5526 Martin Luther King Jr Way (at 56th Street), Oakland
Vintage chandeliers that once illuminated Rasputin Records on Telegraph Avenue. Unearthed 1920s murals buried behind decades of wallpaper. Dizzyingly mismatched tiles in the bathroom. Oh, and poulet liver flan crostini with pickled onions and cornichons. The Rendez-Vous, helmed by husband-and-wife team Johnelle Mancha and Brian Hill, is the newest restaurant in Bushrod, and it juxtaposes found items with delicate contemporary French fare.
Mancha, who grew up in Oakland not too far from her new joint, runs an interior design shop and firm, Mignonne Decor, which specializes in blending vintage and contemporary furnishings. She brings that same philosophy to her Martin Luther King Jr. Way restaurant. After a culinary-focused trip to a petit manor in France, her and her husband’s love of the food industry was reignited.
“I told him, ‘Let’s build something beautiful, let’s do something that’s focused on my love of design and our love of travel,’” Mancha said. So the couple picked a spot next door to their studio, christening it the Rendez-Vous.
While remodeling the space, the couple found the building’s history quietly hiding inside the walls. “A lot of happy accidents unveiled themselves while we designed the space,” Mancha said. “We started scraping the walls and we uncovered these old murals that were original to the building.”
After peeling away years of wallpaper, three full frescos, some of them delightfully risqué, and three partial murals revealed themselves. One, a half-naked woman resting against a tree with her brunette locks cascading down her shoulders, sits near the entrance. And another, featuring a woman in a diaphanous skirt (and little else) sits above the full-service bar. These artistic finds — inadvertently hidden away for decades, shielded from a paintbrush’s path — were seemingly waiting to be discovered in another era.
“Had they not ever been wallpapered over, they would have been lost forever,” Mancha said. (Another win for wallpaper’s unsung glory.)
The murals were likely part of a speakeasy during the Prohibition era, Mancha said.
“We know that this space was once a bar called Jacks in the ‘50s, but we hit a roadblock to anything prior to that.” Her design expertise, however, helped her date the frescos, as she recognized that the design on the wallpaper covering them was from the 1930s.
Other resurrections gracing the Rendez-Vous include refinished bar stools and a circa-1800s street lamp fixture, the centerpiece of the bar, that Mancha brought back from the Dordogne region of France. A casually elegant setting of decadent decay (think timeworn walls with some of its weathering left intact) mixed with a back bar of vintage-inspired brass (built by Hill) flanked by copper pendant lamps. “All of our glassware, plates, and silverware are an array I sourced from France and old diners here in the U.S. dating from the 1920s to the 1970s,” she said.
But the star attraction is, of course, the food. Both Hill and Mancha hired chef Nate Berrigan-Dunlop (an Oakland native who counts Pizzaiolo, Starline Social Club and many others on his resume) to create daily menus for the restaurant, which, like the sign on the facade, are all handwritten by Mancha. A selection of recent dishes include beet-cured halibut with pickled watermelon rind ($18), shrimp tartine with calabrian chiles and avocado ($18) or roasted cashews with rosé cherries and serval ($10). A highlight is his stonefruit mignonette, prepared with Kashiwase Farms peaches, for the miyagi oysters (three for $12, six for $24, and one dozen for $48).
In addition to a full bar, the Rendez-Vous wine list is French focused, with offerings ranging from a Domaine de Givaudan côte de rhône ($13 glass, $52 bottle) to a simple Picpoul de Pinet “maison blanche” ($9 glass, $36 bottle). Also of imbibing importance are the cocktails, like a gin or vodka cucumber gimlet ($15) or the Boulevardier with rye, Dubonnet and Campari. And for the more Les États-Unis-minded, you can get Temescal suds (like a PIlsner or Hazy) for no more than $10 a pop.
Seating can be found inside or on the utterly charming back patio, which features an overgrown wall side, seating galore, potted plants and a neon heart bearing Johnelle’s and Brian’s initials.
It’s an experience Mancha and Hill hope will bring back the look and vibe of bistro dining. Of going out on a date night for some choice food. Of relaxing in a patio with a rosé in one hand and a book in the other.
“We’re really trying to welcome people to dining with an old school sensibility,” Mancha said. “We’re not doing a QR code menu or anything like that, instead we’re really trying to show off touches that, I think, are kind of charming and enchanting — a feeling that touched you in a way that now, after the pandemic, feels like something of a lost art.”
Featured image: A Prohibition-era fresco above the Rendez-Vous bar. Credit: The Rendez-Vous