On a recent sunny Saturday morning at Boot & Shoe Service, I arrived at the Grand Avenue restaurant around 10:30 a.m. with the following intentions: to finish one of two books in hand while sampling the café’s breakfast offerings.

I was not disappointed in either pursuit. My praise for Boot & Shoe’s pastries begins where my meal ended, steps outside the restaurant with a house-made herb and cheese scone that I ordered to-go (in name only — I didn’t go very far). Its crust was irresistible, well-defined by butter and flour, with a kick reminiscent of pimento and a center that crumbled like the best Southern biscuits.

The other breakfast items, which I enjoyed inside the restaurant, were equally satisfying. The wholegrain toast, brimming with sunflower, poppy and sesame seeds, was sufficiently dense to hold up against the still-glistening pats of butter spread evenly on the surface. When paired with a bright marmalade, tart and cherry red, this simple farmer’s breakfast felt at once luxurious and guiltless. I added a soft boiled egg, drizzled with olive oil and fleur de sel that formed an impromptu accouterment to my toast. I saw others savoring their bread with hearty slices of avocado — the portion seemed to compensate for its $7 price tag.

The housemade seeded toast with a soft boiled egg
The house-made seeded toast with a soft boiled egg at Boot & Shoe Service in Oakland. Photo: Boot & Shoe Service

I also finished my nonfiction. For months, I’d been reading Heat, Bill Buford’s account of his experience working in Mario Batali’s three-star restaurant, Babbo, in 2002, following Buford’s leave from The New Yorker. The read could be considered appropriate, albeit unplanned: in December 2017, Batali was reported to face inappropriate touching allegations from four women. The same month, 17 women came forward with allegations of sexual harassment by Charlie Hallowell, Boot & Shoe’s prior chef-owner. At the time, Hallowell owned two other celebrated Bay Area restaurants: Penrose (soon to be Almond & Oak) and Pizzaiolo. Within months, 31 women had accused Hallowell of sexual misconduct.

After the allegations against Hallowell surfaced, Jen Cremer, who was then helping manage Pizzaiolo, considered purchasing Boot & Shoe with her husband, Richard Clark. In part, she sensed a need in the area for a place people could work and dine. Cremer and Clark had long contemplated owning their own establishment, each possessing extensive experience in Bay Area restaurants. Clark, for instance, helped open Tartine Manufactory in San Francisco and managed The Trappist in Oakland. They approached Hallowell about selling Boot & Shoe, and officially took over the restaurant in August 2018. Soon after, they brought on head chef, Martin Salata. Together, they’ve sought to cultivate, as Clark describes, a “homey, casual neighborhood service” that is still “technically precise and accurate.”

That Saturday morning, having lost myself in Heat, I inadvertently overstayed the café’s closure by a full hour. Upon realizing this, I apologized to the woman who helped craft my Americano, who I later learned was Cremer. Warmly, she responded that I could “hang out” until 3 p.m., when dinner prep began in earnest. Salata echoed the invitation minutes later, as he lit the restaurant’s wood-fired oven. I couldn’t resist the opportunity to stay, watching the cooks filter in as Salata discussed that night’s pappardelle and white guava. I learned that this invitation wasn’t coincidence, but indicative of the restaurant’s open, friendly ethos.

“I really wanted to create an environment for the staff, both the front and the back of house, that was warm and that was welcoming,” Salata said. His vision for the restaurant coheres with the features of the industry that he initially appreciated; namely, its camaraderie and familial aspects. In that regard, Salata was “introduced” to what food and hospitality could be early in his career while working at Alice Waters’ beloved Café Fanny. After that, he accepted a position at Pizzaiolo, where he met Cremer; he left Pizzaiolo to work in the private sector.

Cremer and Clark agreed with Salata’s vision, and were encouraged that the chef shared their “number one priority of making a space that was great for both guests and staff,” Cremer said. Clark echoed this sentiment, “For everybody to be respectful to each other and to get along is necessary.” But, as Clark underscores, this isn’t something that occurs naturally, so the Boot & Shoe team actively pursues its vision through careful hiring, training and leading by example.

The restaurant’s daily menu meeting embodies one instance of these efforts. During the meeting, Salata offers his thoughts on recipes and invites discussion and questions from the staff. Cremer says Salata is exceptionally “open and accepting.” Salata credits the restaurant’s leadership team, which includes bar manager, Alex Phillips, and sous chef, Justin Wright, as being “on the same page.”

Boot & Shoe’s dinner service underscores the team’s care and cohesion. And it delivers on Salata’s philosophy that the restaurant be a “neighborhood place,” with a twist.

“I want there to be something for everyone, but I want to present that in ways that people might not exactly expect,” Salata said. The menu, which juxtaposes minimalist visual presentation with bold and complex flavors, showcases his playful style and the team’s talent.

The neighborhood is no doubt taking notice. On a recent Wednesday evening, Boot & Shoe’s warmly lit dining room was full of families, groups of friends and intimate duos. As Cremer, who leads the front of house with Clark, guided us to our table, a birthday cake was passed at one of the restaurant’s communal tables.

Mint bucatini at Boot & Shoe Service
Mint bucatini at Boot & Shoe Service. Photo: Boot & Shoe Service

Our mint bucatini arrived first, the noodles, spring green and al dente, rivaled the dish’s peas. At our server’s recommendation, we tried the chicory salad, laden with candy-like dates balanced by a savory pecorino. Our pizza, topped with tomato, in-season green garlic and anchovies, arrived next. The dough was so light and flavorful that we didn’t miss the cheese; we savored the crust’s simplicity instead.

Though I could claim it was the Party Lights (my refreshing and effervescent tequila-based cocktail), I beamed at our lingcod at first sight. It peeked out from under delicate, canary-yellow flowers and yuzu shavings, aside tabbouleh with parsley and asparagus. The meal was so warming we indulged in both the rhubarb sorbet and the rye cake for dessert. In parting, our server handed us a scrawled list of shops to find our favorite Amaro, which we mentioned was hard to come by earlier in the meal. As we left Boot & Shoe, I felt the same sensation that struck me the prior Saturday — I was welcome to stay.

Boot & Shoe Service has more surprises in store, with community top of mind. This weekend, starting on Saturday, May 11, the restaurant will introduce its weekend brunch service, and it also now offers housemade bread for takeaway during morning and evening hours. In July, it plans to host a dinner in partnership with East Bay Eats to raise money for East Point Peace Academy, an Oakland-based organization that specializes in conflict resolution methods.

“I think people are excited. I think people feel our excitement, and our staff’s excitement about what’s happening here,” Salata said.

We, the locals, couldn’t agree more.

Boot & Shoe Service is open 5:30-10 p.m., Tuesday through Thursday; 5:30-10:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 5:30-9:30 p.m., Sunday. The café is open Tuesday through Sunday from 8 a.m. to noon; brunch hours are 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., Saturday and Sunday.  

Kathryn Bowen

Kathryn Bowen is an Oakland-based writer with a background in law and food policy.