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The Oakland Greek Festival Is the Ultimate Church Potluck

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Three young women hold up the lids from a steam table, revealing large piles of grilled lamb.
Lamb in various forms — skewered, grilled, sliced and sandwiched — is always one of the highlights of the Oakland Greek Festival, an annual extravaganza hosted by the Greek Orthodox Cathedral of the Ascension. (Stavro Media, courtesy of Oakland Greek Festival)

Give me a choice between Michelin-starred fine dining and a big, immigrant-cooked church potluck, and I’ll choose the potluck nine times out of ten. That’s probably why I love the Oakland Greek Festival, the Greek Orthodox Cathedral of the Ascension’s flagship event: It’s essentially the biggest, liveliest church potluck you can imagine — an expression of the Bay Area’s multigenerational Greek community that’s infused with so much joy and down-to-earth hospitality. Not to mention the irresistible aroma of skewered meats and roast lamb you can smell from several blocks away.

The Oakland cathedral will host this year’s three-day lamb-stravaganza on May 17–19, but the festival’s history goes back more than 50 years.

Frosene Phillips, a spokesperson for the Oakland Greek Festival, remembers attending as a dancer when the event first started in the early ’70s. Back then, Phillips recalls, the festival was held at the old Oakland Civic Auditorium, near Lake Merritt. When the event debuted the first week of May in 1972, they called it the “Greek Week” — seven full days of music, folk dancing, food and wine, all in celebration of the church’s 50th anniversary in Oakland.

Lamb skewers on the grill.
Lamb skewers ready to come off the grill. (Courtesy of Oakland Greek Festival)

Eventually, the festival moved to the Cathedral of the Ascension’s own church grounds in the Oakland hills, where the event carried on year after year. They’ve only skipped it three times: once when the auditorium was under renovation, and then of course the first two years of the COVID shutdown, when all big public gatherings went on pause.

One of the first Greek food and culture festivals of its kind in the U.S., it became a model — the “mothership,” as Phillips puts it — for other similar church-affiliated Greek “bazaars” that sprung up around the Bay Area and beyond. As Phillips recalls, “Even Greek parishes from the East Coast would send people out to see what was going on in Oakland.”


For parishioners here in the East Bay, it was a whole lot of work and preparation, starting months in advance.

Black and white photo of elderly women in aprons preparing trays of Greek moussaka.
Church volunteers prepare trays of moussaka for an early 1980s edition of the festival. (Courtesy of Oakland Greek Festival)

“I call it Greek hospitality on a grand scale,” Phillips says.

These days, as the proverbial baton has been passed from one generation to the next, Phillips says the biggest challenge is just finding enough volunteers from the parish to put together such a massive, well-attended event, especially from a food standpoint. Still, even after all these years, the vast majority of the food sold at the festival is prepared by church volunteers — only a handful of items have been outsourced, Phillips says.

Historically, the signature item was roast lamb — a whole lamb grilled on a spit for each day of the festival. Visitors would buy a ticket as soon as they arrived, and when the lamb had finished cooking, they’d line up to receive a plate piled high with meat, rice, vegetables and all the fixins.

A smiling young boy holds a pair of metal tongs as he tends to lamb kebabs cooking on the grill.
Each year’s festival is a team effort, with church parishioners of all ages pitching in. (Stavro Media, courtesy of Oakland Greek Festival)

The whole lamb has been put on hold since the pandemic, but the festival still offers a multitude of grilled meat options: gyros, skewered kebabs and the sausages known as loukaniko. And of course there will still be juicy, thinly sliced leg of lamb, served as an open-face sandwich with au jus drizzled on top. Separate booths will sell grilled lamb chops and lamb shanks.

In total, the food options are almost too many to enumerate. The squares of flaming cheese known as saganaki. The hearty, lasagna-like pastitsio. The many different types of phyllo-based pastries, including bougatsa, a flaky, custard-filled sweet pastry that will be offered for the first time this year. In fact, there will be a whole room dedicated to desserts, including loukoumades, the honey-drenched doughnut holes that draw the longest line at every Greek food event I’ve ever attended.

Two cooks shout out in excitement and trepidation as a grill topped with squares of cheese bursts into flame.
The flaming cheese known as saganaki is always a spectacle, in addition to being a treat to eat. (Stavro Media, courtesy of Oakland Greek Festival)
A pile of freshly fried doughnut holes.
A fresh batch of loukoumades. (Stavro Media, courtesy of Oakland Greek Festival)

Plenty of non-Greek, non-Orthodox folks attend the festival solely on the basis of how great the food is, but that certainly isn’t the only reason to attend. There’s also live music, folk dancing and other cultural performances to keep the good vibes flowing.

And if you’ve never visited the Cathedral of the Ascension, up in the hills? On a clear day, you’ll enjoy one of the most exquisite views of the San Francisco Bay.

The Oakland Greek Festival will take place on Friday, (4–10 p.m.), Saturday (11 a.m.–10 p.m.) and Sunday (11 a.m.–9 p.m.), May 17–19, at the Greek Orthodox Cathedral of Ascension in Oakland (4700 Lincoln Ave.). Tickets are $5 (with discounts for multiple-day passes, and children under 12 are free). There are several options for free and paid parking within walking distance of the cathedral.

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