More than most bars, Sobre Mesa is meant to tell a story. The new 2,900-square-foot downtown Oakland spot, open today at 1618 Franklin Street, is chef-owner Nelson German’s first foray into the local bar scene — he’s best known for his seafood restaurant, AlaMar, a few blocks away. German, who is of Dominican and African-American descent, says he’d been watching the cocktail renaissance develop over the past few years, both locally and overseas in Cuba, and he felt like there was a niche he could fill. “My motivation is to show how as a person of color I can do something really different — something more fun and tropical,” he says.
So, the idea for Sobre Mesa, an Afro-Latin cocktail lounge, was born. The vibe of the place is meant to make guests feel like they’re walking into a “cool resort or fancy hotel,” German says: lush greenery everywhere, vintage design touches, and a host or “concierge” who greets everyone as they walk in. (“Not a bouncer like most bars,” he says.) The whole experience is supposed to evoke a tropical vacation.
At the same time, German says, every detail is also meant to connect in some way to the broader history and culture of the Afro-Latino diaspora — the tropical plants, the Haitian rums on the back bar, the cheese empanadas and bacalao fritters on the menu, the reggaeton and cumbia music blaring from the speakers. It isn’t just meant to be escapist.
“This is real, this is my culture,” German says. “It’s showcasing our diaspora.”
For the cocktails, Alex Maynard (formerly of Starline Social Club) and Susan Eggett (Last Rites) consulted on a menu that aims to be fun, tropical, and fruit-forward — descriptors often associated with kitschy tiki bars in the local bar scene.
But rather than kitsch, Maynard, whose father’s family hails from Barbados, says he feels a personal and cultural connection with the drinks at Sobre Mesa, given the Caribbean island’s long and storied history of rum production. “There is a certain source of pride in being able to feature a tropical-centric menu without it falling under the paper umbrella of tiki,” he says.
The cocktail list will include classics (like a Manhattan and an old fashioned) as well as drinks that are more obviously tropical-leaning, including a handful of tiki standards like a Zombie Reviver #2. But every drink has some kind of tropical or Afro-Latino element that stamps it as unique to Sobre Mesa, Maynard says. The Manhattan variation, for example, has a touch of cachaça (the Brazilian sugarcane-based spirit). Other drinks are more obviously on theme: The Sobre Mesa is a play on a Mamajuana, a traditional Dominican spiced rum cocktail — but, to give it an East Bay spin, it’s made with a blend of six different rums, including one from Berkeley’s Mosswood Spirits. Every night, one of the cocktails, on a rotating basis, will come topped with a small bite of food — say, a puff pastry crostini with crab.
The place is meant to be a bar first and foremost, but with food that’s meant to good enough to take guests by surprise, German says. There won’t be any entrées, just different sizes of tapas. Food influences span the Dominican Republic, Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Africa — but usually with some kind of modern, local twist.
German expects one of the most popular dishes to be the stuffed sweet plantains, which traditionally get filled with ground beef, cheese, and peppers. Instead, he makes a vegan version filled with Impossible Beef and topped with olive tapenade and chow-chow (Creole pickled peppers). He makes Dominican-style cheese empanadas, but with aged cheddar shaved on top and a guava aioli. There’s also a confit version of spicy peri peri chicken wings that are meant to be “a nod to the motherland where a lot of us came from,” German says.
Eventually, Sobre Mesa will serve lunch, too, and the bar will turn into a coffee shop during the day, like many of the bars on the islands do. It’ll use Puerto Rican coffee beans from Red Bay Coffee. And yes, German says, customers who like their coffee sweet and strong will be able to order something similar to a café Cubano.
The space itself is divided into three sections. First, there’s a walk-in only lounge with a rotating collection of African-inspired art and what German describes as “fast-casual” style service: Customers form a line, and when they get to the front they’ll have the bartender’s full attention — no fighting with the people sitting at the bar. He’s dubbed this section the Alligator Lounge, as one side of it is lined with small booths made with faux alligator skin.
There’s also a reservations-only middle section, located underneath a giant mural painted by an Oakland artist, with cognac-colored booths. Finally, in the back, there’s a 12-seat bottle service area called La Sala (“the living room”) where the bar will also serve a smaller selection of tapas.
For now, Sobre Mesa is open Wednesday to Thursday from 5 p.m.–midnight, Fridays and Saturdays from 5 pm.–2 a.m., and Sundays from 2 p.m. to 10 p.m. It’s closed on Mondays and Tuesdays. In a few weeks, the bar will expand its hours to include lunch service. See the full menus below: