It’s not easy to stay current in the fast-changing restaurant industry.
The East Bay is littered with once-popular dining destinations that failed to evolve and, as a result, faded slowly into irrelevance and closure. Dona Savitsky was determined not to let that happen to Doña Tomás—her pioneering elevated Mexican restaurant on Telegraph Avenue in Oakland’s Temescal district, renowned for its melt-in-your-mouth carnitas, creamy-cheesy chili rellenos, and heavy-on-the-tequila margaritas.
"We were doing fine, but we’d been there for 20 years, and sales were slower. Business was stagnant, while costs were accelerating," Savitsky says, citing industry-wide challenges such as labor shortages, the rising minimum wage, and a trend toward casual dining.
It became increasingly apparent that if Doña Tomás was going to survive, Savitsky needed to transition to order-at-the-counter, fast-casual service. "It’s the only way to go, as I see it," she says. "There’s still room for full service, but not for me and not for [the Doña brand]."
So, she took a gamble, not only changing the service model and streamlining the menu but doing so in a brand-new location. Late last year, Savitsky pulled up stakes, moving out of her longtime culinary home, a cozy brick building with a charming back patio abutting Temescal Alley, and into a contemporary new space on the ground floor of the ambitious-but-failed Chow project on Piedmont Avenue. She also shortened her business name, calling it, simply, Doña. It was a tough but calculated decision.
"I knew if we rebranded and stayed in the current space, people would be really disappointed and compare it to the old way. Full service is just different," she says. "By moving to a new place, it allowed us to have a fresh start—to revamp the menu, have a new look, and create a transformation that could gather more excitement. … I loved Temescal; I miss that patio and our neighbors. But psychically and physically, I think we needed the change."
As with any big transition, there are tradeoffs. Compared to the Telegraph spot, which exuded the comfort and ease of a broken-in leather shoe, the new location is a little cold and a lot cacophonous. (Those hip exposed ceilings and open floor plans do have their drawbacks.) During peak hours, ordering at the counter leads to long queues that bottleneck between the bar and the street-side window seating. And let’s face it: There’s just something more intimate about sit-down service that is unavoidably lost in translation.
The benefits, however, are undeniable. The new venue’s beautiful horseshoe bar—where you can get everything from a Negra Modelo, margarita, or agua fresca to nachos, Baja-style fish tacos, or a burrito bowl—serves as a central hub that energizes the entire light-filled restaurant. Cutting out wait service results in lower prices—for example, enchiladas that once cost upward of $20 now hover in the $10 to $12 range (albeit without the accompaniment of beans and rice). The à la carte–focused menu is more flexible, allowing diners to mix and match smaller and larger items, and customize toppings and sides into tacos, burritos, and bowls. Large windows and ample patio seating should also make Doña a lively hangout in warmer months, while the nearby Kaiser medical complex supplies the necessary foot traffic to support breakfast, lunch, and dinner service daily.
Most importantly, the food is still made-from-scratch delicious—and accessible. Perhaps unfairly, Doña Tomás tended to be lumped into the same category as newer East Bay operations like Comal and Nido. That’s not quite right. Particularly with its streamlined, lunch-friendly menu, Doña serves dishes that are less refined and more straightforward crowd-pleasers. The shredded-chicken enchiladas ooze with melted cheese; they come wrapped in house-made corn tortillas and drenched in real-deal mole steeped with rich flavor courtesy of dry-roasted tomatoes, Mexican chilies, and nuts, plus onions, garlic, cloves, and Mexican chocolate. I’m not sure exactly what goes into the cheese sauce, but I do know that it’s delightful—a slightly more grown-up version of the Super Bowl dip staple with pickled Fresno chilies providing a boost of heat to the addictively luscious queso. You can get it as a side with homemade chips or loaded onto nachos with pinto beans, salsa, and crema.
Savitsky sees her new eatery’s food as inching toward the California end of the Mexican spectrum, and her ensalada cesar is a nice example. The extra-zesty spin on Caesar salad features crisp, crunchy, colorful (and on my January visit, seasonal) chicories that lend an interesting, slightly bitter accent to the lemon-, garlic-, and anchovy-packed dressing; herb-loaded homemade croutons; and ample shredded parmesan (this place is not afraid of cheese).
Omnivorous diners have the option to bulk up the salad by adding meat, which I absolutely encourage, as it is one of the restaurant’s strengths. Doña Tomás’s famed carnitas made a smooth transition to Doña, where the oregano-rubbed pork slow-cooked in its own fat remains meltingly tender, savory, and fantastic. Even better was the barbacoa—tender beef browned and then braised in a mixture of tomatoes, Oaxacan chilies, onions, spices, and cola that lends intoxicating notes of smoke, char, spice, and tang. Tacos provide a good vehicle for sampling all half-dozen fillings, including a flavorful and satisfying vegetarian alternative of butternut squash and kale.
The new Doña now offers a little something for everyone. Maybe it’s no longer my first choice for an intimate date night with my wife, but it’s a perfect weekday option for early dinner with the kids. I’ll miss the charm (and chilaquiles) of weekend brunch on the patio, but I can now drop by any morning for a coconut horchata iced coffee, Mexican hot chocolate, or spiced café de olla to go along with the newly unveiled breakfast pastries. Or I can grab a weekday lunch of sopa de lima or a burrito to go. Or kick off the weekend with a mezcal margarita and carnitas taco.
The food and drinks at Doña are just as delicious as at Doña Tomás—and there are now more ways than ever to enjoy them. Seems like a change for the better. donaoakland.com.