Of the surprising restaurant closures spurred by the pandemic, Miss Ollie’s — chef-owner Sarah Kirnon’s influential Afro-Caribbean spot in Swan’s Market — was the most unwittingly bittersweet.
It’s difficult to overstate the importance of Miss Ollie’s, named in honor of Kirnon’s Barbadian grandmother. Since opening in 2012, Kirnon’s restaurant was a fixture on best-of lists from critics and customers (which don’t always agree), with fiery food made from high-quality ingredients set at accessible prices. In addition, its space served as a critical space for Oakland’s Black, Brown, and queer communities.
After a phenomenal decade-long run, Miss Ollie’s closed in March of this year. But that didn’t stop Kirnon (whose pronouns are they/them). After the end of their brick-and-mortar stint, Kirnon opened Holder’s House, named after the 17th century plantation Holder’s House in Barbados, inside the Forage Kitchen events space. It’s a pared-down affair that has flown under the radar since it opened — and that’s by design.
“We’re trying to change the tone of dining,” Kirnon said. “Everybody’s like, what are your hours? Where’s your website? What kind of marketing are you doing? And I really want to leave this to sort of word of mouth.”
Noting the grueling hours and effort anyone in this industry faces (look no further than Hulu’s The Bear to see a glimpse at the profound spiritual and physical exhaustion restaurant workers face daily), Kirnon aims for a slower, and thus healthier, pace.
“The big difference between Miss Ollie’s and Holder’s House is pretty much me cooking on my own,” Kirnon said. “It’s my love letter to Oakland.”
Modestly describing Holder’s House as “a pop-up, basically,” Kirnon notes that their new effort is streamlined for simplicity. Around four or five menu items, which you can find via Holder’s House’s Instagram page, are available daily. Or not, should Kirnon decide to take a day off. Hours are 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. — or whenever they sell out, which is usually a given.
A smattering of Holder’s House offerings over the last month include saltfish and ackee; oxtail; berbere-spiced black eyed peas; crispy fried cauliflower; and skillet donuts dusted in powdered sugar, sprinkled with nutmeg and smoked salt, and crowned with a cumulus of whipped cream. And, yes — Kirnon’s fried chicken from Miss Ollie’s, described by KQED’s Luke Tsai as “the best damn skillet-fried chicken in all the land,” mercifully remains a Holder’s House mainstay.
As far as decor, it too is minimal. “One of the things I learned coming out of the pandemic is to do away with spending a lot of money on decor and promotion,” Kirnon said, “especially right now when inflation is ridiculous and we’re in an economic crisis, we’re trying to keep it as low-brow as possible.”
Customers will be greeted by spice jars and a budding collection of art on the walls care of their artist friends, which is more than enough to personalize the space. Holder’s House also uses compostable utensils and plates, and small sheet trays are used to deliver food. “We’re really trying to keep it so that we’re able to give a great product to our clients while not running into financial misfortune,” Kirnon said.
In addition to Holder’s House, Kirnon still takes on catering gigs in which they serve dishes from the Miss Ollie’s menu. In addition, they’ve opened their long-promised nonprofit, Sanctuary, which they run with with co-director Miles Dotson. The consulting firm and design outfit works with the community to help better build spaces for Black and Brown communities by leveraging the Bay Area’s skyrocking commercial vacancy rate, and has already built an urban farm in Alameda and partnered with amenable landlords to get storefronts up and running. “Folks that don’t have the capacity to sign a five- or ten-year lease are now able to have visual spaces in downtown Oakland and in San Francisco,” Kirnon said of the work Sanctuary has done thus far.
Sanctuary’s ultimate goal is to help roll back the toll gentrification has taken to people in Oakland, Kirnon said, and Holder’s House is just one piece of that puzzle.
“We’re trying to rebuild and undo some of the work that has been brewing in Oakland,” Kirnon said, pointing to the onslaught of mega chains, like Target and Lululemon, that have steamrolled into the Broadway corridor as of late. Those glossy businesses “are not marketed toward working-class people, people of color or single parents,” Kirnon said.
“These are not the stores that reflect who we are as a town, so we’re trying to have folks still support people who are making music, roasting coffee – just a multitude of things that need representation.”