Significance of Sustenance: Oakland, CA

The nighttime cityscape of of Oakland, California.


Many travelers can attest to the power of a great tour for giving them a feel for the history and culture that makes their destination so unique. In Oakland, visitors have the distinct pleasure of taking a walking tour of Oakland that’s centered around a delicious subject: food. Once you know that’s an option, how can you not get excited? After all, Oakland is a foodie’s paradise. And its diverse, strong food culture makes it a delicious place to explore. 

Oakland hails the reinvention of this quirky city, that has all too often been overshadowed by its neighbor across the Bay. As many visitors soon discover, San Francisco is great, but Oakland is a hotspot in its own right. The “Bright Side of the Bay” isn’t only about the restaurants making best-of lists (and plenty of them are). It’s also the smaller spots and diverse neighborhoods, many of which visitors only get the chance to fully explore when they sign up for a tour. 

One of the things sure to strike you is the sheer volume of eateries. You could spend a week eating your way through the city and still have new spots to try. You’ll also learn that the heart of Oakland’s food culture is a little different. Chefs here cook for the people in their communities. And that gives the amazing cuisine here strong ties to its history and heritage.


Oakland is home to one of the most historic Chinatowns in America. It dates back to the 1850s, when Chinese settlers came to the area to build the Central Pacific Railroad. Over a few decades, they settled in what’s now the city’s Chinatown neighborhood. Many Asian migrants came to the area after the devastating San Francisco earthquake of 1906. Providing services and support to the families here has always been a driving force behind this historic neighborhood.  

Chinatown remains the center of the city’s Asian culture. It’s also the go-to place for amazing food. Dim sum, hand-pulled noodles, and boba are a few perennial favorites among visitors. Other popular dishes include Vietnamese specialties and rolled ice cream.

A person enjoying lavish dishes of dim sum with another person.
A person happily drinking boba tea.


The Gold Rush and big dreams of economic freedom that drew so many Americans with European roots to California also attracted African Americans with dreams of gold, personal freedom, and setting down roots. In the early days, they worked as laborers, sailors, cooks, and more. 

The completion of the Transcontinental Railroad in 1869, which later became the Central Pacific, heralded an increase in the jobs for Oakland’s early African American population. The Pullman Company, which created the Pullman sleeper car, employed only African American women and men, giving them a chance to earn higher wages, see the country, and learn more about other communities.

During food tours, visitors are often surprised to discover that Oakland has one of the highest soul food restaurants per capita outside of the Deep South. And that’s because of the vibrant community with history that’s woven into the very fabric of the city. No walking tour or visit to Oakland would be complete without getting a taste of what the soul food culture has to offer. Visitor favorites include cornmeal waffles with buttermilk fried chicken, barbecue and collard greens, and sweet potato pie.

A silver tray filled to the brim with a variety of soul foods.
A clean slice of sweet potato pie with a huge dollop of whip chream.
A person pouring syrup on a plate of chicken and waffles.


No food tour would be complete without touching on the vital role of the port on the economy and seafood on Oakland’s food culture. The Port of Oakland has been a vital part of the city’s infrastructure for more than a century. Its history goes further back than the Civil War. Today, it’s among the country’s top ten busiest container ports. And the city’s proximity to the Pacific Ocean and San Francisco Bay makes it a prime location for a bounty of fresh seafood

The waters of the bay are home to salmon, rockfish, sturgeon, halibut, and more. Visitors and locals savor the flavors that Oakland serves up, including exquisite seafood dishes like Dungeness crab, roasted salmon, and seafood ravioli.

Two plates filled with seafood, rice and potatoes.
A cast iron skillet filled with steamed crab legs.

Anyone operating under the assumption that San Francisco is the only Bay Area city worth checking out for dining purposes is likely ill-informed. Oakland’s growing culinary reputation is something that everyone should experience for themselves. From West Oakland to Downtown to Fruitvale, there are neighborhoods, eateries and culinary heritage just waiting to be explored.