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This new darling of California cuisine outshines its storied predecessor

Chef Dirk Tolsma co-owns Acre Kitchen & Bar, a new Mediterranean restaurant in Oakland. | Sarah Holtz/The Standard

San Francisco exceptionalists like to quote fashion photographer and designer Cecil Beaton’s old adage, “San Francisco is perhaps the most European of all American cities.” Calling out my own bias as an Oakland native so you don’t have to, I’d wager that if Beaton took BART over to Rockridge these days, upon stepping off the train he would extend the same compliment to College Avenue. 

There’s no better piece of evidence for this self-indulgent argument than Market Hall, an admittedly bougie complex of food stalls and deli cases that feels like it was transposed from a mercato in Bologna or Florence. Once you’ve picked up an Acme baguette from the bakery and some Dungeness crab from Hapuku Fish Shop, it’s hard to miss the bold orange facade of the restaurant space on the corner. Sitting diagonally across from Rockridge BART, I would argue this is the best restaurant location in all of Oakland. Head upstairs and peer out of one of the Haussmann windows onto the scene below and my European streetscape comparison is cloying but accurate. 

For 35 years, this prime real estate belonged to Cal-Italian grande dame Oliveto, which shuttered in the spring of 2022. Six weeks ago, Acre Kitchen & Bar arrived in its place—an approachable heir apparent to the literal and figurative cornerstone of the neighborhood. 

From day one, the new Californian bistro had big shoes to fill. Oliveto opened in 1986—not long after Market Hall was developed—and captured the hearts of neighbors and food critics alike, clinching a James Beard Award in 1999. 

Like most other restaurants, Oliveto took a hit during Covid. A year into the pandemic, the writing was on the wall. The farm-to-table pioneer experienced a couple of last gasps—reopening briefly in 2021 and 2022—before shuttering for good that April. Residents speculated about what would come next until the news broke that a Mediterranean kitchen called Acre would be moving in at the corner of College and Shafter. 

Two weeks ago, I booked a table in the more formal upstairs dining room. I had high expectations. My family celebrated special occasions at Oliveto throughout my childhood—my dad’s 40th birthday, my mom’s rehearsal dinner and a few other nights that loom less large in my memory but contribute to a naive belief that Oliveto was one of those perma-places that would outlive me. 

So here’s my take: Acre not only fills Oliveto’s shoes, it meets the moment of Bay Area fine dining, which is not an easy feat. 

I’d call Acre’s repertoire California cuisine, mostly because it emphasizes seasonality over category, though Mediterranean is probably the easiest catch-all for farm-to-table dishes like branzino and Moroccan spiced burrata that comfortably share space on the menu. 

I could run through the minutiae of each dish we ordered—a local kolsch, the fluffy pull-apart rolls, the garlic-laden Gulf shrimp, the braised lamb sugo. Instead, I’ll simply say that each plate felt reflective of the updated design and down-to-earth staff at the restaurant. It was all nourishing and without pretense. Where Oliveto became staid and stiff over the decades, Acre is contemporary and accessible.

After dining at Acre, I spoke with two East Bay residents who were longtime Oliveto diners and first-time Acre customers. Lori Mazurek lives in the Oakland hills and dined at Acre for the first time in mid-January. She said that after ascending the staircase, she was immediately drawn in by the sight of whole chickens rotating around a spit-roast in the center of the dining room. Apart from a chewy beef tartare, she said she thoroughly enjoyed the meal, though it wasn’t exactly a deal.

Acre Kitchen & Bar opened in December 2022 following a full renovation. | Sarah Holtz/The Standard

Mazurek makes an important point. Is Acre more affordable than Oliveto was? Well, no. The ribeye steak, for example, will set you back $58. But between the current inflated costs of food, the elaborate buildout that co-owners Dirk Tolsma (Epic Steak) and Pete Sittnick (Waterbar) undertook and the general against-the-odds nature of launching a restaurant in the Bay Area, that’s to be expected. 

Overall, Mazurek said she thinks Acre is an upgrade. “It feels less stuffy than Oliveto used to,” she said. 

Stephanie Bangert, a Piedmont resident, remembers the earliest days of Oliveto. As she told me, she and her husband have been in the Bay Area “since the beginning of time.”

She said her family remained loyal to Oliveto until the end, even though she felt they failed to keep up with the times. “They never asked people for any feedback,” she pointed out.

Bangert said she often brought out-of-town guests to Oliveto, and they struggled to decipher the menu. “Yes, Oliveto had good food, but unless you read Italian fluently the menu was always a great challenge,” she said. “It became a distraction.” 

In addition to admiring the airy renovation, Bangert remarked that Acre seems to draw a more intergenerational crowd, and that the owners appear to be more in touch with the neighborhood.

“It’s come-as-you-are in the Bay Area kind of way,” Bangert said. 

Again, those windows offer a convenient metaphor. At Oliveto, it always felt like there was an inherent hierarchy between the upstairs dining room—flanked by windows holding court over College Avenue—and the downstairs bistro, a sense of deliberate separation. From the open rotisserie to the kindness of the staff, the place feels as egalitarian as a fine-dining restaurant in the Bay Area can be. Acre finds its footing in the present tense.

Acre Kitchen & Bar