From roughshod waterfront to dining district, Jack London Square has seen more makeovers than the Oprah Winfrey Show. Bocanova, open since Sept. 1, is among the first of the new breed of fine-food venues planned for the seafront.
The "Pan-American" restaurant and lounge occupies the building of the Old Spaghetti Factory, which was fun in a kitschy faux-Italian, family-friendly way. But that worked for only so many years. Of course, T.G.I. Friday's stood next door to soak up the adults looking for big-kid fun. But there are only so many frothy margaritas, Jack Daniel's burgers and buffalo wings a human can consume.
Bocanova is a whole different species, and the space at the end of Webster Street is nearly unrecognizable. Owners Meredith Melville and San Francisco MarketBar chef Rick Hackett call the décor contemporary rustic — colorful but earthy, as Melville put it.
The couple, who met in the 1980s while working at Oakland's Bay Wolf restaurant, stumbled across the cavernous cement hall while shopping at the Jack London farmers market two years ago. They had bicycled through Europe, worked in Spanish Basque Country, done tours in the finest Bay Area restaurants — she as a server and he as a chef — and were looking to open their own.
"We fell in love with it," Melville said.
Sitting on the patio watching sailboats bob with the currents of the estuary, I could see things from her perspective. (The heat lamps, strands of white lights overhead and a glass of Spanish wine helped.) But the space had been gutted down to the pipes, dusty walls and cement pillars when their love affair began. And the economy was tanking.
It was a scary time, Melville said, but instead of hunkering down they decided just to enjoy the project as it happened.
"We believe in Oakland and believe in the economy," she said.
They injected about $2 million into Bocanova, which now has floor-to-ceiling windows and lots of yellow, orange, blue and brown — from the tiles to the Zuni-print rugs, blown-glass lamps and weathered leather sofas that line communal tables instead of benches.
"We wanted to make it warm and comfortable, like you're in someone's living room," said the designer, Andrea Wade.
That's a tall order for a former 1920s ice warehouse dominated by pillars around which adults would struggle to wrap their arms. The pillars were toned down by encircling them with two strands of lights and a "skirt" of stiff drapery material, and the soaring ceilings were softened by hanging wood racks made from what once was a barn in Oregon.
Wade said she envisioned the hall as a monastery. And because every monastery needs an altar, Wade put a bar in the center to divide the room into a dining room and lounge. (There is bar-stool seating that looks straight into the open raw bar kitchen as well as the kitchen with a grill, griddle and a fiery hearth oven.)
Cocktail guru David Nepove helped create such drinks as the "Red Passion Margarita" and the "Voluptuous," which were unavailable Sunday even though prices had risen by several dollars since the "soft opening" menu was printed Aug. 28.
Bar stools covered in black leather line one side of the cement-topped bar. The side facing the dining room is a sheet of stained glass divided into squares of color.
The clean lines give the design a contemporary touch without giving it a sharp or "glammy" look, as Wade put it. The touches also keep Bocanova from looking like yet another Southwestern knockoff nearly unavoidable in the 1990s.
The menu's origin is the staff meals provided by Hackett's South and Central American crew at MarketBar. Their inspiration resulted in appetizers such as Mexican wild shrimp ceviche, fried yucca and organic black bean soup served tapas style. Entrees include Sea of Cortez scallops in a Brazilian curry sauce; Peruvian marinated chicken with guajillo chile and banana salsa; and, the most expensive item, "Bola de Lemo" steak — strip steak with an Argentine parsley-garlic marinade called chimichurri ($29). The restaurant seats 250, including a private party room painted sienna and closed off by a sliding barn door.
Time will tell whether Ellis Partners, the developers of Jack London Square, have found the key to success for reinvigorating the waterfront.
The theme seems to be refined rustic and homey judging by Bocanova's future neighbors Bracina and Pizzaria Zanna Bianca. As an aside, the old T.G.I. Friday's will be the retail shop and baking school of Miette.
The bakery's pink writing already is on the storefront.