The Bay Area’s first European-style food hall is still its most complete and creatively curated.
Thirty years ago, before Oakland was a food capital of the West Coast, and before city-dwellers routinely hopped on BART to eat, drink and shop in the East Bay, Market Hall was a mere idea in the making. Longtime East Bay residents from New Zealand, Sara, Tony and Peter Wilson set about launching a community-oriented market, one where locals and visitors alike would feel welcome and would find not only everything they needed to cook for the week, but also make new discoveries in food and wine. Today, Rockridge Market Hall houses nine businesses under one roof: Highwire Coffee Roasters, Hapuku Fish Shop, Marin Sun Farms Butcher Shop, Paul Marcus Wines, The Flower & The B florist, and four “Market Hall” shops: Produce, Bakery, Caterers, and Market Hall Foods (called The Pasta Shop until 2016).
A Neighborhood Market
Managing partner Sara Wilson says that, 30 years ago, she knew her customers would inform what the experience should be, so she didn’t worry so much about the specific details, understanding that the stores would evolve along with people’s palates and trends in the burgeoning local food culture. Sara her brothers wanted to create a space for daily shopping for Rockridge residents, a kind of European-style market with multiple vendors under one roof. Wilson says, “We live here and we all lived here when we created the project. We had a sense of what people wanted in a local market because we weren’t coming in from the outside, we were starting from the perspective of being in the neighborhood, ourselves.”
The Hub of Rockridge Market Hall: Market Hall Foods
Of the nine shops that comprise the hall, Market Hall Foods is the hub, itself a multi-department space. If there’s a worthy trend on the culinary horizon, you’ll find it represented here. Gluten-free crackers? Check. Yuzu condiment? Yep. Fermented chile sauce? Of course.
Food Pioneers: California Extra-Virgin Olive Oil
In 1987, people in the Bay Area were certainly interested in food, but at the time there were very few olive oils available from California, and only a handful from Spain and France. Now, there’s an entire row in Market Hall Foods dedicated to carefully curated olive oils from around the world, currently 30-plus brands. The selections are weighted toward world-class bottles from California, including Séka Hills from the Capay Valley and Bondolio, from the Sacramento Valley, two of the finest oils available and produced a short drive from the Bay Area. Market Hall has been a supporter of the California Olive Oil Council, whose mission is to promote California-grown extra-virgin olive oil, since its inception in 1998.
Pasta in All Shapes and Sizes
In the beginning, homemade pasta was the main event, and in some ways, it still is. While the name of the original Pasta Shop changed to Market Hall Foods, the Pasta Shop remains as a brand that supplies wholesale fresh pasta to many area clients. More than a dozen kinds of fresh Pasta Shop ravioli are available at Market Hall Foods, some of which change seasonally. Perennial favorites include lemon ricotta, and mushroom with caramelized onion. There’s also tortellini, fusilli, rigatoni and other shapes, as well as dried specialty pastas from Italy and from California-produced and -milled Community Grains. This company specializes in products made from identity-preserved grain, completely traceable back to each farmer and the many hands that bring this food to us via the complex supply chain.
While Rockridge Market Hall’s tenants have shifted over the years, one big change has been in the number of prepared foods stocked by Market Hall Foods. From whole roast chickens to elaborate prepared vegetables and salads, from fancy imported potato chips to housemade gravlax, and from salumi to olive varieties you won’t see anywhere else, a big swathe of Market Hall Foods’ real estate is devoted to ready-to-eat products.
Cheese, Cheese, and More Cheese
Cheese takes up another corner of the store. Retail director Juliana Uruburu and cheese buyer Alma Avalos are the resident experts on cheese from all over the world, lovingly and logically organized and available for tasting before purchase. Someone is always on staff to answer questions about cheese, offer serving suggestions, and even make wine-pairing recommendations.
The Other 8 Shops
Besides Market Hall Foods, there are eight other businesses in Rockridge Market Hall. The catering company counts as one, though it isn’t a shop, per se, rather a service, and a popular one.
Adjacent to Market Hall Foods is Highwire Coffee Roasters and Market Hall Bakery, which occupy a shared space fronting the College Avenue entrance to the hall. The bakery turns out breads, pastries, pizzas and more, and holds a “cookie happy hour” on Monday-Friday from 2-4pm, where a giant salted chocolate chip cookie is served to guests.
Highwire Coffee entered the space in 2011. Owned by expert coffee-cuppers, a World Barista Champion, and a dedicated green buyer, Highwire sources, roasts single-origin coffees and creates signature blends with clever names like “Tightrope” and “Conscientious Objector.”
Hapuku is the Maori word for grouper-like fish, and Hapuku Fish Shop is managed by Jacob Benjamin, a quality-obsessed fish monger. The shop specializes in sustainably sourced raw fish, but also offers fish and chips with homemade fries, sushi, chowder and other treats, as well as some homemade and bottled sauces.
Sustainability is also the main theme at Marin Sun Farms Butcher Shop, one of several branches of the highly regarded meat purveyor, founded by David Evans in 1999 on his family’s cattle ranch in Point Reyes National Seashore. Look for unusual cuts like Denver steak, kinds of meat you’ve never run across like Mangalitsa pork, as well all the usual choices in beef, lamb, chicken, pork and veal. Dry-aged cuts of beef are especially worth a splurge. All meat is farmed locally and with practices that cultivate healthy soil and promote the resilience of its ecosystem.
In a large room at the west end of the hall is Market Hall Produce, packed full of seasonal fruits and vegetables, as well as cold cases for perishables and dry goods.
Paul Marcus Wines, in between Market Hall Foods and Hapuku Fish, offers a European-leaning wine selection, often with great bargains from Italy and France, as well as a particularly well-selected collection of grower Champagnes.
And The Flower & the B ensures that your table will look and smell beautiful, with creative flower arrangements and seasonal selections for your own DIY presentations.
Though not officially among the Rockridge Market Hall Shops, Oliveto Restaurant & Café occupies the northwest corner of the building and feels very much like part of the experience of the whole. Co-owner Bob Klein is a longtime neighborhood presence and has, for many years, kept the standards of Italian cooking high in the East Bay; he’s a founder of the aforementioned Community Grains as well.
Prices at Market Hall are on the high side, but they are commensurate with quality and selection. If there’s a better specialty food market in all of the Bay Area, I haven’t found it.
In celebration of Rockridge Market Hall's 30th Anniversary, there's a free themed celebration each month of 2017. October's theme is Harvest Day, held on Saturday, October 28th, from noon to 2pm. Choose a free mini-pumpkin, enter to win an autumn gift basket by guessing the weight of a giant pumpkin, and sip and taste at stations throughout Market Hall.
Rockridge Market Hall
5655 College Ave. [Map]
Oakland, CA 94618
Ph: (510) 250-6000
Hours: Mon-Fri, 9am-8pm; Sat, 9am-7pm; Sun, 10am-7pm (Highwire Coffee Roasters and Market Hall Bakery open at 6:30am Mon-Fri and 7:30pm on Sat-Sun); The Flower & the B is open from 9:30am-7:30pm Mon-Fri, and 10am-7pm Sat-Sun).