Entering the new Bardo Lounge & Supper Club had me wishing I had a closetful of vintage, fitted flowered dresses, and — even though my husband is my favorite date; I did marry him after all — that Jon Hamm was on my arm rather than him.
Alas, it was not to be.
Oakland’s newest date-night place on Lakeshore Avenue is sleek. It’s sexy. Its mid-century modern aesthetic is so on point I half expected to find Pete and Trudy’s chip ‘n’ dip set laid out on one of the sideboards. Bardo Lounge owners, Seth and Jenni Bregman, have followed the lead of Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner in his obsessiveness to get every detail of the period exactly right, down to the fonts on the menu.
For the Bregmans, besides their fondness for the design aesthetic, the mid-century living room theme is a nod to an era when entertaining at home was valued and appreciated a bit more than it is today.
Its mid-century modern aesthetic is so on point I half expected to find Pete and Trudy’s chip ‘n’ dip set laid out on one of the sideboards
“People dressed up more, and there was a real respect for socializing and kindness and extending hospitality,” said Seth Bregman. “I don’t think it’s entirely lacking in today’s world, but I do think it was emphasized more then. There was a real sense of wanting to give and being generous. I know I experienced it growing up in my parents’ house when they would entertain.”
But of course, their appreciation for the minimalist style of the design is a big part of it, too. The Bregmans started collecting vintage barware and had a few items from their families (one of Seth’s mother’s couches, newly upholstered, is in the restaurant).
“The clean lines and craftsmanship show a sense of commitment to uniqueness and adventurism that happens in a lot of design,” said Seth. “There’s a sense of experimentation and willingness to take chances.”
While much of the glassware, plates, wall sconces and fixtures were found by scouring antique stores and the large, centerpiece chandelier in the main room came from an old hotel in Oregon, the furniture is a mix between vintage pieces and reproductions. And some of it is custom-made to fit the space, which was designed by Oakland architecture firm Arcsine. Since buying the space of the Michelin-lauded Michel Bistro last year, the Bregmans have been busy finding just the right pieces.
With Mad Men being the predominant representation of this aesthetic in popular culture — given the misogyny of the era depicted on the show and in a response to the current reckoning happening in the restaurant world, and the world at large — the owners made clear that the comparisons stop there.
The Bregmans have been deliberate about being inclusive when building their team. Several of the management and high-ranking positions are filled by women and people of color. “In terms of our values, we want this to be a safe community space, both for our customers and employees,” said Seth.
This is the Bregmans’ first venture, though Seth Bregman started a cocktail catering company, Bardo Cocktails, before this and worked the bar at Stookey’s Club Moderne, a San Francisco bar.
Bardo has several meanings, Seth explained, with one being the intermediary experience between this life and the next in Buddhism. In a more generic sense, he said, he sees their place as “a soft, landing pad between the hustle and bustle of your busy life and whatever you’re going onto next. Like a little bit of an urban oasis.”
The Bregmans live a mile away from the restaurant, and one could see it almost as an extension of their own living room.
But except for one dessert which has jello and something called “cooler whip” in it, the food is made with today’s farm-to-table ethos; a garden growing herbs and seasonal vegetables is planned for the back.
Chefs Anthony Salguero and Brian Starkey, who stayed on after Michel Bistro closed, have been poring over cookbooks of the era for inspiration.
“The idea was to take some of these old ideas and put a new spin on them,” said Jenni. “How does a contemporary Californian chef reinterpret these ideas, taking what feels like a throwback and combining it with something from their own palates?”
A sea urchin fondue with pieces of yam, pickled quail eggs, grilled Jimmy Nardello peppers and fried bread for dipping is emblematic of this style of food; after all, what is more of a certain time and place than fondue, especially as its served at Bardo on a vintage wooden triangular plate? But the addition of the uni to the more traditional fondue ingredient, Camembert, is definitely a modern twist.
Seth added that this time period was one in which people were beginning to travel more, and were opening their palates to flavors from other cultures, maybe for the first time.
The pickled eggs are also worthy of mention. The first time we encountered one was in my husband’s martini, and then later a few of them were on the fondue plate. They are poached just so, and then lightly-pickled in a Chinese vinegar. We couldn’t decide whether we liked them more as a cocktail garnish or as a vehicle for fondue; we just knew we loved them, and nothing about them seemed the least bit retro.
Bardo is separated into two distinct spaces. The downstairs lounge offers an entirely different menu than upstairs, with plates ordered a la carte, though a full dinner can easily be had. Then there is a smaller upstairs area, which has one communal table and a number of two-tops and one four-top, where a full dinner is a fixed price of $59, with one additional optional dish on offer for $17. (While our server said the optional plate was perhaps her favorite dish on the menu and recommended we try it, and we ended up agreeing with her, the other dishes easily made up enough food without it.)
Of course, there are several pages of cocktails on offer. The ambitious bar program, developed under Jason Huffman, offers both classic and modern cocktails, with all of the tinctures and specialty ingredients made in-house. It also offers four non-alcoholic cocktails.
My “Imperial Rule,” (Vodka, lychee liqueur, ginger beer, lime juice and ginger ash simple syrup, $10) wowed me on first sight, with the ornately etched glass in blue and gold. It only got better from there.
Downstairs is where more of the retro dishes are on offer, like deviled duck eggs with a spiced red wine jus, scallions and duck skins ($11) and a broccolini casserole with mustard, gruyere, almonds and shallots ($10) that’s supposed to be an update of the green bean casserole of yore and porcupine meatballs ($12), a standard dish from that era that is in reality made of pork rather than porcupine, but are called such because of the crispy rice.
There is also a shrimp cocktail, updated with radishes, cilantro, hominy and guajillo chile ($15), a burger ($17) and New York steak ($45).
The upstairs menu has four items to choose from in the appetizer and main sections (one vegetarian dish is in each section) and three in the sweets section. On my visit, the optional additional dish was clams in a carrot broth with “carrot bacon,” and was definitely the night’s showstopper dish.
My grilled kampachi main was cooked perfectly and accompanied by a black garlic spread and sunflower seed brittle with grilled cauliflower.
While we enjoyed everything we tried, it was the little, unexpected touches that were the most memorable. Cheddar and porcini mushroom dusted popcorn accompanied our cocktails. Even though the menu noted that entrees would be served with accouterments for the table, we were still pleasantly surprised when they arrived. Five small dishes were brought out, much like the various servings of banchan (side dishes) at Korean restaurants. There was barley in crème fraîche and chives; pureed celery root with smoked paprika; walnuts with brown butter and cornichons; kohlrabi leaves macerated in vinegar; and pickled fennel. None of these remotely resembled any condiments we’re familiar with, which made them that much more fun to eat.
And before dessert arrived, came a tiny scoop of orange granita floating in a shot of house-made cream soda; their modern rendition of a Creamsicle.
It was these touches that surprised and delighted us, which is exactly the experience the Bregmans are aiming for.
“There are enough places in this town where you can get incredible food and drink but you feel anonymous,” Seth Bregman said. “We want to know everybody’s name. I want to remember what you have to drink, so the next time we’ll remember that you like your martinis up with a twist, and shaken not stirred. Even if we don’t remember, that’s the intention.”
Bardo Lounge & Supper Club is open from 5 p.m. to 2 a.m., Wednesday through Monday. Dinner is served from 5:30 to 10 p.m., except on Sundays, when it is served until 9 p.m. Reservations for upstairs can be made on Resy.