At 10:30 on a Tuesday morning, tractor-trailers from the port barrel down Mandela Parkway, a recently landscaped four-lane avenue in West Oakland, California, flanked by windowless brick and concrete warehouses. The sidewalks are almost empty except near one intersection, where a dozen people are lined up, waiting patiently for one of the 36 seats and 14 bar stools at the soul food restaurant Brown Sugar Kitchen. Behind the diner-style counter, chef Tanya Holland ladles batter onto a waffle iron for airy, yeasty, cornmeal waffles to serve with tarragon-laced buttermilk fried chicken. The classic combination was allegedly created for jazz musicians who got off work so late, they couldn't decide between breakfast and dinner. Today Holland's signature dish draws an eclectic crowd from the neighborhood and beyond: art school students and elderly couples, graphic designers from nearby Pixar Animation Studios, and electric company workers still in their safety vests.
Before Brown Sugar Kitchen opened four years ago, West Oakland didn't have a destination restaurant nor a convivial gathering place for the community. In its heyday in the early 1900s, the neighborhood was one of the few places where Bay Area African-Americans could buy property, so shipyard workers and train porters populated the area. But thanks to discrimination and poor zoning, freeways and housing projects began to crowd out their stately Victorian homes. Over the decades, poverty, crime, and acute racial tension took their toll. "It reminded me of New York in the 1980s, when you didn't know anyone who hadn't been mugged," says Holland, 46, who moved here in 2005 with her husband, Phil Surkis. Recently, though, West Oakland has been showing signs of a revival, in part because Brown Sugar Kitchen draws more than 1,800 customers a week.
Just a few years ago, Holland says, "I did not see myself as a neighborhood pioneer." Growing up in the suburbs of Rochester, New York, she was exposed to a wide range of cultures and cuisines. In addition to fried chicken and cornbread, her Southern-born parents made dishes like matzo ball soup and chicken cacciatore in a cooking club with six other couples, three black and three white. "They helped me see that bringing people together over food was a way to break down barriers," Holland says, "and all that experimentation left me open-minded about trying new flavors."
Next: Holland's detour—and her calling