Inside Oakland’s Duchess
From the design, to the drinks, to the menu, this modern Oakland gastropub is a royal treat.
Chelsea Rose Boss
Sitting with the frothy, whiskey-based Everybody Knows cocktail at Duchess’ brass-topped bar, I take in this diverse urban pub filled with couples, foodies, and a young family. The chalkboard charm of the cozy Oakland restaurant exudes simplicity, but it’s as inventive as the colorful Rubik’s Cube turning in a child’s hands at a corner booth. Duchess is an elegant creation of interconnecting parts.
The colorful contributors that comprise this gastropub’s personality—the designers,
two cofounders, the chef, staff, and community—create a meticulous and ever-evolving venture. The details in the decor, fancifully designed menu, and whimsical bar stools reveal themselves slowly. It wasn’t until my third meal here, for instance, that I even noticed the games stacked by the entryway (from whence the Rubik’s Cube came).
Duchess was designed by VerSacrum Design, a local firm that has garnered much acclaim for its trendy restaurant projects, such as San Francisco’s Trick Dog and Oakland’s Shakewell. Handcrafted tables and heavy, fanciful chairs and stools are made from the same deeply grained natural walnut that separates the dining room from the kitchen. A lavender wall with a tulip motif backs the bar, while a white and orange geometric-patterned floor evokes a lively French bistro.
Upstairs, a curved bar made from a single walnut tree–and a prominent window capturing College Avenue’s urban charm through a black crosshatch frame–create an organic yet modern sensibility. There are also trivia games and a projector for movies, making the space seem ideal for private parties, but the community’s wants will ultimately define its use and personality.
While the wine list is compact, the owners are both oenophiles. Chris Strieter cofounded Senses Wines, a small vineyard in Occidental whose wines can be found in elite restaurants like The French Laundry. Caroline Conner, who moved to London in high school, developed a taste for wine while attending University of Oxford and was once named top taster in a blind competition in Cambridge (judged by author and wine expert Hugh Johnson). She later lived in and worked at a famous chateau in Bordeaux, France. When Strieter and Conner became acquainted in San Francisco, they considered opening a wine bar, a modest idea that soon evolved into Duchess—a restaurant that blends the casual drop-in sensibilities of an English country pub with the
elegance of a French bistro. The result is a California original.
This is Matty Lemery’s first head chef gig, but his résumé couldn’t be better suited to the concept. He was most recently sous chef at James Syhabout’s casual The Dock in Oakland, which closed in September. Commis, also in Oakland, has made Syhabout the East Bay’s only Michelin-starred chef, and Lemery says Syhabout’s culinary “precision” and “quiet genius” have influenced Lemery’s own
vision of what elegant simplicity means.
Collaboration, however, is the key word behind Duchess’ elevated comfort food. Our early visits showed tremendous promise. A marvelously aged, seared rib eye arrived with a flourish—a “crust” of crisp coins of Persian cucumber—while a creamy, captivating vegetable curry was complemented by hot and chewy flatbread. Delicate fish and greaseless chips came with house-made pickles and a pink piquant dipping sauce. Small house-made buns sandwiched huge pieces of double-fried chicken and fine slaw; and a brilliant persimmon and beet salad was enlivened with Humboldt Fog blue cheese and an intriguing dressing of brown butter, sherry, and cranberry sauce.
Lemery plans to keep and refine many of the owners’ dishes he inherited, including a 55-hour pastrami sandwich. Try it with a glass of Senses Pinot Noir—its sensual aromas and spicy backbone hold up to the pastrami’s savory smokiness. More seafood dishes, including chorizo with clams and mussels, and hearty entrées like thick pork chops are on the horizon.
Whether by accident or design, the servers at Duchess enhance the restaurant’s casual, eclectic vibe. Unassuming personalities shine, while an overall familial cohesiveness makes the welcoming pub concept feel genuine. It’s pride without pretension, and a friendliness that doesn’t spill into the overly familiar.
With A16 Oakland, Wood Tavern, and Oliveto comprising just a slice of the area’s exceptional restaurants, the Rockridge district draws a sophisticated yet unpretentious crowd. Duchess has both a clear concept and the flexibility to meld into the neighborhood’s distinctive dining culture. The cuisine is consistent and inventive enough to warrant a trip through the tunnel (BART is within walking distance), and the bustling restaurant is on its way to becoming a neighborhood favorite. It’s open all day, offering house-made baked pastries and breakfast dishes like the Duchess scramble (featuring shallots, truffle oil, and bacon), as well as craft cocktails and pub snacks between lunch and dinner.
What kind of clientele will ultimately define Duchess is still a riddle, but Conner hopes it will include kids coming in for birthday-style layer cake and moms coming in for a glass of wine. Like that Rubik’s Cube, the possibilities are endless, but no matter how this gastropub turns out, I know it’s going to be simply elegant.
5422 College Ave., Oakland, (510) 871-3463, duchessoakland.com. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner Tues.–Sun.