Fried Chicken Dinner at Miss Ollie's in Swans Market in Old Oakland. (Kim Westerman)
Though many cuisines have versions of fried chicken, not the least of which is the karaage found on virtually every Japanese restaurant menu in the U.S., the style that is the focus of this guide has its genesis in West African cooking traditions that first became rooted in the American South by way of enslaved African and African-American people. Chicken was a delicacy before World War II because of its relatively high cost; however, its fried incarnation was forever commodified in the U.S. by a colonel who shall remained unnamed, when his small fast-food franchise expanded rapidly through the United States in the 1950s and ‘60s. But take heart. There are plenty of local chefs still doing the tradition justice.
In 1961, the city of Gainesville, Georgia, passed an ordinance that made it illegal to eat fried chicken with anything but your hands, including a knife and fork. As recently as 2009, a 91-year-old woman was nearly arrested for trying to subvert the law. Here in the Bay Area, we’re for freedom of choice.
In terms of recipes, I’ll go out on a limb and say: Simplest is best. The fewer the ingredients, the better, no matter what the pedigree of your bird. The 12 spots recommended here are divided into three categories: Down Home, Fancy and With Waffles. The Down Home group, as might be expected, has the highest number of entries, while the three “fancy” spots aren’t formal so much as they are trendy and upscale. And yet, they’ve all devoted significant energy to developing an homage to this timeless dish. The With Waffles category speaks for itself, and it’s the one genre for which time of day doesn’t matter. You can get waffles with your chicken for any meal these restaurants happen to be serving.
Proceed with gusto, and without thoughts of LDL cholesterol. You have many choices in Oakland and Berkeley, alone.
Angeline’s Louisiana Kitchen, a downtown Berkeley mainstay, is one of two restaurants I recommend for fried chicken that doesn’t give diners a choice of dark meat. The kitchen sticks strictly to boneless breast meat, coated thoroughly (but not over-laden) with egg and flour and deep-fried. The Louisiana twist comes out in the sides: sweet potatoes mashed with ginger and vanilla, slightly spicy and dessert-like, and smoky tasso ham (pork shoulder) cream gravy. Crisp steamed green beans save this dish from over-the-top decadence. Quick frying in very hot oil seals in the juices of the white meat. A bonus is that this is a dish that kids who don’t like bones in their meat will enjoy, especially with a side of hushpuppies and honey butter.
Lady Esther’s is the newest entry to the East Bay fried chicken scene, but only technically. Louisiana-born Esther Clay owned and operated her namesake Lady Esther’s at various locations in Oakland from the late 1960s to the early 1990s, where she served such cultural luminaries as James Baldwin and Diana Ross. Her daughter Deimentrius, who made her own name at Southern Café (which she’s no longer affiliated with) carries on her mother’s proud legacy, serving a full Louisiana menu that includes resplendent fried chicken. The main seasonings on my perfectly flaky three pieces of skin-on dark meat were salt and pepper, straight-up, and I chose sides I thought would highlight the chicken’s spot-on simplicity: mac and cheese, collard greens and stewed cabbage, the greens kicked up with a bit of pepper vinegar. Each plate is cooked to order (and enough for at least two people), so be patient. It travels fine, but the only reason to get it to go is to pair it with a nice Cabernet Franc or IPA (the restaurant doesn’t serve alcohol), but otherwise it’s never better than just out of the fryer. Lady Esther’s caters to the downtown business crowd, so if you’re there for lunch, sweet tea is an appropriate substitute.
Lois the Pie Queen, the storied restaurant in north Oakland adjacent to the burgeoning Lorin District in south Berkeley, had its heyday in the and 1970s and '80s, evidenced by the glamorous photos of international celebrities on the walls, most of them personally autographed. The original location on Sacramento Street was founded by Lois Cleveland Davis, and moved to its current location in the early 1970s. It’s now run by Davis’ son, Chris, and her granddaughter, Margot. Because the restaurant also does a brisk waffle business, it might’ve ended up in the With Waffles category of this guide, but I went with Down Home because of the kitchen’s way with homemade biscuits, eggs and grits. So, yes, fried chicken for breakfast. Come when you’re not in a hurry because sometimes the wait for chicken fried on the spot is a bit long. But it’s worth it for a traditional Southern breakfast, gussied up with fried chicken, soaked in seasoned milk, skin on, then simply flour-battered and deep-fried. Ask for all-dark meat, which is moister than the white, and extra butter for those grits.
Southern Café, perhaps the most classic of all the places on this list for its easy, Sunday dining-room ambiance, gracious service, and confident way with fried chicken. There’s a branch out in Antioch now, but the Oakland flagship is a magical spot for a big family gathering or an important business lunch. It’s not fancy, or even upscale, particularly, but it’s elegant in its way, with a focus on attentive service and general friendliness. And it shares with other restaurants in the “down home” category an affinity for generous portions. Rice and gravy comes as a side on all chicken plates, and you can choose two additional sides as well. I hit the jackpot with mac and cheese and stewed collards.
I’m ashamed to admit that I know virtually nothing about Minnesota—but apparently, Minnesotans know about fried chicken. Stella Nonna, somewhat of a sleeper of a restaurant in north Berkeley, has an Italian name and a Midwestern soul. Among the Minnesota specialties on the large menu is fried chicken. Here’s the hitch: It’s only offered on Wednesday nights. So plan ahead and don’t fail to order this masterpiece of frying, with intricately secret-spiced breading, served with a pile of greens and creamy mashed potatoes with dark gravy. The chicken was so good that I left thinking I should probably try other dishes on the menu, knowing I likely never would, unless I end up back there on a non-Wednesday.
1407 San Pablo Ave. [Map]
Berkeley, CA 94602
Ph: (510) 524-3400
Hours: Wed-Fri, 11am-9pm; Sat, 9am-9pm; Sun, 9am-3pm
Facebook: Stella Nonna
Price Range: $$ Minnesota fried chicken ($17.50)
It’s a tiny cheat to include Touch of Soul in a fried chicken guide to Berkeley and Oakland because it’s officially in Emeryville, but if you think of borders as arbitrary, it makes perfect sense, given that this little gem of a restaurant is on the main drag of San Pablo as you head south through Oakland. It deserves its place on the list for value, alone. For $13.39, you get a plate that I daresay would feed three people, a half-chicken, in fact. But I wouldn’t recommend it if it weren’t also delicious, which it is. There are many sides to choose from, and I can never pass up stuffing, so I ordered a carb-loaded dinner that also included mashed potatoes and gravy and long-cooked collards. The restaurant has a nominal wine list, so it’s beer or soft drinks for the win.
Touch of Soul
4336 San Pablo Ave. [Map]
Emeryville, CA 94608
Ph: (510) 595-1227
Hours: Tue-Sat, 11:30am-10pm; Sun, 11:30am-9pm
Price Range: $$ Chicken fried dinner ($13.39)
One of Uptown Oakland’s most beloved restaurants is Hopscotch, which has a menu of local ingredients combined in surprising ways that always work, often with a Japanese bent. While I excluded karaage from this list, Hopscotch certainly makes the cut because the concept is classic American-fried. You don’t know there’s anything else going on until you take a bite and sense a hint of ginger in the batter, and the sides of baked beans and pickled purple cabbage don’t give away the secret. Furthermore, you can buy a whole bucket of fried chicken to go (eight pieces for $30)! The icing on the cake is the craft cocktail list, with choices for any time of day. I had the Y Tu Mamá with mescal, St. George’s chili vodka, cynar and grapefruit juice, and found it to be a sumptuous midday repast.
1915 San Pablo Ave. [Map]
Oakland, CA 94612
Ph: (510) 788-6217
Hours: Mon-Thu, 11:30am-3pm and 5-10pm; Fri, 11:30am-3pm and 5-11pm; Sat, 10:30am-3pm and 5-11pm; Sun, 10:30am-3pm and 5-10pm
Price Range: $$$ Buttermilk fried chicken ($19, lunch; $23 dinner)
The throughline at Miss Ollie’s is Caribbean, and there isn’t a dish on the menu that doesn’t sing with flavor. The space, in Swan’s Market in Old Oakland, is also among the most joyful in town, with easygoing servers who know their food. Order a pickle plate and the salt fish and ackee for the table, then settle in for the four-piece fried chicken dinner, which is enough for a family of four, especially if you order other dishes. No dithering over sides here: The exquisitely fried chicken comes with potato salad, field greens with lemon, and killer homemade hot sauce. Boom. Get a carafe of inexpensive rosé to share and sit outside and people-watch to your heart’s content. This is one of the best dining experiences in the Bay Area.
901 Washington St. [Map]
Oakland, CA 94607
Ph: (510) 298-6188
Hours: Tue-Thu, 11:30am-2pm and 5:30-9pm; Fri, 11:30am-2pm and 5:30-10:30pm; Sat, noon-3pm and 5:30-10pm; closed Sun
Facebook: Miss Ollie's
Price Range: $$$ Miss Ollie’s skillet-fried chicken ($24)
What on earth is fried chicken doing on the menu of an Italian restaurant best known for its wood-fired pizza? After you taste Pizzaiolo’s version, you’ll surely say, “Why not?” The secret, and the way it remains in the wheelhouse of “Italian,” is in the salsa rossa served on top. A bright tomato and pepper sauce traditionally used for bollito misto, it’s also just right with fried poultry, as it happens, especially the buttermilk-breaded variety. The chicken isn’t on the menu every night, but it usually makes an appearance several times a week. Because the pizzas here are not to be missed, I recommend ordering a plate of fried chicken, when available, to share with the table. Trust me, it works.
5008 Telegraph Ave. [Map]
Oakland, CA 94609
Ph: (510) 652-4888
Hours: Mon-Thu, 8:30am-noon and 5:30-10pm; Fri, 8am-noon and 5:30-10:30pm; Sat, 9am-1pm and 5:30-10:30pm; closed Sun
Price Range: $$$ Buttermilk-fried Hoffman Farms chicken ($29)
Since Aunt Mary’s Café moved across the street and north two blocks from its original space on Telegraph Avenue in Temescal, its focus has shifted exclusively to breakfast, lunch and weekend brunch, but the whole place has a kind of constant “brunch” ambiance. While it still has a decidedly Southern feel, it’s also got a local Oaktown vibe with super-casual-cum-professional servers who seem to be plugged in to their largely regular clientele—and a general air of leisure, the precise variety of which you want when you’re truly breakfasting or practicing the art of brunch. Aunt Mary’s fried chicken is of the “with waffle” variety, and it’s the second of two places on this list I recommend as white-meat-only, in part for the accompanying yeasted grits waffle. Light and airy, yet coarsely textured, this is one of the best waffles in all of the Bay Area. And you can get it savory-leaning with sage gravy or with agave syrup (maple syrup for an extra $2). But I digress. The chicken is a thin (perhaps pounded) breast, coasted with a beguiling breading rumored to include potato chips. I couldn’t get confirmation from the kitchen, but my server seemed confident about this proclamation, and my first bite confirmed it: crunchy, salty, dense without being heavy. The platter is served with a steak knife stabbed through the chicken like a culinary crime scene—or maybe a big T-bone. The dish fills the whole plate, and it’s almost a given that you’ll have leftovers.
Tanya Holland’s Brown Sugar Kitchen is the stuff chicken and waffle dreams are made of. Holland brings her French culinary training at Burgundy’s École de Cuisine La Varenne to West Oakland in the form of New Soul food, which is so delicious that she may have well invented the term. The restaurant could’ve landed in any of the three categories on this list, but the chef’s ethereal cornmeal waffles tip the scale to the “with waffles” group. Crisp, golden, and light as air, the waffles are served with brown sugar butter and a brilliantly tart apple cider syrup, so the sweetness in the dish comes more from the butter than the syrup. The fried chicken is equally compelling, brined in a buttermilk bath before frying, and then finished in the oven. The only mistake you can make here is to arrive too late to get a table. It happens, especially on weekends, so plan ahead. It’s walk-in only.
Jack London Square’s Home of Chicken and Waffles is not a hipster spot. It’s where you go, both pre- and post-hangover, to fulfill a deep craving for enormous plates of fried chicken and crisp waffles loaded with butter and syrup. The left side of the restaurant is diner-style, while the right side, the bar end of the space, gets loud long before sunset with music and Embarcadero revelers, many of whom are headed to or from Yoshi’s for a concert. It’s the most utilitarian choice on this list. The kitchen does a huge volume, and service is often less than attentive, but the food does the job of fortifying you for a good long time.