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Jill Ifshin waits on a table during lunchtime at Pican Restaurant in Oakland, Calif., June 24, 2010.

OAKLAND — Providing fresh evidence that the city's once-moribund downtown has begun to resurrect itself, business leaders said Thursday they have formed an Oakland Restaurant Association.

A number of restaurants touted as cool and hip — and offering delectable fare — have sprouted lately in Oakland, especially downtown.

"This is part of the surprising evolution of the restaurant industry in Oakland," said Mark Everton, executive director of the association.

Roughly 20 to 25 restaurants have opened in Oakland during the last 18 months, estimated Everton, who is also general manager of the Hilton Garden Inn in Emeryville.

"You are seeing an influx of cutting-edge restaurants in downtown Oakland," Everton said.

Restaurants that have opened in Oakland in recent years include Bocanova, Brown Sugar Kitchen, Camino, Encuentro, Flora, Geisha, Miss Pearl's Jam House, Ozumo and Pican.

"Oakland has become a mecca for restaurants," Joseph Haraburda, chief executive officer of the city's Chamber of Commerce, said this week during a lunch presentation before a business group.

"One of the keys to life is to have a great meal, a great family event, to have a quality dining experience," Everton said.

The new restaurants are drawing patrons from a broader area than just Oakland or the East Bay, said Michael LeBlanc, owner of Pican. As much as a quarter of Pican's patrons live in San Francisco, LeBlanc said, and many others live in Mill Valley, Orinda, Lafayette or Moraga.

"People come here to dine and they are surprised," LeBlanc said. "They ask 'This is Oakland?' It's starting to be a destination."

Other estimates suggest that 60 percent of the patrons for restaurants in downtown Oakland come from San Francisco or travel through the Caldecott Tunnel.

"We think San Francisco and Contra Costa County are huge markets for downtown Oakland," Everton said.

Organizers hope the restaurant association will act as an advocate before city regulators and bureaucrats who might craft policies that could help or harm Oakland dining establishments.

The association also can generate marketing, create recycling programs and obtain favorable trade rates, such as for credit card fees. In addition, the association intends to scout for discounts on health insurance and workers' compensation.

Educational benefits could also emerge, including training for restaurant neophytes so they can bolster worker conditions for employees. Plus, owners can learn how to avoid pitfalls such as sexual harassment.

Still, business expansion won't be easy.

Even Oakland's biggest boosters concede the city must surmount plenty of obstacles if it is going to become an economic success story.

"Oakland is underserved by retail. It has a high crime rate," said John Nelson, an official with the Chamber of Commerce. "It has an urban center that is a work in progress."

Nevertheless, progress is being made and much more can sprout, said city leaders who attended this week's annual luncheon sponsored by the Oakland chamber.

"The city of Oakland has huge potential, potential that has largely gone untapped," Oakland Bishop Salvatore Cordileone said. He pointed to Oakland's new Cathedral of Christ the Light as being more than a place of worship.

"It has really put Oakland on the map," the bishop said.

Similarly, the bumper crop of new restaurants are becoming one of the ingredients that provide space for Oakland's economy in a unique way.

"We are changing the perception that people have about Oakland," restaurant owner LeBlanc said.

Contact George Avalos at 925-977-8477.