Food is written into the history of Oakland. (There’s good reason why the neighborhood is called Fruitvale.) And, especially in recent years, the city has kept pace with the latest national and regional foodie fashions. In some instances it is leading the pack on culinary trends. But all that trendsetting comes at a cost and, not infrequently, the newest ‘it’ restaurant shutters within months of opening. It can be hard to build up a history as a legacy business in Oakland, which is why it’s all the more impressive that there are records of a few eateries that go back more than one hundred years.
Oakland incorporated as a town in 1852 and as a city in 1854. Unfortunately, city business records only go back to 1869. The records list a single restaurant, the Barnum Restaurant and Oyster Saloon, located on Broadway between Sixth and Seventh streets. The advertisement in the 1869 directory boasts “the Choicest Wines, Liquors and Cigars. Orders for Parties and Dinners executed in desirable style.”
The Barnum was almost certainly not the city’s first restaurant. But the dearth of city records clouds more than just the food scene.
“There are almost no newspapers that date back to the 1850s,” said Donald Hausler, a former librarian at the Oakland Public Library, and a member of the Emeryville Historical Society. “It was a chaotic period with a lot of Americans and foreigners moving into and out of the East Bay.”
Fortunately, record keeping has since improved and today we know of a few Oakland eateries that are nearing, or more than, a century old. (Recently, Oakland’s oldest Mexican restaurant, Mexicali Rose shuttered after 91 years in business.)
But which one is Oakland’s oldest continuously operating restaurant? The answer depends on what you consider to be a restaurant.
Elbridge Fenton opened his dairy Fentons Creamery in 1894 at 41st and Howe streets. The business eventually started making ice cream and, in 1922, it added a soda fountain-restaurant to its operations. In 1961, Fentons discontinued its full dairy operations to focus on ice cream, when it moved to 4226 Piedmont Ave., where it remains today, serving scoops, sundaes and shakes, along with hamburgers and other kid-friendly fare. East Bay diners know Fentons as one of the more venerable family-owned businesses in Oakland, but, though it retains the Fenton name, the Fenton family has not been involved in operations since 1987, when it was purchased by Scott Whidden.
Certainly, a restaurant doesn’t need to be under the same ownership to qualify as the oldest still in operation, and that’s not why we’re discounting it as Oakland’s oldest. Although Fentons was established 124 years ago, it didn’t become an official eatery until 1922. While 96 years in business is nothing to sneeze at, especially considering the number of restaurants that fail within a year, there may be an even older eatery out there.
Giovanni Battista Ratto opened G.B. Ratto & Co., most often referred to as Ratto’s, in 1897. The specialty grocery store, that also offers food, first opened at Sixth and Washington streets as a stall in the Oakland Free Market, which was then part of the city’s bustling commercial district. In 1937, it moved into a classic Victorian-era storefront at 821 Washington St., where it stands today. Ratto’s has been in the same family since founding, passing from father to son to grandson to great-granddaughter. The current owner, Elena Durante Voiron is the fourth generation to take the reins of Ratto’s. Is this then Oakland’s oldest restaurant?
“Technically we’re not a restaurant,” said Durante Voiron. “We’re a delicatessen.”
The OED defines a restaurant as “a place where people pay to sit and eat meals that are cooked and served on the premises.” As a delicatessen, Ratto’s is “a shop selling cooked meats, cheeses and unusual or foreign prepared foods.” But as any visitor would tell you, at Ratto’s, patrons can purchase foods that are cooked and served on the premises to people who have paid to sit and eat.
So in the search for Oakland’s oldest restaurant, it may be a case of tomato to-deli. And while the very oldest of Oakland’s restaurants are long since gone, the oldest surviving building in Oakland, an unnamed one story brick-and-plaster structure from 1857, is today a restaurant.