When Scott and Emily Goldenberg purchased Caffe 817 in 2011, it was one of their favorite places in Old Oakland. It already had a steady clientele and European-style sidewalk café ambiance, and over time they’ve kept its spirit alive, while integrating fresh, seasonal, and local ingredients into its breakfast menu, as well as its popular lunch service.
Open for breakfast and lunch, the menu is a mixture of homemade dishes of soups, salads, and sandwiches. Caffe 817’s daily order of pastries goes quickly, so arriving early is the best bet to get your first choice. But my favorite item for a late breakfast on a warm Oakland day is their chilled avocado bisque served with a side of lightly buttered multigrain toast.
Whipped to perfection, it’s also the right portion size to leave a diner feeling exactly the right amount of full. According to Scott Goldenberg, it’s pretty simple to replicate his recipe at home.
817 Washington St. (near Eighth Street), Oakland
7:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesday-Friday
8:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday
Closed Sunday and Monday
“It [has] onions and garlic that I slowly sweated down in butter, a little splash of chicken stock, and a squeeze of lemon,” he said. “You could just puree it with your hand.” (Keep in mind that Goldenberg is a culinary school graduate and former Zuni Café sous chef, so his hand pureeing skills might be a bit above average.)
Menu inspiration at Caffe 817 comes from all over. But, of course, having a weekly farmers market right at the restaurant’s doorstop doesn’t hurt. “It’s not so much about layering [flavors] but more of addition through subtraction, letting the flavors shine. Nice, clean, and simple flavors,” Goldenberg said.
For example, Caffe 817’s Parisian classic ham sandwich comes on a buttered herb baguette with cornichons. Its pan bagnat is made with tuna, slathered with olive oil, anchovies, egg, and peppers pressed to meld the flavors. Goldenberg suggests tackling the sandwich with a fork and knife.
Keeping things deceptively simple is the key to their success, Goldenberg said, as “people took to and enjoyed the homemade aspect of the food they were getting.”
You can see that simplicity in dishes like Caffe 817’s savory, creamy polenta topped with grated parmesan. For those who want to give their flavor receptors a punch, there is also sweet and spicy polenta topped with honey and Calabrian chili. Every element in a menu item like that one is thoroughly thought out.
“To develop a dish, it starts with some foundation of what will be the dish’s star ingredient, then what will complement,” Goldenberg said. “What’s going to be a supporting role?”
Even the salads are planned and composed. “I wanted something healthy and fresh tasting for the chickpea lentil salad,” Goldenberg said, giving an example of what goes into a Caffe 817 dish. “Fresh herbs as a salad is really a way to counteract the base note of lentils and chickpeas. Then, the sundried tomatoes, a little squeeze of lemon, and you have a really fresh salad that’s heart healthy and nutritious but has a lot of flavors.”
To drink, there’s a robust variety of beer and French and Italian old world wine, ranging from rosé, to more solid, structured wines for people who want a juicy red. The same for beers. You go from pilsner to stout and everything in between. A rainbow, if you will, of light to dark.
The menu also includes items from local spots like Starter Bakery and Boichik Bagels, and Mr. Espresso’s oakwood roasted coffee is in the pot. “We like the community feel of dealing with local merchants,” Goldenberg said. “They all do really high-quality kind of work”
The biggest shakeup on the menu happened after the restaurant closed for nine months during the pandemic. An understanding landlord made the temporary closure tenable, and regular customers came back as soon as they reopened. Still, there have been some adjustments.
“We used to make corned beef and don’t do as much baking” as they used to, Goldenberg said.
“We get people coming in from three years ago saying, ‘I thought you guys had this.'” It was hard for us, especially when you’re seen as ‘this is the spot that I go to for x.’ It’s been our biggest challenge.”
“The day we started putting our cappuccinos and coffees back in mugs, and food on plates … then I saw people like, ‘Oh, things are getting a little back to normal. I can go, sit outside, and feel safe and comfortable,'” Goldenberg said.
The community vibe at Caffe 817 is something Goldenberg wants to continue to build on and cultivate. So, last month, he launched a Saturday afternoon live music program. From noon to 2:00, you can stop by and listen to local musicians, and with Washington Street closed to through traffic, the entire block has become a public square where people can sit in the sun and enjoy the tunes. According to Goldenberg, he has musicians booked every weekend through October.
“I’m trying to make it feel like a place where people can restore and reset. The biggest compliment I could ever hear someone say is, ‘Oh, let me take you to my café, Caffe 817.'”
Featured image: Caffe 817’s vegetarian mini quiche and homemade hot sauce — its hot sauce, preserves and jam are all for sale on site. Credit: Tamara Sherman