OAKLAND -- First it was Camino, then Boot & Shoe Service.
Founded by Chez Panisse alumni, both restaurants have helped to spark upper Grand Avenue's transformation in recent years from a functional neighborhood marketplace to a hip dining and shopping destination, drawing visitors from throughout Oakland and -- gasp -- even San Francisco. The opening of the coffee and art shop Monkey Forest Road created a lot of buzz in 2011, and there is much anticipation about Boot & Shoe founder Charlie Hallowell's next venture under construction next door.
This year has seen no shortage of interesting new spots, the owners of which are clear about why they chose Grand Avenue: Convenience, availability and price. They say they are also excited about joining a corridor with an as-yet undefined personality, one growing in popularity while also maintaining a funky vibe that features auto and vacuum repair alongside manicures, used books and repurposed furniture.
"I love that I'm in between an expensive chocolate shop, a coin exchange and a Domino's Pizza," said Bradford Taylor, proprietor of the wine bar and shop Ordinaire, 3354 Grand Ave., which opened next to Michael Mischer Chocolates Aug. 22 and will mark its grand opening from 6 to 9 p.m. Friday.
The UC Berkeley Ph.D. candidate, who specializes in small wines from California, is among nearly 30 business owners in the 3200 to 3800 blocks of Grand Avenue who for the past five months have participated in "First Thursdays on Grand." The next event, from 6 to 9 p.m. Oct. 3, is designed to introduce the street's small businesses to neighborhood dwellers and visitors alike by offering special deals or showcasing work from local artists.
Patrick Cheatham, owner of Panorama Framing, 3350 Grand Ave., began maintaining the website for the monthly event after opening his store on Valentine's Day. Cheatham, who lives closer to Piedmont Avenue, said he chose Grand Avenue because, like Taylor, he felt more established commercial strips -- including adjacent Lakeshore Avenue and Rockridge's College Avenue -- were too expensive or competitive.
Being on Grand Avenue, Cheatham said, "made me realize how neighborhoody Oakland is."
Also new is The Star, 3425 Grand Ave., a restaurant that opened in July specializing in deep-dish pizza. Principal owner Jon Guhl, who also operates Little Star Pizza in Albany and San Francisco, wasn't looking for another business until the brick-façade corner spot once occupied by Milano opened.
"If I were ever going to do another restaurant in the East Bay, it would be on Grand Avenue," he remembered thinking. "The demographics are right. It's the only area that has that kind of density."
Guhl said most customers within the first weeks seemed to come from nearby neighborhoods, from the large and small apartment buildings around Lake Merritt to the numerous single-family homes within walking distance.
"There's been a lot of real good local support," he said.
Taylor, the owner of Ordinaire, said he also hopes to develop a strong connection to the neighborhood. The name "Ordinaire" is meant to signify a relaxed sense of approachability, a place to shop and hang out.
"I thought it was ridiculous that this part of Oakland didn't have a shop that was an alternative to Trader Joe's and Whole Foods," he said.
Taylor rented the former 3,000-square-foot gym in October 2012 and with help from wife Nicole Beteria and friends spent the better part of a year transforming it into a simple tasting room reminiscent of the "cave a manger" style shop he frequented while living in Paris several years ago. It was there that he gained a greater interest in knowing small producers and understanding of their approach to winemaking.
"When someone buys a bottle of wine, I can tell them something about the winemaker," he said, surveying the boutique collection from various regions in California, as well as Italy and France.
Leigh-Ann Hawks, a resident of the Haddon Hill section east of the lake, popped into Ordinaire recently to check out the selection.
"We needed a wine shop," she said. "I have been hoping for one for our neighborhood for the last four years."
What: First Thursdays on Grand Avenue
Where: 3200 to 3900 blocks of Grand Avenue, Oakland
When: 6 to 9 p.m. Oct. 3