Talented, friendly staff, a knock-out dinner and a gorgeous Lake Merritt view give the newly minted Lake Chalet a fighting chance to prosper in Downtown Oakland
Photography by Joe Budd
Forget the “We Love Oakland” bumper stickers and even the “I Hella Heart Oakland” T-shirts. On the day a beautifully restored boathouse opened as Lake Chalet Seafood Bar & Grill, Oakland suddenly became the city with this amazing lake right near its downtown. If ever there was a way to convince people of the beauty of Oakland, Lake Chalet is it.
Sure, Lake Merritt has been there all along, and some of us have jogged around it, fed the ducks, even lived nearby. Just the same, it’s not until you’re admiring the view from Lake Chalet’s window-encased Lake Room, jutting out over the water, that the neighborhood hits you with its phenomenal coolness. As daylight recedes, the watery backdrop of the lake is a peaceful canvas spread before you, as lights turn on in the classic apartment buildings across the lake and the ridge of the Oakland hills to the east is silhouetted against the sky. The setting is reminiscent of Lake Michigan’s Chicago shore, while the beautiful-people, ultracosmopolitan crowd that dines at the restaurant heightens the vibe.
Opened in August by the same company that owns the Beach Chalet and Park Chalet in San Francisco—two restaurants better known for their good looks than their food—Lake Chalet drew predictions from food writers that the food would be serviceable. Early visitors to the restaurant seemed to agree.
So, imagine our surprise when a dinner we had there absolutely knocked us out. Sure, brunch, as it turned out, didn’t hold its own, but dinner gave us hope that Lake Chalet might one day prove that a view of the water doesn’t always doom a restaurant to culinary mediocrity.
At dinner, our server was talented, knowledgeable about the menu and wine list, and genuine. We were in a hurry because we were going to Yoshi’s afterward and had encountered trouble parking, but she managed to get us through three courses, with wine, without our feeling rushed. She made good suggestions on what to order and pointed out what sides would be redundant with what came with our entrées. Even with all that—and the place was packed—she found time to bring tastes of some of the more interesting wines when we were deciding which to order, and had the bartender split a glass that we wanted to share.
When we started in on the food, we discovered that the clam chowder had a wonderful seafood flavor, a rarity on this coast, where it is often served too thick, with too few clams and too much cream overpowering those too few clams. A bowl of the chowder served at Lake Chalet would not be disappointing as dinner. Another starter, rich and creamy Burrata with heirloom tomatoes in the peak of their season, moved into contention as something else one could eat for dinner and not be disappointed.
It sounds a little precious to go on about salt, but the Maldon salt—which came in flakes, not crystals—on the heirlooms and Burrata was amazing. Because it’s flakes, it melts on contact with your tongue and releases a pure rush of salt. Kind of like Pop Rocks for adults.
When the entrées arrived, the earthy sweetness of an onion gravy and Beech mushrooms made a killer—and unexpected—foil for medium-rare slices of tuna. The halibut entrée featured beautifully cooked fish as well, but after tasting the huckleberry and red wine sauce, I just couldn’t talk myself into the combination, even though halibut is such a mild fish that it can be served with fruit. A serving of best-ever sweet potato fries hit the mark between perfect crispness and meatiness. Tarragon in an accompanying sauce worked well with the fries’ sweet potato flavor.
For dessert, a house-made cookie served on the raspberry sorbet packed a pure gingery wallop, and tart Granny Smith apples got just the sweetening up they needed from a layer of luscious crisp.
Of course, Lake Chalet’s gorgeous lakeside setting would lend itself to brunch, followed by a gondola ride or stroll around the lake. Unfortunately, the wild mushroom omelet served was inexplicably flavorless, french fries were brittle and greasy, and beignets were oily. A burger had good flavor and an interesting tomato sauce that substituted for ketchup, but other local burgers are better. Lake Chalet also offers a casual menu out on its dock, a fantastic place to be on a sunny day, but those undistinguished burgers and greasy fries are featured fare out there.
Still, Lake Chalet clearly has a lot more going for it than eye appeal. We’re putting our money on the restaurant’s bringing brunch and lunch up to the level of dinner. It’s got to: The neighborhood depends on it.
At a Glance
What Makes it Special: The dramatic redo of the building has captured a retro grandeur, without being too formal. It’s not only a restaurant; it’s an outing.
Don’t miss: The tuna with onion gravy—order it medium rare. Check out the sweet potato fries. Try to order something with Maldon salt. And get a hold of one of those ginger cookies.
The Space: Reddish-blond wood and high-gloss navy paint create a subtle luxury-yacht feel as you enter the restaurant. And the view from the Lake Room is sublime.
Bonus: Well-trained, personable staff.
When to Go: In the early evening, to look out over the lake as the light fades.
HOURS: Brunch, lunch, and dinner daily.
PRICE: Appetizers $8.95–$14.50, entrées $12.95–$24.95.
ALCOHOL: Full bar.