If there is one place to be seen in Oakland right now, it is the newly opened Lake Chalet Seafood Bar and Grill on the shores of Lake Merritt. The Aug. 17 opening had been a long time coming: 3½ years and $15 million. But the process of turning the century-old, crumbling boathouse into a gleaming, 9,000-square-foot destination dates back to the reign of former Mayor Jerry Brown.
"It's about time Oakland offered this kind of entertainment," said Victoria Christopher, dressed in a leopard-print cocktail dress, five days after the grand opening. "Now we just need more men."
Not everyone is convinced that the Lake Chalet was the right choice for the 1909 pump station. But critics are few. Even the sore feelings over turning down a bid by Everett & Jones barbecue to run the restaurant have healed for the most part.
"This is the perfect location," Edward Muniz said, sipping a vodka tonic as a sleek gondola glided up into the dock next to his table under a string of white lights — an extension of Lake Merritt's "necklace of lights." A barbecue grill sits in the middle of the U-shaped dock.
"It's a really good investment and good for the community. It livens up the Oakland area," Muniz said. His companion, Jennifer Lauter, said they normally would have started their Friday night out at the Kona Club on Piedmont Avenue.
Instead, she returned a second night to the Lake Chalet and brought Muniz for his first visit.
It's good for sunset watching, said Katie Kasenchak, sitting at the Lake Chalet's outside bar surrounded by men and women in various styles of dress — jeans and T-shirts, sports jackets, evening dresses, business casual — lounging in dark wicker arm chairs and picnic tables.
"The setting is lovely," Kasenchak said, as she sipped a Boathouse Cooler. "Whether their food and service have staying power has yet to be seen."
The Lake Chalet is the third major project of its kind for owners Lara and Gar Truppelli. Their first endeavor, the Beach Chalet in San Francisco, is a city-owned space at the cusp of Golden Gate Park whose first story houses a visitor's center. Their second venture was the Park Chalet, which they built from the ground up.
So the boat house was right up their alley, even though the Lake Chalet is so large it equals the space of their two other restaurants combined. "It's definitely its own project," Lara Truppelli said.
But there are similarities among all three, especially the laid-back chic that takes money to create.
"We wanted people to feel like it's a celebration, like they're somewhere resort-like," Lara Truppelli said.
Truppelli said they wanted to pay homage to the boathouse origins without "getting themed-out." When Gar Truppelli chose the 80-foot-long marble topped bar as the stunning centerpiece to anchor the sprawling restaurant, they decided the wooden underside should be shaped like the bottom of a canoe. The tawny-colored glass windows in the free-standing kitchen, situated in the center of it all, reflect the hue of the lamps on the posts around Lake Merritt.
All told, the Lake Chalet has a staff of 140 people and seats 440, including the outside Dock lounge, private party rooms, a banquet hall, the sleek Pump House dining room to the right of the main entrance, the Lake Room lounge at the far opposite end with sofas, booths, fireplace and bar, and the Pump House raw bar, which is inevitably lined with at least one patron washing down ceviche (Ahi tuna, halibut or shrimp and calamari at $5.95 per serving) or oysters on the half shell ($2.50 a pop, $28 a dozen) with a chilled glass of white wine.
The menu is not cheap. But if a $12.95 hamburger, $17.95 Pacific Gulf shrimp spaghetti or $23.95 duck breast with fresh corn polenta are too steep, there is an English pea and ham hock soup for $7.50 or Parmesan french fries for $6.00. (The lunch menu offers more sandwiches and salads.)
The barbecued ribs are the only menu item shared among the restaurants.
And there is no happy hour. Cocktails are $9, wine comes by the glass or bottle, and five Chalet Ales are on tap (numerous imports and bottled brews also are available).
Instead of happy hour, the Chalet offers Taco Tuesdays with $2.50 tacos, $3 pints and half-price margaritas; Crab Fridays with Dungeness crabs roasted in a garlic-chili butter ($24 whole, $14 for a half); and, beginning Sunday, weekend buffet brunch from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. in the Gondola Room whose balcony overlooks Lake Merritt.
The Lake Chalet Seafood Bar and Grill, 1520 Lakeside Drive, is open seven days a week. Visit the Web site www.thelakechalet.com for hours or call 510-208-LAKE.