Taste of the Town – Ole’s Diner

Taste of the Town – Ole’s Diner

Reeling Through the Years

Recalling Alameda’s Americana Dining Days

Today, Alamedans are blessed with more than a few top-notch restaurants to please their palates, including Pappo, C’era Una Volta, Asena, Angela’s, Ching Hua, Angel Fish and Dragon Rouge, to name a few.
That hasn’t always been the case. Just ask any number of longtime residents about dining out in Alameda more than 10 years ago, and you’ll most likely get a roll of the eyes, a turned-up nose and a grumbled comment that “Alameda wasn’t noted for its dining.”
Dig a bit deeper, however, and drop a few restaurant names on old-timers—The Ark, The Driftwood, the lunch counter at the Woolworth’s on Park Street or the Alameda Dairy across from the Alameda Theater—and you will stir up some heartwarming memories of our fair Island city.
A glance back through the mid-20th century, from the 1920s through the 1970s, illustrates the evolving gastronomic tastes and trends, as well as the changing—or not so changing—landscape. Just stroll over to 1507 Park St. (near Santa Clara Avenue) for a glimpse of the past in the here and now at Ole’s Waffle Shop, one of—if not the—longest-operating restaurants in town. According to the current owner, Vickie Summerfield, Ole Hansen and his wife opened the small restaurant in 1927, and during the next 20 years opened several other waffle shops throughout the East Bay while still running the Park Street original. Tragically, they were both killed in a car crash in the 1950s. Hansen left the shop to the managers, who continued operating it, but not up to the founders’ standards.
In 1972, Summerfield’s parents, Bob and Christie Adams, bought the tiny restaurant—called a “hole in the wall that no one would want” by the real estate agents trying to sell it—with “$100 down and a handshake.” A couple of weeks later, a fire ravaged the restaurant, but the Adamses, along with Summerfield’s uncle, rebuilt the eatery, started over and haven’t looked back. Ole’s is as busy as ever, with lines to get in just about every day of the week.

Flipping through back issues of Alameda newspapers yields interesting tidbits about the Island’s restaurant lore. Ole’s had a competitor on Park Street: Carl’s Waffle Shop (where Tomatina is today). In the mid-1940s, it was open from “6 a.m. till 1 a.m.” and featured filet mignon and New York steaks “aged to your taste” inside big walk-in refrigerators on the premises. One of the older hotspots in town was the Hotel Alameda; it offered cocktails in its bar, La Taverna—which locals nicknamed “La Ta”—throughout the 1930s and ’40s, and is now the Lemon Tree Inn on Santa Clara at Broadway. Tucker’s Ice Cream originally opened at Park Street and Webb Avenue in 1941, in a storefront previously occupied by another ice cream shop, the Fiesta Ice Cream Parlor, which, in 1928, sold ice cream in bulk for 40 cents a quart.
The aforementioned Driftwood, near the corner of Park Street and Encinal Avenue, was an eating and drinking venue for many Alamedans, including such longtime residents as Terry and Jack Veasy, who met there in 1955. “There was a long bar and a merchants’ lunch in the back room that the Horgans ran,” Veasy recalls fondly. The Horgans also operated the Red Lamp on Webster Street.
In my nonscientific survey, the most-mentioned restaurant from that era was The Ark (not to be confused with today’s Ark Chinese Restaurant). Connie Rux, the new editor of the Alameda Journal, has lived and worked in the East Bay for about 30 years and recalls The Ark with a smile. “I would come up from Newark and meet my husband, who worked in Oakland, for a night out—without the kids!” Rux remembers liking the food, but was probably happier about sharing the evening with her husband.
In 1960, The Ark advertised its “Grog” and “Chow” in the local newspapers, highlighting its host, Harry Simmons, and its chicken, fish and abalone dinners. Though located on the Oakland side of the old Fruitvale Bridge, The Ark was predominantly a hangout for Alamedans. Many describe it as a “hole in the wall, falling into the Estuary.”

It was so small, the bartenders had to crawl over the bar to do their job, says Shirley Doumitt, who, with her husband, Bob, presently owns and operates Fudgelato on Santa Clara Avenue. Bob Doumitt, who moved to Alameda with his family in 1936 when he was eight years old, notes that until recently you had to leave Alameda and go into San Francisco for fine dining. That didn’t stop him, he recalls, from enjoying good times at Acapulco (on Lincoln Avenue at Willow Street), run by the Quintero family since 1953, and the Brass Rail, on Park at Clement Avenue, where the Gold Coast is now, or the original Café Enrico’s at Harbor Bay Landing.
In the 1960s, South Shore Shopping Center was a bustling new enterprise at the end of Park Street on “the Fill,” and such restaurants as Alameda Joe’s in Mel’s Alameda Bowl offered lunch, dinner, cocktails and banquets. Since the ’70s—when adventuresome cuisine meant the Robin Hood cooking up “original English fish and chips wrapped in real newspaper” for 98 cents, La Bouillabaisse offering French cuisine and seafood, and Chef Romano on Bay Farm Island proudly advertising “pizza to go!”—Alameda has polished its dining reputation with high-quality Vietnamese, Japanese, Chinese, Italian and Mediterranean restaurants, as well as stalwart sandwich, burger and burrito joints. Just for fun, one night while you’re enjoying the eclectic cuisine of Alameda today, offer up a few of the old restaurant names and launch a history lesson of your own.

—By Mary Lee Shalvoy
—Photography by Lori Eanes

This article appears in the January-February 2008 issue of Alameda Magazine
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