Oakland's roots are blue collar, and in turn its bars and restaurants once swung to the working-class end of the socioeconomic pendulum. Today, however, it's no secret that new, hip, tony establishments — and with all sorts of farm-to-table fare and chef and bartender wizardry — dominate the food-and drink landscape. And that's cool. But, real talk: We can't always afford to check out these trendy spots.
Enter our guide to discounted cocktails, small plates, and appetizers, otherwise known as a "happy hour" offerings. Our writers sampled a little bit of everything — waterfront dining, afternoon tea, legit charcuterie — and came up with twenty recommendations for how to get bourgie on a budget.
Afternoon Tea and Pork-Chop Sandwiches
Shooting Star Cafe and Baby Cafe
For those who prioritize snacky Chinese food over cut-rate booze, the most enjoyable East Bay "happy hour" might not technically be a happy hour at all. Why waste your time on $5 well drinks when you can while away an exquisitely pleasant afternoon at one of Oakland Chinatown's Hong Kong cha chaan teng-style cafes? During the slow hours between lunch and dinner, these restaurants offer "tea time" menus that boast a dizzying selection of discounted food and drink.
Shooting Star Cafe (1022 Webster St., Oakland, 510-251-9882) is probably best known for its horoscope-themed slushy drinks and outlandish decor — a Pee-wee's Playhouse-esque combination of bejeweled plush purple armchairs and an entire galaxy's worth of bright yellow stars. If you visit this popular teen hangout during tea time, 3–6 p.m., your server will probably hand you three or four different garishly hued laminated menus (the one for tea time is purple and pink), and the sheer enormity of the options may send you into a mild panic.
Like any proper cha chaan teng, Shooting Star serves a variety of Chinese noodle dishes and rice plates, as well as the Hong Kong-inflected Western dishes that are particular to this style of restaurant: Spam-and-egg sandwiches, spaghetti with pork chops, and things of that nature. If you're in the mood for an afternoon snack of, say, French toast and curry fish balls, you can do that here — and it'll only cost you around $10 total.
The best tea time item I've found so far is the Macau Pork Chop Roll ($5.50) — a version of Macau's most famous sandwich, featuring a well-seasoned pan-fried pork chop, sweet mayonnaise, tomatoes, and a thick layer of crisp iceberg lettuce. Served on two slider buns, these reminded me vaguely of the kind of fried-chicken sandwich you'll find at certain American fast-food outlets — and not in a bad way.
This is the kind of place where a dish might turn out to be wildly different from what you expect, and you'll have a better time if you just roll with the punches. The "coconut cake," for instance, wasn't really a cake at all, but rather a kind of dense white gelatin that's sometimes served at dim sum spots — cool and refreshing, like a cross between almond tofu and Jell-O. (The waffle-like mini egg puffs — the cafe's most popular item — don't get a tea-time discount, but that certainly shouldn't preclude you from ordering them.)
Practically kitty-corner to Shooting Star, Baby Cafe (358 11th St., Oakland, 510-251-0888) is one of Chinatown's newer restaurants. Despite the name, there isn't any particular baby theme to speak of, but the place is very shiny and modern-looking as far as Oakland Chinatown eateries go. The tea time menu is available from 2–6 p.m., making it a viable late-lunch option. That's convenient, because most of the tea-time specials are savory rather than sweet — and also because the prices are absurdly cheap, with a whole slew of options in the $2–$3 range. Similar to Shooting Star, Baby Cafe doesn't offer any discount on its signature item, the "rice cube" — a box that's fashioned out of crispy rice and filled with beef stew. But the rice rolls with beef stew, which will only set you back $4.50 during tea time, were low-key amazing. A substantial portion of it consisted of the soft, gelatinous tendon (the best part of any beef stew worth its salt), and the mini rice rolls soaked up some of the sauce, like chewy, tube-shaped noodles. The rest of the menu is just as appealing: Fried shishamo (aka smelt) for $2.50? Hong Kong-style milk tea for $2? Yes, please, and thank you. (L.T.)
The East Bay's Cheapest Waterfront Dinner
You're skeptical, and you have every right to be. Chevys is an overtly, almost-recklessly inauthentic Mexican restaurant smack-dab in a place full of genuine ones. A sprawling chain in a region and political-aesthetic climate where intimate and independent are fetishized. It's the kind of restaurant where a piss-yellow tabletop sign kindly invites you to "Get Mashed!!" And where the industrially laminated, absolutely massive menu includes items like "Mexicampi Shrimp," and no fewer than nineteen different margaritas, one of them skinny and two of them raspberry flavored. It's loud and brightly lit and very, very chain-y. It is not, to be clear, cool. You'll fucking love it.
You'll sit out on the deck, even if it's a little cold out. That deck is what you're here for, after all: big and right on the bay — close enough to the water that sometimes a seagull will fly up and land on the railing, close enough that you'll feel like you should be paying more for the privilege.
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