Tamarack in Oakland, a collectively run restaurant with an activist vibe

Tamarack collective members (from left to right): Tiger, Jesa Brooks, Will Adams, and Laurin Guthrie. Photo: Kathryn Bowen

With warm bistro lighting, a well-manicured bar and delicate flowers arranged in mason jars, you might mistake Tamarack for yet another buzzy, on-trend cocktail destination. But Tamarack, on the corner of 15th and Harrison streets in Downtown Oakland, is a different breed of eatery: a collectively run establishment, geared not just toward dining but also stimulating socio-political conversation.

The Tamarack collective currently comprises around a dozen members, all of whom have an ownership stake in the restaurant, and play a role in its operation (either on the service or administrative end). Most decisions, including whether to add members, are made in a “non-hierarchical” way. “All members have a say,” irrespective of an individual’s time or financial contributions, said Tamarack’s office operations manager, Laurin Guthrie.

Tamarack’s founders met while participating in social movements, including the Occupy and Ferguson protests. “One of the reasons that we’re all in each others lives is a shared feeling for leftist, radical politics,” said Jesa Brooks, Tamarack’s kitchen manager and chef. Brooks, for instance, comes from “a background of [activism supporting] black liberation and anti-prisons,” and wanted to work with individuals who shared similar principles. The collective’s pro-resistance ethos pervades the restaurant down to its aesthetic. Its logo, for instance, features a slingshot and matches.

The idea to open Tamarack stemmed from the collective’s desire for a dedicated forum for members to continue collaborating, said Guthrie. The revenue from the restaurant subsidizes the cost of the space, with the goal of creating a self-sustaining site for organizing. Tamarack has already hosted presentations, film screenings and fundraisers, for entities ranging from Commune (a “popular magazine for a new era of revolution,”according to its website) to IWOC, the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee.


Bar manager and beverage director Will Adams mixes drinks on a Saturday evening. Photo: Kathryn Bowen

A second goal is to improve conditions and earnings for those working in the restaurant industry. If even “a few people can have a service job that pays a living wage, where they choose the people that they work with” and share “certain principles about social justice,” that would be “a valuable contribution,” Brooks said. For now, most collective members have other full-time jobs (members’ professions include architect, engineer, and documentary filmmaker). But the collective hopes to generate enough revenue from the restaurant to offer full-time employment to its workers.

The collective also aims to feed, and eventually employ, people in the neighborhood. The immediate area lacked eateries when the collective initially leased Tamarack’s space, about three and a half years ago, Guthrie said. Brooks added that, in the longer term, Tamarack could hire “employees who are not part of the collective,” but who have some other stake as workers. Though Tamarack wouldn’t require these employees to adhere to particular principles, Brooks hoped that people who shared the collective’s goals would be “attracted to this space and want to work here.”

Tamarack opened its doors in February and is just concluding its soft opening phase (which was lengthy due to members’ other projects and job commitments). Starting May 15, the collective will offer coffee and house-made pastries on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday mornings, and will be expanding dinner service from Friday and Saturday to include Thursday. Just opening took years, however, as the collective had to demolish what was formerly office space to create the restaurant’s open kitchen and first and second story dining rooms. The work paid off — Tamarack’s capacious upper level boasts communal tables and floor-to-ceiling windows, which amplify the sense of room to spread.

A quiche from Tamarack’s March menu. Photo: Tamarack

Brooks designed Tamarack’s menu, which features plant-forward meat and vegetarian dishes that, for now, rotate on a monthly basis. A vegetarian and a bacon quiche, both with kale, chard and squash, anchored the restaurant’s March menu, and a chicken and waffle plate ($19) formed the backbone of the April menu. The plate, comprised of two breaded and fried tenders on a classic, American-style waffle, was accompanied by a trio of sides — a meat and three, in effect. The sides, which can also be ordered separately, have included “chickpea hushpuppies,” stewed Chinese mustard greens, fried fingerling potatoes and house-made coleslaw. Different salads have come and gone, including a kale “chef’s salad” with a soft boiled egg and manchego ($6 or $11, depending on size), to which chicken tenders can be added.

“The food is very much a mixture of my roots of a certain style of cooking, and taking advantage of the amazing produce that’s available on the West Coast,” Brooks said. Raised primarily by grandparents, who grew up in the South, Brooks added, “that’s just the tradition of food and cooking that I come from.” Brooks strives to present “comfortable and familiar” offerings, using local and seasonal ingredients. For instance, the May menu features a springtime asparagus purée.

To create Tamarack’s evolving cocktail menu, bar manager and beverage director, Will Adams, and collective member Luke O’Donovan, introduced “twists” to “familiar” flavors. The $10 Haymarket, for example, plays on a Moscow Mule by incorporating hibiscus. Many of Tamarack’s cocktails build around a unique ingredient — like “vegan foam” or carrot. Other creative offerings include the Earl Grey Old Fashioned ($9), and the Subcomandante ($12). The latter incorporated tequila, Peychaud’s Aperitivo and Carpano Dry Vermouth, and landed, refreshingly, between a Negroni and a Spritz. When asked why several cocktails are named after notable activists (including, for instance, George Jackson and Lucy Parsons), Adams said that these are “things and people that are important to me and the collective.”

Though some might question Tamarack’s pricing, these may be the costs of providing high quality options, and establishing a self-sustaining business that can pay a living wage. “Affordability” is front of mind for Adams, who said that the cocktails are priced as economically as possible. When the restaurant first opened, mixed drinks cost $6 to $8, Adams added. But that proved unsustainable. The menu still includes $3 Tecates and $4 “boilermakers” (a shot of Evan Williams with a beer or cider), for those who can’t or don’t want to pay double-digits for a drink.


The chicken and waffle plate from Tamarack’s April menu. Photo: Kathryn Bowen

“I don’t ever want to serve something that… a worker in the same capacity as me couldn’t access,” Brooks said. “We want nice things to be accessible to people who work for a living.” The desire to enhance accessibility motivated Tamarack’s forthcoming expansion into coffee and pastries, Brooks said, as breakfast can be purchased for $10 or less. A café service will also allow people to take advantage of the space primarily as a gathering point and workplace.

Irrespective of politics, Tamarack’s elevated comfort food should unite diners. The chickpea hushpuppies and chicken are standout, the former reminiscent of a hybrid falafel and arancini with a porous, airy filling and parsley and onions adding zest. The chicken was likewise expertly fried and surprisingly light. We didn’t expect a garlicky chimichurri would top the fried potatoes, but enjoyed it so thoroughly, we were nearly disappointed when the spread disappeared the following week. That said, the other dipping options — maple syrup, stone ground mustard and barbecue sauce — provided a satisfying choose-your-own-adventure end. Relative to the myriad fried bits, the stewed greens felt almost austere, though a hammy broth added richness.

As to the May menu, chicken and waffles has cycled off — but old favorites, like the chickpea hushpuppies, remain. And Brooks introduced several new options, including beef brisket with an asparagus purée ($13), a Caprese salad ($7), and a charcuterie board named, in jest, the “bourgeois swine platter,” after its $23 price tag (the menu notes that it feeds four to six).

In terms of events, Tamarack will host Cinemachia, a running film series on Saturday evenings that the collective’s Facebook page describes as “an impetus for sharing experiences and discussing the role of filmmaking and other militant organizing within the context of anticapitalist collective praxis and revolutionary pedagogy.” In May, Tamarack also began participating in Second Saturday, which, alongside Burnt Oak Gallery and other 15th Street businesses, showcases local art and vendors.

It remains to be seen whether the collective can adhere to its principles while growing Tamarack into a profitable restaurant. In the meantime, enigmatic Tamarack will no doubt continue to challenge and surprise.

Tamarack is currently open from 6 p.m. to 1 a.m., Friday and Saturday. Beginning May 15, Tamarack will expand dinner service to Thursday, and offer coffee and house-made pastries on Wednesday through Friday mornings.