.

Q: Is she still around?

RM: No, she passed away about two years ago.

Q: So, how did you come up with your menu, and how would you describe your cuisine?

RM: Well technically, we call it California Brasserie Cuisine. We were trying to create something that was a little bit more beer focused.

Q: Like a Gastro Pub?

Mussels in savory broth

RM: Yeah, that’s accurate. But we started with the idea of the French or Belgian Brasserie which, well, they’d actually be very fancy. They’d have the Grand Plateau or the Oysters Half Shell or Choucroute Garnis. So rather than starting by borrowing from the English Pub or the German Beer Hall, we [tried something new]. We felt like those had been done. This was definitely designed to be sort of a more upscale French / Belgian take on things.

Q: That would account for your fantastic selection of Belgian Ales.

RM: and the frittes, and the mussels...

Q: So did you collaborate with Jacob [Alioto] to develop the menu?

RM: Well, In the early days we used to get together [for[ everything. I drafted up the first menu, and showed him what was in my mind, and he gave me his thoughts and opinions. But over the years he’s learned he doesn’t have to ask me questions to do anything. He’s pretty much got free rein now.

Q: So you know each other so well that he knows what you’ll like and dislike?

RM: Well, sure, but more importantly, he knows what our customers will like.

Q: Right now, your favorite dish on the menu would be?

RM: I guess I’d have to say the Rib Eye Steak. We seasonally change it up, but we’ve always got a rib eye, even though we change up the way we put it together.

Q: Your all time favorite Luka’s Taproom dish [would be]?

RM: My favorite thing that we ever did here? Jake’s best dish? Hard to say, but I think among Jake’s most brilliant ideas was the “Twice Cooked Egg with Tartare” or the “Avocado Tempura” which was a really nice foil for a lot of flavors. But the Twice Cooked Egg was something that most people had never seen before, so it was a nice touch.

Q: Can we discuss how the recession has affected your business? Either directly or indirectly.

RM: Well, I don’t mind talking about it. Really, definitely people have been laid off in the neighborhood and people don’t have the same kind of credit. People aren’t feeling as rich and spendy, so that much is certain.

Q: So less foot traffic?

RM: It’s hard to say. We still get a lot of traffic, but people might spend a bit less. It’s difficult to gauge, because there’s been so much change in the landscape of the industry in this area. So it’s hard to say how much the recession affects things, how much the changing landscape affects things. Maybe you have a lot more seats on the one hand, but you’ve also got the Fox Theater on the other hand. All these things are kind of new, so over the six years we’ve been here change [has been] the rule of thumb. The recession might have an impact, but lots of other factors can have an impact. There’s been so much change and all of it happens so fast. But we’re doing well. It’s nice that we’re established. I think other places that are trying to establish themselves may be having a harder time.

Q: Do you mind talking about Franklin Square, (a sister restaurant that has been shuttered since early this year)?

RM: Well I have a choice to make, and I’m not sure what to do. I can either reopen it, but I would have to spend less (on labor). It would have to be a simpler concept. I’ve also got three different groups who want to operate it. They’re all young people.

One wants to open basically a very similar concept, a wine bar with a simplified menu. Energetic young kids, they’d just live there and do all the work. I’ve got a young lady who wants [to do] flatbread sandwiches. She’s been selling them at all the Farmer’s Markets. [S]he was thinking about taking it over and doing basically lunch sandwiches, office catering. Maybe opening it up early and doing breakfast.  She’s got an existing business and she’s reasonably successful selling at the Farmer’s Markets. Then I've also got a guy interested in taking it over and having a Carribbean place. So I don’t know which one to do.

Q: How do you see food service evolving in the 21st Century?

RM: Oh, I don’t know. I feel that for the forseeable future, you’re going to see continued growth of the locavore ethic, and you’re going to hear a lot more about sustainability, even though we hear a lot about it now. Basically, you know, green trends, local trends. They’re the only thing that has any momentum in terms of food philosophy. And there’s money in it. At least that’s where we are in food right now. Something else could come up.

Q: Any other future plans?

RM: I’d like to get the wine bar squared away. And I want to open a steak house in Oakland. I feel like there’s a place for a nice steak and seafood place somewhere in Oakland.

Victory Cocktail -
Deserving winner
of the all-female
bartending competition!
 What do we say to that?  We say "bring it on."  Anything Rick Mitchell opens in Oakland is gonna first and foremost have amazing food.  I can still taste Chef Lori Hurlebaus' day scallops and those cakes of sweet corn that were almost a pudding...

Luka's Taproom & Lounge
2221 Broadway
Oakland, CA 94612-3009
(510) 451-4677