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Miss Ollie's Closes: The End of an Era for Oakland's Black and Brown Communities

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A Black woman pours sauce into a ramekin behind a crowded bar at a restaurant
Miss Ollie's owner Sarah Kirnon will close her landmark restaurant at the end of March. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

For the past 10 years, Miss Ollie’s has been a fixture in Oakland’s celebrated restaurant scene—a delicious beacon of fiery pepper sauce, pholourie and the best damn skillet-fried chicken in all the land. Even more than that, the restaurant has been a vital gathering place for Oakland’s Black, brown and queer communities. 

Now, much to the sadness of longtime customers, the beloved Afro-Caribbean spot will close, serving its last rum cocktail and its final plate of fried chicken out of 901 Washington St. at the end of this month.

The news shouldn’t come as a complete shock: A little over a year ago, chef and owner Sarah Kirnon announced her intention to close the restaurant with an eye toward transforming it into a nonprofit called Sanctuary, which would host sprawling outdoor events centered on Oakland’s Black and brown communities—a kind of cross between a food festival, an art gallery and the longstanding Caribbean tradition of Carnival. 

Kirnon wound up working out an arrangement with her landlord that enabled the restaurant to stay open for another year. In the end, Kirnon says, the economics of trying to keep a restaurant alive during the pandemic took too much of a toll—and that, really, even pre-COVID, the numbers had not been adding up for quite some time. 

“Bars are doing well because people like to drink and forget. Restaurants are for joy and celebration. We’ve not had much of that lately.” Kirnon says. “We don’t see it as a sadness. For us, it’s a smart move to make.”

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With that in mind, Kirnon stresses that Miss Ollie’s will, in fact, live on in some form, likely as a small takeout window and catering operation based out of a to-be-determined new location in Oakland. And the nonprofit project is still very much in the works. But the physical restaurant that customers have come to know and love over the past 10 years will cease to exist.

Wearing a face mask, chef Sarah Kirnon holds a plate of fried chicken at Miss Ollie's, her Old Oakland restaurant.
Chef Sarah Kirnon’s most famous dish is her skillet-fried chicken, a staple at her restaurant Miss Ollie’s, in Oakland. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

The decision marks the end of a chapter for a restaurant that was, very quietly, one of the most exciting places to eat in the entire Bay Area. Along with neighbors such as Cosecha, Miss Ollie’s helped revitalize Swan’s Market, turning Old Oakland into one of the Bay Area’s most dynamic, and most international, dining districts. 

End of a Golden Age

In many ways, Miss Ollie’s departure also marks the end of a very specific golden age for restaurants in Oakland. The late 2000s and early 2010s were when Oakland first came to national prominence as a notable food city—when publications like the New York Times started parachuting writers into Temescal and Piedmont Avenue to document the burgeoning scene. What struck me at the time was that the buzziest restaurants all seemed to be helmed by folks of color—women of color, in particular. 

Customers look at the menu at the bar counter; the sign for "Miss Ollie's" is visible in the mirror's reflection..
In its prime, the dining room at Miss Ollie’s was packed every night—in particular with the Bay Area’s Black, brown and queer communities. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Born at the start of this era, Miss Ollie’s was the quintessential Oakland restaurant—the kind of place I would bring out-of-town visitors to when I wanted to show off the city. As I wrote in 2015, restaurants like Miss Ollie’s “crackled with electricity even on a random weeknight,” had food that was delicious enough to stop you in your tracks, and were reasonably affordable to boot. They were run by charismatic chefs who were cooking food that was deeply personal, reflecting the cultures that shaped their identities—Afro-Caribbean, Mexican, Korean, Lao. And, perhaps most striking, their dining rooms were some of the most diverse I’ve ever encountered.

“It was Oakland at its finest,” Kirnon says. “Black and brown, people of color, queer folks, elders—we were cross-generational. And I’ve seen kids go off to college. We’ve done funerals. We were a neighborhood restaurant.”

One by one, however, the restaurants I associate with that era have mostly all closed, many of them even before the pandemic hit. Brown Sugar Kitchen is gone. So is Juhu Beach Club, FuseBOX (remember FuseBOX?) and the original Hawker Fare. 

A shrine with black-and-white photos of chef Sarah Kirnon's grandmother, Miss Ollie, sits on a shelf.
A shrine with photos of chef Sarah Kirnon’s grandmother, Miss Ollie, is one of the restaurant’s many personal touches. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Among their many virtues, all of those restaurants were known for serving delicious, ambitious food made with high-quality ingredients, but at a lower, still-accessible price point.  

“How do you survive in that mid-range place in this economy?” says Preeti Mistry, the chef and founder of Juhu Beach Club. “Those types of restaurants are becoming an endangered species.” 

Mistry still remembers how blown away they were by Kirnon’s fried chicken the first time they ate at Miss Ollie’s—and Kirnon’s matter-of-fact response when asked what she had put in that chicken to make it taste so good: “seasoning.”

For Mistry, what really set the restaurant apart was how personal everything felt, from the shrine set up for Kirnon’s grandmother—the original Miss Ollie—to the brightly colored vintage enamel plateware to the food itself. A hopeful energy marked so many of the restaurants run by women of color during that era, Mistry says. 

A piece of fried chicken on blue-and-white checkered paper.
The secret to the fried chicken at Miss Ollie’s is “seasoning.” (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

“The earlier generation it was mostly cis white men and some women [who were running restaurants]. This was a whole new generation,” Mistry says. “Everyone was not staying in the lines; there was a lot of experimentation. It was a way of not giving a fuck.”

A Deep Soul Connection

Ellen Sebastian Chang, the co-owner and general manager of FuseBOX, a Korean fusion restaurant that opened in West Oakland a few months earlier than Miss Ollie’s, says the thing that always struck her about Kirnon’s food was the “deep soul connection” that you felt when you were eating it. You could tell, Sebastian Chang says, that the food had been cooked with soul—that someone had put their “life force” into it, that sense of “if I don’t do it right, the ancestors in my family are going to haunt me in my dreams.”

Sebastian Chang struck up a friendship with Kirnon, and she remembers that when FuseBOX closed, Kirnon bought up all of the remaining house-made pickles that the restaurant had in stock and featured them in a special menu that she put together for Miss Ollie’s. “To me, that really speaks to respectful relationships,” Sebastian Chang says. “I see you. You see me. We’re not competing. We’re actually a long-distance collaboration.”

Somehow, despite how much of a community fixture the restaurant became, Miss Ollie’s always felt a little bit underrated, even in its prime. Kirnon wasn’t feted with national awards the way that some of her peers in Oakland were. And local food media rarely credited the place for being what it was: one of the very best restaurants in the Bay Area.

Chef Sarah Kirnon holds a plate of Caribbean patties.
Caribbean beef patties were one of the many Afro-Caribbean dishes served at Miss Ollie’s that were hard to find elsewhere in the Bay Area. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Vinny Eng recalls that he met Kirnon when he was the wine director for Bar Tartine and she was the chef at Front Porch, on the other side of the Mission. According to Eng, what Kirnon doesn’t get enough credit for is how much of a mentor she has been to the chefs who worked in her kitchen and then went on further successes—what he calls a “quiet lineage of cooks” that she has trained. Miss Ollie’s was one of a relatively small number of kitchens that felt like they were safe havens for young, queer Black and brown chefs, in particular. And that sense of safety and community extended to the rest of the restaurant.

“Community activists and community organizers were always in that space,” Eng says. “More than just functioning as a place where people ate, this was a place where people convened.”

Filling the Void

As time went on, however, Kirnon says demographic changes within Oakland wound up taking the restaurant’s core communities away even as the city became oversaturated with restaurants. “We lost lots of Black and brown people who moved out of the Bay Area,” she says, noting how a number of her longtime customers might only visit once every couple of months now because they had to move to Stockton or Sacramento. “We were really responding to a particular crowd of folks. And it feels like that doesn’t exist anymore.”

What Kirnon fears is that the departure of Miss Ollie’s brick-and-mortar space will leave even more of a gap in the community of places where Black and brown folks can congregate. What, then, can she do, other than try to create something new to fill the void?

Two customers sit at a wooden table outside of Miss Ollie's in Old Oakland.
Wesley and Antoinettemarie Williams made sure to eat at Miss Ollie’s while visiting from out of state. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

That’s the idea behind the nonprofit Sanctuary, which Kirnon says she’s hoping to move into a temporary location in Oakland. Initially, she hopes to run it as a kind of food hub, not entirely dissimilar to La Cocina’s Marketplace in the Tenderloin, where multiple vendors will be able to host pop-ups and build new food businesses. It will function as a sort of “think tank,” Kirnon says.

And for those who will specifically miss the food at Miss Ollie’s, there’s some good news as well. Kirnon says she’s in the process of finding a new location in Oakland to house Miss Ollie’s, not as a proper restaurant, but at least as a takeout window where people can pick up food, order delivery via apps and get food catered for their companies or events.

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As for the original Miss Ollie’s, the restaurant will host a number of farewell events in the coming weeks—keep an eye on their Instagram. While the current plan is to stay open until the end of the month, Kirnon says longtime customers should come by in the next week or two the ensure a chance to say their final goodbyes.

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