5655 College Ave. (in the Market Hall building), Oakland
Longtime patrons of Oliveto, the 35-year-old Oakland Italian spot that closed with great fanfare at the end of last year, got a surprising message in their inboxes in recent days.
“OK, it’s not actually over,” the email began. According to the message, the restaurant’s cafe operation quietly reopened last week, an unexpected coda for a restaurant that seemingly ended its run with a multi-month celebration. Before you get comfortable though, be warned: This post-credits scene is a limited-time-only reprieve, as a new owner for the business is likely in the works.
“We’re in this world of pivots now,” co-owner Bob Klein told Nosh about the surprise reopening. “Everything is true until tomorrow. And then you pivot.”
Oliveto’s epilogue, which was first reported by the SF Chronicle, wasn’t something Klein had planned on, he said. The restaurant was jam-packed during its final two months, after its closure was announced last November, Klein said, “and we were proud because the food we were doing was good.”
But those last months were “painful,” too, Klein said. “Nobody could get through to us” to make reservations, as “we didn’t have the staff to answer the phone.”
The restaurant had promised a number of the special dinners they were known for, including an oceanic dinner of curated sustainable fish, and a truffle celebration. Those did all happen before the restaurant’s ostensible last day, but “my staff begged me not to publicize them” because the volume of phone calls the dinners typically prompt would have been unmanageable, Klein said.
Klein had planned on a grand exit on New Year’s Eve, but “four days prior to our finale, I come down with [COVID] symptoms,” Klein said. While his bout with COVID-19 was a minor one, he wasn’t able to be in the crowded dining room for Oliveto’s last days, as diners and staff celebrated while he remained isolated at home. “How about that for a sad story?” Klein asked.
But still, the place had had a good run, so that was it. Or so he thought.
“We hadn’t been looking for a buyer,” Klein said, “but then we were contacted by a significant restaurateur.” Now, Klein won’t say who this prospective buyer is (Nosh has heard rumors, and tips are always welcome), but seemed clearly excited about the potential for this new, mysterious chef to come take over Oliveto’s dining room.
That also meant a change in plans; for the sale to move forward, Oliveto still needed to be in possession of the space. That means rent, insurance and other costs still need to be paid. So why not just open back up for a little bit, until the sale negotiations are complete?
“Here’s the ideal situation,” Klein said. “We would keep going, the deal would be made, plans would be drawn and permits would be filed. Remodeling would be done incrementally” — remember, this is a two-in-one restaurant with an upstairs operation and a downstairs cafe, so this idea isn’t as wild as it seems — “so closures would be incremental. Then we’d close and the new guy would open.”
If all that works out, that would be pretty amazing. Does he think it will? “If not, we’re ready to pivot again,” Klein said.
Klein also makes clear that he sees this Oliveto addendum as a chance to explore something that had just gotten interesting. He said that as the business started winding down, “the cafe food got really good.” But hasn’t it always been good? Yes, but they really started nailing the duck, as we have a fish dish you wouldn’t believe. They really figured it out.”
That’s why the revived Oliveto will feature a menu from its cafe, led by chef Juan Guevara. Peter Jackson, the chef who guided the upstairs dining room through its final months, remains on as a consultant but isn’t involved in the day-to-day.
Guevara “is just so steady, he’s a really good chef,” Klein said. He was a longtime cook at the cafe, and in fact, “we were able to hang on to all our cooks,” Klein said.
And all this will continue until the deal is done and Oliveto is well and truly ready to make way for its successor. When pressed, Klein would finally say this about the prospective buyer:
“Whoever it is, is focusing on who we are and who our neighborhood is, and they’re planning a food style that is consistent with a really amazing, knowledgeable food customer.”
Well, that’s vague enough that it leaves room for plenty of worry, Bob. “Look, part of being a beloved place for this long means you carry a lot of dust,” Klein said. “Who wants to have fun in a monument? I’ve always focused on fresh ideas, so when somebody new comes in … I think the world is moving, everybody is moving, and that’s good.”
As of publication time, Oliveto is open from 11:30 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday, for lunch and dinner. Dinner reservations must be made through OpenTable, and lunch is walk-in service only. The cafe lunch menu of sandwiches and salads is relatively unchanged, while the dinner menu has some alterations.