Chop Bar's Chris Pastena talks up Oakland.
Ask the Chef: Oakland Proud
While the East Bay has gained the recognition it deserves as a foodie mecca, usually only a handful of names are dropped on its behalf: Alice Waters, Charlie Hallowell, Russell Moore, Allison Hopelain, Alison Barakat. But there’s a new cat in town, Chris Pastena, who spent his youth in Manhattan and New Jersey and has no ties to Waters. He has his eyes set on etching his name into Oakland lore, and he’s got a good start with Chop Bar, a homey favorite in Jack London Square; Lungomare, a refined Italian dining establishment in downtown Oakland; and the Tribune Tavern, a chic eatery in a historic landmark.
Despite his being spread so thin—we haven’t even mentioned Labna, a Mexican restaurant he has in the works—we caught up with Pastena, who’s 42 “but feels 24,” to talk shop.
Q: Well, here’s the obvious question: Why Oakland to set up your burgeoning empire?
A: What I found when I moved to Oakland eight years ago was that there was just not a lot of stuff. There wasn’t a lot to do here. I saw potential. And I saw the love and passion people had for the city. The weather is fantastic, there’s an amazing art scene, people were receptive to taking a chance on stuff, and I really responded to that. I feel really passionate about that and the community aspect of it. When we opened Chop Bar four years ago, Bocanova was our neighbor and instead of a competition, there was camaraderie. Everyone’s trying to do the best they can because we understand that business begets business for everyone.
Q: Having so many restaurants, do you have a favorite?
A: Of course I love each restaurant because each has a piece of my soul in it. The Chop Bar is definitely the original. and there’s really a lot of DIY that went into it, and I like the atmosphere we’ve created with staff and regulars. It feels comfortable. Lungomare I really like for the refinement thing. I feel like I’m on vacation when I’m there. You know you’re in Oakland, but I feel like I’m in Italy. It takes just two hours a week to escape. And then the Tavern: It’s the energy of the city. The nitty-gritty. You come in and see the mayor’s staff here, the movers and shakers, some hipster dude at the bar drinking a cool craft beer. It blends a lot of cross-sections of the city.
Q: You’ve said before that when you create restaurants in Oakland, you really like to bring an “Oakland feel” to the place. In your terms, what is that?
A: I think it means an honesty and a realness. I think what we bring to all the restaurants is a core sense of ideals. The core of everything we do is to try to be as local as possible, and I think that’s a very Oakland thing. That local pride. You walk in the streets of Oakland, and I guarantee if you see 100 people, 20 of them will be wearing something that says Oakland on it. I’m not wearing an Oaklandish T-shirt today, but usually I am. In San Francisco, though, you might see only five or 10 people wearing something depicting San Francisco. There’s that pride in Oakland that’s greater here. That’s the core value I’m talking about. We do everything as local as possible, and create jobs for people that live in Oakland. We’re taking restaurants back to the way they used to be.