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Kingston 11’s Closure Is a Reminder To Not Take Beloved Black-Owned Businesses for Granted

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A chef in blue chef's coat smiles inside a restaurant kitchen, a plate of Jamaican food in front of him on the counter.
Chef Nigel Jones has served classic Jamaican dishes at his Oakland restaurant, Kingston 11, for the past 10 years. The restaurant's last day of business will be on Saturday, March 25. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

For 10 years now, the Jamaican oxtail stew at Oakland’s Kingston 11 has been one of my go-to comfort meals — a dish whose soupy, tenderly slow-braised succulence I could always rely on to pick me up on the dreariest of days. During that timespan, the restaurant itself has been an anchor at the corner of the Telegraph and West Grand, even as the surrounding neighborhood has undergone so much change. And it has been a vibrant gathering place, from day one, for Oakland’s Black and brown communities.

“At a certain point, it starts to feel like a cliché to talk about the diversity of Oakland’s dining scene and how much more ‘real’ its restaurants are compared to those in other cities,” I wrote when I reviewed the restaurant a few months after it opened in 2013. “But at Kingston 11, where people of color make up the majority of both the staff and the customers, and the crowd is a reasonable facsimile of Oakland itself, the point rings true.”

It was a gut punch, then, when chef-owner Nigel Jones announced last week the Jamaican standby’s last day of service as a dine-in restaurant will be Saturday, March 25. The business and brand won’t cease to exist altogether: Its most popular dishes, like those oxtails and the wonderfully smoky jerk chicken, will still be available at its more casual sister restaurant and marketplace, Calabash, which opened in December. And Jones will keep the Kingston 11 space itself as a home base for the restaurant’s catering operations.

A plate of Jamaican-style vegetable curry, served over rice and peas, on a wooden tabletop.
A curry vegetable dish served over rice and peas. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

But for the foreseeable future, diners will no longer be able to come in and sit down for a meal — a huge loss for a city that has already experienced the loss of so many Black-centered spaces. Miss Ollie’s, the beloved Afro-Caribbean spot, closed this past year. So did Brown Sugar Kitchen.

When reached by phone, Jones told me that he has been keenly aware of that loss. In the week since he first announced the news, a steady stream of longtime customers has reached out to him to express their grief — to lament yet another Black-owned restaurant in Oakland going under.

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In Jones’ view, the closure of Kingston 11 and these other restaurants should serve as a reminder of how important it is for Black folks and other people of color to support local businesses that reflect their culture and roots. And while he doesn’t believe that Black-owned businesses should “get a pass” just because of the identity of their proprietors, it strikes him that there isn’t more of a concerted effort to support them — especially within communities of color.

“On the surface, it looks like Black-owned businesses are thriving,” he says. “But most of us don’t have money in our pocket. I don’t have Wall Street or Silicon Valley friends who can front me $300,000.” A rainy day — or a series of rainy days like the ones we’ve had in February and March — could be enough to put a business under.

Kendretta Rogers talks with her nephew Deandre while waiting for an order at Kingston 11. The restaurant has long been a popular gathering space for Oakland’s Black and brown communities. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Ultimately, Jones says, “It’s important that folks recognize that there’s a role that they can play if they want to see a community that reflects them back. So they can see Asian, brown and Black people in the front of the house, in the kitchen and behind the bar — not just washing dishes but running shit. We want to reflect to a young person who walks in the door, ‘Oh shit, there’s someone who looks like me. Maybe someday I can own my own restaurant.’”

Still, Jones stresses that he sees this not as the end of the Kingston 11 story but rather a new beginning. Like many, many other restaurant owners during this pandemic, he decided that using the space as a commissary kitchen to do some combination of catering and private events would be a more sustainable business model than trying to operate as a sit-down restaurant. Front-of-house staffing, in particular, has been a challenge during this late stage of the pandemic, when so many of his longtime servers felt burned out and decided to leave the restaurant industry altogether.

A chef, dressed in a blue chef's coat and black baseball cap, carefully plates an order of curry shrimp.
Jones prepares an order of curry shrimp. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Moving forward, Jones says, the restaurant will look to expand its existing roster of corporate lunches and assorted UC Berkeley faculty and grad student events — Kingston 11’s food is especially popular among the university’s students of color, he says. If you’re planning an oxtails-and-jerk-chicken kind of wedding reception in the near future, Jones is eager to work with you (and hopefully my invitation is in the mail).

Beyond that, Jones says he’d like to bring Kingston 11’s food into more nontraditional dining settings — say, a senior citizens’ home or an elementary school. What would it look like for a school lunch program to replace its chicken nuggets and microwavable pizza with a Kingston 11–run menu?

A plate of jerk chicken, served with plantains and rice and peas.
The jerk chicken — a Kingston 11 classic — will still be available at Jones’ other restaurant, Calabash. If Jones has his way, it might even make an appearance on school lunch menus. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

“[In this country] we invest very little in education. They don’t even want to talk about the true history of the country, much less feeding the kids — they’re too busy playing political games,” Jones says. “So how do I show up?”

The final days of Kingston 11 as a restaurant space will be business as usual, but perhaps with a few special touches. Of note, DJ Carlos — the restaurant’s longtime DJ who turned every Friday night at Kingston 11 into a reggae dance party, but has since moved to Sacramento — will be back on the decks for that final Saturday. “We’re going to have a good old-fashioned Jamaican street party, indoors,” Jones says.

As for those who are worried about the loss of Black spaces in Oakland, Jones hopes to create the same welcoming vibe at his new restaurant, Calabash, which is just a few blocks away from Kingston 11. Just this past weekend, he says, he walked into the new space and was struck by how everyone there was Black, brown or Asian. Kids were running around, and everyone just looked so comfortable, like they were hanging out in their own living room. Seeing that, Jones says, “I felt so good in my heart.”

“Like they say, a house is not a home until someone is living there,” he says. “A restaurant is not a community restaurant until the community shows up.”

Green restaurant facade with a sign that reads, "Kingston 11."
The restaurant’s colorful exterior has been a easily recognizable fixture in Uptown Oakland. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

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Kingston 11’s last day of business will be on Sat., March 25, when it will be open noon–9 p.m. at its original location at 2270 Telegraph Ave. The restaurant’s longtime DJ, DJ Carlos, will be back on the decks for one night only.

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