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Flora

Downtown Oakland is in full bloom these days, with Flora as its loveliest flower.


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Photography by Caren Alpert

When you walk into Flora, you feel as if you’ve entered a stage set. The scene? A 1930s speakeasy where windows are frosted, bartenders are clad in crisp white shirts and thick black suspenders, and bright lights make women look luminous.

In one sense, it’s hard to believe that the restaurant, with its retro American menu, is the brainchild of Dona Savitsky and Thomas Schnetz, the owners of two Mexican eateries, Doña Tomás and Tacubaya. How did they go from carnitas to crab Louis? But in another sense, it’s entirely logical. Savitsky and Schnetz met 16 years ago, when they were both washing lettuce and making pasta at Square One in San Francisco. They understand good, scratch-made food regardless of the cuisine.

“We always wanted to open a little bar,” says Savitsky, a brunette whose bright eyes flash when she talks about Flora. “At first we thought, ‘How fun. A bar where we don’t have to do food.’ But, it’s hard to get a license to sell only liquor, and we both know food.”

Fish and ChipsThe retro bar complete with a retro barman
The deco absinthe dispenser.Divine donuts

In fact, it’s the presence of a fully functioning professional kitchen that sets Flora apart from so many of the Prohibition era–inspired cocktail bars that have sprung up over the last several years. Jason Moniz, a Hawaiian-born chef who has cooked at San Francisco’s Tres Agaves, heads up the kitchen and, with input from Schnetz and Savitsky, composes its menu, which changes about every six weeks.

Cocktails at Flora are powerful concoctions, and without the stabilizing force of a meal (or even with it), you might need a driver to take you home. The list of drinks is dazzling. You’ll find the French 75 from Harry’s New York Bar in Paris, and the Last Word from the Detroit Athletic Club. The Creole is made with Bulleit Bourbon, Cointreau, absinthe, and Angostura and Peychaud’s bitters. It’s sharp and hot in spite of its chilled glass, and its citrus-spice aroma lingers like mist on your palate.

Syrups and bitters at Flora are often house-made, and spirits are well sourced—the absinthe is from St. George Spirits in Alameda, for instance. Cocktails are served in glassware of the same style used when the drinks were first conceived, including curvaceous coupes from Italy and angular but delicate stems. Even the ice cubes—large blocks—are true to the era.

That’s what I think is fun,” says Schnetz. “Every detail is thought of.” Savitsky adds: “We wanted to create an art deco feeling so strong that you’re not quite sure if it’s new or old.”

The dining room, with its leaf-print wallpaper, wraparound bar, and sumptuous deco lamps, could be from a bygone era—although the interior was all designed and built for Flora—but the menu has some dishes that sing loudly of today: a restrained yet bold kampachi crudo with thinly sliced cucumber, and scallops browned in butter, placed over disks of roasted red beet.

A scrumptious entrée of roasted cauliflower atop pine nut–parmesan risotto and brilliant green, olive oil–kissed sautéed chard is completed with a fiery cayenne pepper–spiked Moroccan charmoula. It’s a dish that would have been unrecognizable in the ’30s but resonates deeply with today’s East Bay veggie lovers.

At the same time, several of Flora’s dishes are classics. The hamburger, which chef Moniz grinds on site from Niman Ranch chuck and blends with caramelized onions before grilling, is a gourmet version of the ultimate American treat. When you bite into the crisp, meaty french fries that come with the burger, you realize you’ve been eating frozen ones everywhere else.

At brunch, which is available only on Saturdays but merits a separate trip, perfectly made hot doughnuts—baby ones—come dusted in powdered, plain granulated, or cinnamon sugar. House-made olallieberry preserves and chocolate sauce are served alongside. Amid the doughnuts, the courteous service, and an elegant silver pot of sweet, dark Blue Bottle Coffee, the present eclipses the past. It’s the kind of delightful entertainment that will have you returning again and again to see the curtain go up at Flora.

At a glance

What makes it special: Drop-dead classic cocktails with American gourmet cuisine to match.

The space: A former flower depot that sold buds of a different sort in its last incarnatin as a medical marijuana dispensary. The 1932 building still boasts its original deco exterior.

When to go: At lunch for a burger, at night for cocktails and dinner, and Saturday brunch for doughnuts.

Don't miss: The heavenly crisp fish and chips, and dessert. Pastry chef Nichole Dezek makes an unforgettable sea salt-caramel pudding.

Pleasant surprise: Service that's gracious under pressure.

Bonus: Cocktails worth their price.

Contact: 1900 Telegraph Ave., Oakland, (510) 286-0100.

Hours: Lunch Tues.–Fri., dinner Tues.–Sat., brunch Sat.

Price: Appetizers $7–$14, entrées $14–$26.

Alcohol: Full bar. 

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