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You can make delicious food and mix mean drinks. You can be incredibly business-savvy, winning at the cruel game of Bay Area hospitality. But very few can create instant, feral hype that will make Apple executives and celebrity chefs track to a hilly residential neighborhood in Oakland for a $225 meal. Imana (yes, just “Imana”), the chef and owner behind Hi Felicia Supper Club, managed just that.
By the time I got around to trying Hi Felicia, it had been popping up on my Instagram Stories for months, and most of my foodie friends had already eaten there. Hosted on an Oakland balcony on Friday and Saturday nights since February, the unusual dinner series offers a dazzling amount of bites and courses, served with beverage pairings, in an intimate and impossibly “cool” setting.
If you struggle defining what “cool” feels like, imagine being welcomed by a very stylish Gen Z-er who leads you to a huge balcony overlooking the city. Imagine vintage chairs and wobbly tables, and a ceramic hand holding thin slices of fresh scallop. Imagine Imana hand-writing the menu for you in the beginning of the meal, on a piece of recycled paper. Imagine feeling like you’re the only one who knows about this place, even though reservations are full until October.
Imana, who goes by first name only for privacy reasons, is 25 years old. The Black SoCal native grew interested in food at a young age, picking up a Chick-fil-A job in her hometown of Los Angeles at 17. Since then, she has worked at hotel restaurants, burger and sushi joints and, more recently, as a captain (staff supervisor) at well-known Bay Area establishments like Coi, Single Thread and Californios. When the pandemic started, she became her own boss. “I spent seven years in the industry working for others; it’s not fun for me,” she says. “I’m a specific intimate person, and I thought it would be good to move to ownership, representation for brown and Black people.”
First came elaborate takeaway boxes, in early pandemic fashion, which she made at her Oakland apartment. As soon as the mandate banning outdoor dining was lifted, Hi Felicia started running its dinners, serving food the kind of food Imana likes to eat — primarily inspired by Mexican cuisine. Friends worked as servers and prep cooks, reservations on Instagram DMs, advertisement word-of-mouth. In April, Alice Waters came there to dine — and the hype nearly boiled over.
It’s clear to all attendees that Hi Felicia is an honorable but still underground hustle, operating in a non-commercial space and outside the boundaries of California law. Perhaps its illicit nature is part of its charm. While home cooks in Alameda County may pursue permits to sell foods that have been cooked in their houses, things grow far more complicated when you’re talking about opening an actual restaurant inside your house. Slews of approvals and permits from a wide swath of county and city departments would be required, and a state-awarded liquor license is necessary to serve alcohol. Imana has none of these official imprimaturs, but she does have a special brand of tenacity.
On a typical night, dishes might include slices of fried green tomato, crusted in Panko bread crumbs, with raw bluefin tuna from San Diego, and scallop ceviche with strawberry, blistered pepper, lime and sea salt. The summer squash tacos are adorned with sea urchin. The lamb enchiladas are sprinkled with sour cherries. Imana shops locally, sourcing meats from San Francisco’s Fatted Calf and fish from Berkeley’s Monterey Fish Market. For wine and sake, she tries to highlight labels you won’t normally find at a wine shop. There are also chops made from the local, small-batch Bolita Masa, as well as salsas.
She’s mainly a one-woman show, handling everything from reservations to cooking. “I do all of it — I’m really private and low-key, that’s how I always wanted to be,” she says. “People ask about brick and mortar, next steps, but I want it to be small.” Despite its limited weekend runs, Hi Felicia is nearly a week-long affair: “It’s basically constant — food and beverage buying on Tuesday, everything shipped on Wednesday, then prepping, plus we make the stuff on the day,” Imana says. “In the beginning I had no idea how to portion, it was a bloodbath, but now everything is dialed-in.”
This summer, collaborations with Scribe Winery and Vinca Minor took Hi Felicia’s fame even farther, but the vibe continues to be understated. Meanwhile, in similar small-yet-impactful fashion, Imana is plotting her next move, this time in San Francisco — a two-day-a-month mezcal and natural wine bar, with tacos and raw seafood, named “Sluts.” It will be, of course, “at a friend’s front yard in Potrero Hill.” Meanwhile, Hi Felicia diners can expect new dishes, as Imana recently went to Oaxaca and Mexico City to explore the scene. “I’m not Mexican, it’s very important to me to keep things inspired without encroaching on someone else’s space,” Imana said.
While Sluts is pretty much guaranteed to be a hot ticket, the Oakland dinners, Imana says, will continue as usual. It’s impossible to fully explain Hi Felicia, or what exactly makes Hi Felicia so fun and so memorable. One key ingredient is confidence — and it works. “I don’t ever think, ‘What’s going to happen if it fails?’” she told me during dinner, while pouring unlabeled sake to go with our tacos. “Instead, I say ‘Well, what if it doesn’t? What if it’s going to be amazing?’”
Hi Felicia Supperclub operates in Oakland on Fridays and Saturdays weekly, unless Imana is out of town. To find out more and reserve a spot, follow Hi Felicia on Instagram.