Too bad Jack London didn't write "A Tale of Two Cities." Then I could have used the reference as an apt if clichéd lead-in to the multiple personalities of today's Jack London Square.
But he didn't, so I can't.
Even so, this literary loophole in no way diminishes the fact that one's experience at Oakland's hallowed home of maritime history down at the foot of Broadway -- where London spent much of his boyhood -- depends entirely on when one goes for a visit.
Weekends? It's a bustling farmers market with blushing persimmons, cabbages that could double for beach balls and wasabi-flavored almonds. There are monthly craft shows and springtime boat shows. And right now, it's the season of holiday events, centered on a towering, sparkling tree.
Weekdays, however, it's another tale -- not so much "The Sea-Wolf" as lone wolf, thanks in large part to empty retail spots. You pretty much have the place to yourself, which is not entirely a bad thing, allowing for solitary moments to inhale fresh Bay air, sip fine coffee, sit on a bench, fend off pushy seagulls and watch small boats and sleek yachts bob and weave in their slips.
At nighttime, it's still another scene with several new, hip restaurant-bars like Forge and Haven near old stoic standbys such as Kincaid's, The Fat Lady and the ultimate dive watering hole of Merchants Saloon (if you know about "the trough," you're an Oaklander all the way).
My office used to be housed in Jack London Square in the late 1990s, so it's a pretty familiar place for me, despite the fact developers are always trying to "revive" the area. There's said to be another attempt in the works, and the new dining options plus regularly scheduled events certainly bring it to life. Yet the 2010 departure of the anchor Barnes & Noble still leaves a gaping retail hole, and the nearby 72,000-square-foot structure -- envisioned as a foodie-mecca rival to SF's Ferry Building -- remains unfinished on the inside, and is only used for special events, such as the Jack of All Trades marketplace, now running the second Saturday each month.
Honestly, I hadn't been to the square in a while, so I ventured twice in recent weeks to get a good feel. My first trip was on a sunny Sunday, and I was actually surprised with the activity -- so busy that parking is a real pain. Give up on the streets immediately and opt for one of the multilevel garages or even valet offered off the Embarcadero.
Tents are scattered throughout the square for the farmers market. Get a fig loaf from the Feel Good Bakery booth or sample hummus at Hummus Heaven, where the slogan is "You had me at Hummus!" On this day, the twice-yearly Patchwork indie craft fair was under way, packing the hulking wannabe Ferry Building with shoppers checking out vintage dresses and purses made of sliced-up Pepsi cans.
My husband and I stopped in for lunch in the busy, new and hip Forge, an artisan pizza place in the old El Torito's spot. It's now all industrial with burned-and-varnished plywood sheets nailed to the concrete subfloor. I don't care what else you do, try the cheese curds -- little deep-fried clumps of gooey gold.
After this surprising flurry of events, I decided to go back late morning on a Tuesday, and in a way, I like it better. The area is still a working waterfront, so it's a more "authentic" time to go. Amtrak and freight trains thunder and squeak along the center of Embarcadero. But the main morning activity is up a block on Second and Third streets -- the business end of the produce industry, clogged all morning with delivery trucks, fork lifts, crates and boxes of oranges, asparagus and Dandy Jumbo Yams stacked precariously high on pallets. A block down on Third and Webster, coffee lovers -- likely emerging from the cluster of nearby condos and offices -- are out the door at the Blue Bottle Coffee roastery, their blood surely running "Roman Espresso" by now. Take a cup over to the marina and stroll the short boardwalk behind Scott's Seafood and the Waterfront Hotel. Watch the massive cranes load massive container ships. Think of "Star Wars."
Then note some of the history along the way. Markers offer tidbits about London and maritime life at the turn of the last century. Franklin D. Roosevelt's presidential yacht, the USS Potomac, is docked here and open for tours. And the adventurous among us can rent a canoe from California Canoe and Kayak and paddle along the piers. I did it once with a friend. Fun to be on seal-eye level.
No matter when you go to Jack London Square, you simply have to step down into history -- quite literally -- when you enter Heinolds' First and Last Chance Saloon. Built from the timbers of an old whaling ship, the bar opened in 1883, and became a frequent London hangout. Plus the 1906 quake left the floor in a decided slant. You can get tipsy without even getting tipsy.
Angela Hill brings her perspective to the Play page twice monthly. Follow her at Twitter.com/giveemhill.
if you go
Jack London Square: Along Embarcadero at the foot of Broadway, Oakland; street parking is limited, valet is available in the square and nearby parking garages are recommended. Details: www.JackLondonSquare.com.
Eats: Plenty of options, from chicken and waffles in the diner at Jack London Inn to upscale fare at Lungomare, Haven, Bocanova and more. The beef brisket dinner and slab o' ribs at Everett & Jones can't be beat.
Jack London History Walk: Follow distinctive wolf "tracks" embedded in the pavers throughout the square from Heinolds' to the USS Potomac. Diamond-shaped markers along the way highlight facts about London and the waterfront; 510-645-9292.