Bureaucratic hurdles, pandemic-induced pauses, and construction delays couldn’t stop chefs Nigel Jones and Hanif Sadr from pursuing their passion project. On December 5th, the two finally opened Calabash, an all-day Caribbean Iranian restaurant in uptown Oakland that’s been brewing since 2019.
Jones envisioned the sprawling East Bay space as a market, restaurant, and bar. “I was looking at Oakland and seeing where the voids [were],” he says.
He considers Calabash a casual spin-off to his restaurant Kingston 11, an East Bay essential that’s drawn crowds for its jerk chicken and curry goat since opening in 2013. In contrast, Calabash’s multicultural offerings can be enjoyed in both takeout and sit-down form. It’s an ambitious collaboration, complete with a large, blended menu.
Jones admits that Calabash’s market-like, grab-and-go vibe was influenced by the Jewish delis he visited (and fell in love with) in New York City. Rather than stocking smoked meats and cured fish, however, Calabash aims to spotlight many underrepresented cuisines. “I want to be a food mecca in Oakland,” Jones says.
At Calabash, Jones serves his signature Jamaican plates; he’s especially excited about the succulent short ribs, marinated in spices for 48 hours and braised for an additional 14. The ribs are sold by the pound or piled on a sandwich with pickled vegetables. Also on the menu: smoked duck brushed with a sticky-sweet pomegranate crust and curried crab and green beans ladled over jasmine rice.
Chef Sadr, who steers Komaaj Kitchen, a down-to-earth Iranian spot in San Francisco’s Mission District, dishes up popular mazzeh (small bites), including mirzaghaseminaz khatoun (a dip of roasted eggplant and garlic walnuts), maast sabzipanir parvardeh (fresh labneh cheese flecked with herbs), and sangak flatbread for dipping.
Jones and Sadr plan to collaborate with more chefs down the line by adding dishes to the menu as well as stocking prepared foods in the marketplace. Confirmed participants include Amelia Gonzalez of Casa de Chocolates, a Latin America-inspired confectionary brand, and Gregory Williams of Gregory’s Gourmet Desserts, who is known for rich, homestyle cheesecakes.
Calabash’s drinks menu changes depending on the time of day. In the morning, there’s local Red Bay coffee; afternoons call for Komaaj’s saffron and rose teas; wine, beer, and cocktails are served in the evening. Standouts include the spicy, mezcal-forward “Sol Verde” and Jones’s take on the old fashioned, a combination of bourbon, rum, and warming spices.
Calabash sits just four blocks from Kingston 11 on the ground floor of the Alta Waverly apartment complex. Though Jones admits the space initially felt like a 3,800-square-foot-box, architect Andre King brought his vibrant vision to life.
Jones and King began by defining half a dozen spaces. The market up front welcomes shoppers with hot smoked meats and chilled salads. The indoor dining room offers a prime seat at the center. Drinkers can belly up to a cocktail bar, a second wine bar, or sink into low couches in a separate lounge. Soon—permit pending—it’ll be possible to grab a sidewalk seat.
Jones hopes that Calabash’s interiors, dressed with gray concrete floors, natural redwood, greenery, and pops of turquoise, feel modern but inviting. “I wanted the space to be beautiful, inspired by the city of Oakland,” he says. “Oakland never gets credit for innovation and sophistication.”
Most importantly, Jones was on a quest to create an inclusive gathering place for people of all backgrounds. He was spurred to action after learning about certain incidents, such as staff calling the police on two young black men for simply meeting in a Philadelphia coffee shop. “What I want to do is create spaces where people of color can walk in and feel like, ‘wow, this place is beautiful, man’,” he explains. “And that they belong here.”
Calabash is open on Monday through Saturday from 8 am to 9 pm and Sunday from 8 am to 3 pm.
Becky Duffett is a food writer living and eating in San Francisco. Follow her on Instagram at @beckyduffett.