OAKLAND -- First it was Camino, then Boot and 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 coffee and art shop Monkey Forest Road created a lot of buzz in 2011, and there is much anticipation about Boot and Shoe founder Charlie Hallowell's next venture under construction next door.
This year has seen no shortage of interesting new spots, and the owners 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 wine bar and shop Ordinaire, 3354 Grand Ave., which opened next to Michael Mischer Chocolates on Aug. 22 and marked its grand opening 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. Wednesday, 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-facade 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."
Taylor, the owner of Ordinaire, rented the former 3,000-square-foot gym in October 2012. With help from wife Nicole Beteria and friends, he 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.
A neighborhood connection is important, he said. 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.
What: First Thursdays on Grand Avenue
Where: 3200 to 3900 blocks of Grand Avenue, Oakland
When: 6 to 9 p.m. Wednesday