The days of Penrose, Charlie Hallowell’s wood fire-centered restaurant in Oakland, are coming to an end.
While news broke last summer that restaurateur Hallowell, who was accused of sexual harassment by more than 30 former employees, would be selling Penrose to chef Rico Rivera, Rivera didn’t officially take over until December 28. Still, he’s been working at Penrose for about two months, slowly transitioning the restaurant and staff to his new vision: Almond & Oak. Rivera, most recently executive chef at Flora, is still waiting for the website and signage to be completed before formally reopening Penrose as Almond & Oak, which he hopes happens by February.
The interior — one of the most beautiful in all of Oakland — will remain the same apart from some slightly larger dining tables. And the restaurant will continue Penrose’s focus on wood-fired cooking and commitment to house-made ingredients like breads and cheeses. So why the name change?
“It’s my restaurant,” Rivera says. “I never wanted to own a restaurant named someone else’s.”
The staff is mostly new. (“Everyone who wanted to stay on is still here,” Rivera says.) And while Rivera is planning to keep Penrose’s popular flatbreads on the menu, he’s ushering in his New American cooking style. To him, that means pulling influences from many cultures — Rivera is Puerto Rican and Nicaraguan, but he adores Italian cuisine, for example. (“I tell everyone I have an 80-year-old Italian grandma who lives in my heart,” he says, plugging his gnocchi skills.) He plans to do away with Penrose’s former North African and Mediterranean leanings and eventually change the menu daily, like he did at Flora. Brunch will continue to feel more classically American with bacon, scrambles, and eggs Benedicts.
“What I’m excited about is utilizing this grill a lot more,” Rivera says. “Right now we have one fire burning. In the next two or three weeks, we’re going to have two fires burning with more first courses off the grill and probably some skewers.”
He hopes to usher in a new era of neighborhood restaurant glory, and leave “all the negativity” associated with Penrose behind. Even though Hallowell hasn’t been part of Penrose’s day-to-day operations for months, Rivera says business has never fully recovered — understandably so, as it hasn’t been completely clear to diners when the sale would go through and when Hallowell would no longer stand to profit off of the restaurant.
“The numbers are down for sure since all this happened,” Rivera says. “I hope that goes away when we reopen and we can get back to focusing on food.”