The story: Penrose restaurant makes a grand statement in Oakland’s Grand Lake neighborhood, with its imposing open kitchen design and spacious communal dining room that feels like it’s spilling out onto Grand Avenue. The third restaurant from Charlie Hallowell (it’s across the street from his pizza restaurant Boot and Shoe Service), Penrose feeds on the trend of open-fire kitchens where the food is cooked over an open flame.
Why I went: I’ve been dying to try the place since it opened a year ago, but like any new restaurant it was bombarded by curious diners in the first few months and the no-reservations policy made hour-plus waits commonplace. But now the restaurant takes reservation, and I was able to stroll in with my friend Jessica, who tried Penrose early on and raved about the decor and drinks.
The vibe: The exposed bricks and large windows facing Grand Avenue gave the restaurant a stripped-down feel, matching the casual and rustic vibe. There’s a slight hipster feel with the young crowd and skinny jeans, but the crowds have died down and Penrose now has a comfortable and intimate feel.
The menu: Broken into only four sections (vegetables, fish, meat and bread/sides), I found the menu quite limiting. There were about four or five items per category, but several had prices on polar ends. Like the fish section that on this night offered up six raw oysters for $18 and then a whole trout (for two) for $45. What this means is if you’re not interested in the lower-priced dish, you end up feeling pressured to order the pricier items. The menu changes daily and emphasizes seasonal ingredients with a natural and simplified approach to cooking, similar to Chez Panisse (where Hallowell got his start) and Camino down the street (which is also owned by another Chez Panisse alum). Unlike Hallowell’s first two restaurants Pizzaiolo and Boot and Shoe Service, Penrose does not offer pizza.
The booze: The bar has a diverse menu, ranging from creative specialty cocktails to wine and beer by the glass. I arrived early and sat at the friendly bar, where the bartender was great in making recommendations and efficiently handling the transfer of my bill to my dinner reservations. I started with a perfectly mixed White Stag ($11) made of terroir gin, mezcal, vermouth blanc, lime, celery gomme and absinthe. The refresh and complex drink was served nicely in a frozen glass. For dinner, it was a contrasting experience when I ordered the cava (Spanish sparkling wine) for $9.50 and it was unfortunately served in a wine glass, which made me feel the bubbles flattened quickly because of the open shape of the glass.
My favorite dish: I love plates that look good and taste good, and that was the case with the gulf white shrimp a la plancha with avocado, guava vinaigrette and watermelon radishes ($22). Another favorite of the table was the flatbread ($12) served with three types of dipping sauces (tahini yogurt, charmoula and harissa). The flatbread with za’atar was warm with a nice sprinkling of finishing salt.
Insider tip: Beware of the electronics police. You might not see the fine print, but the menu states “please, no electronic devices at the table.” I understand it’s their restaurant and they can do whatever they want, but they lost out on me Instagramming their beautiful dishes.
The last bite: After waiting a year, I enjoyed the experience. Penrose is a handsome, impressive space and the cocktail program is first rate. But the limited menu, small portion size and high prices for some plates (a 14 oz. ribeye was selling for $50), makes Penrose a cautious experience where it’s probably a good first stop for a drink and a couple of plates before going somewhere else for a more satisfying dinner.
The rating: 2.5 out of 4 camera snaps
The deets: 3311 Grand Ave., Oakland. PH: 510.444.1649. Open daily for dinner from 5:30 to 10 p.m. (till 10:30 p.m. on Friday and Saturday). Reservations, major credit cards accepted. penroseoakland.com
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