West Oakland’s historic California Hotel is in the midst of a major revitalization project, and with it will come a new destination for barbecue.
The space’s central, 1,800-square-foot restaurant will be Crave BBQ, which got its start in 2017 as a pop-up. Rashad Armstead grew a following for his slowly smoked meats and classic sides out of an old gas station in West Oakland — best known now as a common pop-up location for Horn Barbecue — but stopped after less than a year to start looking for a permanent brick-and-mortar. Prior to Crave, Armstead ran a private catering business called Artistic Taste 7.
For Armstead, the California Hotel is a perfect fit. His family has deep roots in West Oakland — his great grandmother Sarah Rawls opened her first restaurant in the neighborhood and went on to operate several more Bay Area restaurants, pen a few cookbooks, and produce a cooking show. “She was Oprah before Oprah,” Armstead says. “I’m taking what she left us — that’s her legacy — and taking it where she would have wanted it to go.”
Crave BBQ will serve a similar menu to its pop-up days, with ribs, brisket, chicken, and hot links alongside cornbread, yams, and collard greens. Armstead points to his macaroni and cheese, red skinned potato salad, and pulled pork as being particularly popular. The latter gets marinated and then dry rubbed before being smoked for 12 hours over hickory, cherry, and pecan wood. He’s hoping to open in February, 2019.
“I always say it’s California style because it’s a mixture of everything. I have family from Arkansas, Texas, Georgia, Mississippi, so it’s all these different flavors that have been passed onto me,” he says. “It really makes you feel like you’re eating grandma’s cooking, but it’s being cooked by a 30-year-old man.”
Armstead hopes to add rotating specials, too, like smoked lamb and oxtails. He envisions Crave BBQ as part of Oakland’s burgeoning barbecue revival, drawing crowds from all over the Bay Area alongside Smokin’ Woods BBQ and Horn Barbecue.
But he also has a social justice bent to his business model, which makes it particularly fitting with the efforts at the California Hotel.
In the 1930s and ‘40s, the hotel featured legendary blues and jazz musicians like Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, and Duke Ellington, but it closed in 1971 and fell into disrepair. The East Bay Asian Local Development Corporation has renovated the building with low-income housing, a community garden, and on-site social services. Now, the organization — along with the San Pablo Area Revitalization Collaborative — is also transforming the hotel and its surrounding area into a cultural, arts, and music campus. It’s the new home to Grammy winner Fantastic Negrito’s studio as well as the Oakland Public Conservatory of Music, which will also collaborate with Armstead for a separate blues cafe. Details are scarce on that, but it’s expected to open at the end of 2018.
The nonprofit music school and Crave BBQ will collaborate on a youth program, too. Every Monday, kids will organize performances on the stage and also host pop-ups at the restaurant. The latter stems from Armstead’s youth employment and entrepreneur training program, Street Degree.
“The cooking world, being a chef — it’s beautiful, it’s great, but there are so many crazy things going on in the chef world,” he said. “The suicide rate, the addiction rate is crazy. It’s very easy to get to that point if you don’t have a way out. My escape is giving a young chef the opportunity to take over what I know.”