Oakland’s Jack London Square evolves into hip, action-packed destination

December 19, 2016

Alec Tice, left, and Tim Doherty, right, both from Boston, Mass., and Chris Burns, center left, with Ruth Blaisdell, of Oakland, Calif. gather by the fire pit at Plank in Jack London Square in Oakland, Calif., on Jan. 21, 2015. 

For years, Jack London Square on the Oakland waterfront embodied the stubborn challenges of urban redevelopment. Money and time were spent on revitalizing this strip of businesses lining the estuary but with little to show for the effort other than a few lonely eateries, gift shops and empty walkways.

With Oakland now swept up in the Bay Area tech resurgence, Jack London has finally become the hip, overflowing destination that city planners long had hoped it would be. Even better for Sacramento-area residents, the square requires just a 2-hour, 20-minute Capitol Corridor train ride from Sacramento Valley station, which these days might be quicker than fighting traffic on Interstate 80 and then parking.

Like much in the Bay Area these days, Jack London and its surrounding blocks center around food. Gone is the El Torito that long served salty tortilla chips and fajitas on the ground floor of the long building stretching between Franklin and Webster streets. Now, trendy crowds fill state-of-the-art establishments such as the pan-American restaurant Bocanova (55 Webster St., 510-444-1233) and Haven (44 Webster St., 510-663-4440) with its prix fixe menus and craft cocktails.

Just to the south of the building is the beloved Heinold’s First and Last Chance Saloon (48 Webster St., 510-839-6761), which has been slinging drinks in the same small wooden shack since 1883.

The square’s center of gravity is Plank (98 Broadway, 510-817-0980), the giant arcade/games parlor/bowling alley in the building long housing a struggling Barnes & Noble bookstore. This hugely popular spot has in some ways become a victim of its own success, with the crowds and noise at times injecting just too intense a dose of tech-bro revelry. Still, in its quieter moments, the patio provides a tranquil, sunny place to grab a bite and drink before going inside and blowing away virtual zombies.

One thing has stayed the same since the square’s underachieving days. Step away from the charcuterie, bocce and IPAs, and head for the water. A seagull or two will swoop over the bronze statue of writer Jack London frozen in oratorical fervor. Turn a corner, and the hunched cranes of the Port of Oakland line the shoreline, and San Francisco emerges on the horizon across the bay.

That wind and spray are what have drawn people to Jack London Square for decades. And that scene will continue to soothe those folks stepping out onto the square for a lungful of ocean air for years to come.




McClatchy-Tribune Information Services