Kingston 11 is the perfect place for a party. Take one step into the expansive, friendly dining room of this new Jamaican restaurant in Uptown Oakland, and you’ll feel the warmth, the friendliness, and the smiles emanating from both diners and servers. The food that graces the tables is fun and deeply satisfying. Drinks are generous, and cheap to boot.
On a recent weeknight, there were at least three parties already in full swing. Tables of friends laughed over rounds of cocktails and bowls of hearty meat stews. Smaller groups of two and four were also peppered throughout the room, leaning closely to hear each other over the jovial din that encompassed the space.
Our own small two-top had its own aura of celebration. Upon a first sip of the popular rum punch, my companion proclaimed, “This tastes like a party.” Indeed, the potent tipple of fruit juice and over-proof Jamaican Wray & Nephew rum was like a dressed-up variant of the infamous jungle juice of countless college parties. The dressiness suits the punch, though; Kingston 11’s was infinitely more drinkable than that “juice” in red cups.
Dressier still is their Fern Gully cocktail. In it, mild vanilla-y Angostura white rum meets warming cardamom syrup, herbaceous Gran Classico, and bright lemon juice for a fragrant twist on a rum sour. There are many other colorful drinks from which to choose, all of which are fairly sweet, and cost $10 or less.
Or skip the cocktails altogether and go straight for the rum — they’ve got a bottle or two of anything you could think of.
Kingston 11 also boasts a short wine and beer list, and stocks a few homemade and Jamaican sodas (ginger beer, sorrel soda, “Mexican” coke, and Ting grapefruit soda) for teetotalers.
The restaurant is named for the childhood neighborhood of owner Nigel Jones. This area of Kingston, Jamaica is next door to the musical capital of the country, and the area’s reggae influence on Jones is clear. Bob Marley graces each of the three televisions, and his music pulses through the space. Kingston 11 hosts reggae music nights as well. On Valentine’s Day they held a performance by local artist Kimiko Joy.
Jones and his partners, Adrian Henderson and Andre King, started Kingston 11 as a pop-up at Guerilla Café in Berkeley three years ago, but Jones’s recipes were in development long before selling to the public. He learned to cook at the foot of his grandmother, serving friends and family home-style Jamaican dishes. As is the case with most good food, the word spread, and soon Jones was on his way to owning a business. The brick-and-mortar restaurant opened this past November.
Those recipes Jones learned? They’re smile-worthy. Kingston 11’s menu is not as refined as Oakland’s other Caribbean stalwart, Miss Ollie’s, but its content is no less heart-warming.
Salt fish fritters are a fine place to start: a golden and crisp exterior surrounds a fluffy, expertly seasoned fish mousse within. Dip them in the bright, tangy chimichurri alongside for the perfect bite. The other appetizers and small plates lean towards starchy and fried; a green salad and side of sautéed spicy green beans are the exceptions.
Most of the entrées come stacked atop a generous mound of brown rice and peas simmered in fragrant, spiced coconut milk. A small portion of fried plantains also graces each plate. Skip the mushy plantains in favor of the comforting rice that soaks up the sauce present in much of the dishes.
Kingston 11’s oxtail stew is mostly well executed, if a bit pedestrian and under-seasoned. Succulent nibbles of beef easy fall away from the tiny bones into the wine-y tomato-rich broth. The dish is comforting, but you’ll find these flavors in just about any soul food restaurant in Oakland.
Far more exciting is the jerk chicken. The bone-in Mary’s organic chicken is marinated for 2 days in a classic blend of allspice, cloves, thyme, proprietary spices, and fiery Scotch bonnet peppers (sweeter in flavor but equal in spice to more common habañeros). The bone-in pieces take a short trip in the oven and then are finished in a smoker. The dish is delivered to the table with a friendly warning, “Be ready for fire!”
I didn’t taste too much spice in the first bites of chicken. In those initial moments, I could pick out the fragrance from the warm spices and hearty smokiness that surrounded them. I even scoffed at the server’s warning. But the Scotch bonnets crept up, slowly but surely, igniting a fierce, lingering burn. A few more bites in, and the spice had become one with the smoke. Now it was entirely a different dish than when I first dug in — robust, brash, and impossible to put down.
So high was my praise of the chicken that I almost forgot that it was served barely warm after a long wait between courses. It was clear that both our waitress and the kitchen staff were bogged down by the two large parties that were seated just before us. The wait for our meal was made better by a visit from Henderson, who manages the front of the house, as well as a few reassuring check-ins from the waitress.
Looking around the dining room while waiting for our dinner, I saw many people in the same boat. Surprisingly, just about everyone had a smile on his or her face. Perhaps they were lost in conversation, or jamming to the music, or else just enjoying the party-filled vibe of the space.
Kate Williams was raised in Atlanta with an eager appetite. She spent two years as a test cook at America’s Test Kitchen before moving out to Berkeley to write, eat, and escape the winter. She currently writes for Serious Eats and The Oxford American, in addition to her work at Berkeleyside NOSH.
Read more of Kate William’s restaurant reviews for Nosh:
Easy Creole: A fun, über-casual Cajun joint in Berkeley
China Village: Albany Szechuan restaurant is still firing on all cylinders
Homestead: Seasonal DIY cooking done right
Hutch: A hit and miss attempt at refined southern cooking
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