“Michelin!” Outside their new restaurant space in Oakland, the Hi Felicia team poses for photos, their young ambition present everywhere: from how they’re switching up the requisite “cheese!” before photos to how they transformed a restaurant space in a mere two months. Now they’re publicly setting their sights on Michelin stars.
Hi Felicia is the Bay Area’s pandemic pop-up darling, a fine dining experience first launched in 2021 on the back deck of the Oakland apartment of chef Imana, who only goes by her first name. The vibe from the early days was more closely likened to a dinner party than the austere, modernist restaurants typically linked to that term “fine dining.” And Imana hopes that feeling of eating “at a friend’s house” will transfer over to the restaurant’s new space at 23rd near Webster Street. She recognizes the stakes are higher but says the team will serve elevated food — which they can cook properly now that they’re in a commercial kitchen, which helps make things feel more legit, she says. “It’s always been fine dining,” Imana says of Hi Felicia’s food. “It’s just always been rustic and vulgar and free and open. This is physically different, which feels different, and we have all of the resources at our disposal. I think this physical space, in and of itself, is allowing us to elevate.”
The dinner party feel is front and center as you approach the new space; there’s a parklet out front, but rather than tables, it’s a living room setup with two couches, a coffee table, and a wooden counter to set drinks on. It’s a space for the restaurant’s 40 guests to mingle as they sip on kava ahead of the meal. Inside, guests will be served 12-14 courses of what Imana calls “California comfort food” — small bites influenced primarily by Mexican culture with global touches throughout, created with California seasonal produce. Imana talks over some dishes the team’s been working on, like fried chicken smothered in mole verde; big, bright acidic salads; smoked duck wet burritos; caviar; plantains; and uni rum ice cream with pork rinds. It’s all about the comfort food that she wants to eat, on a good day or bad, that makes everyone feel good when they eat it.
Hi Felicia will only serve beer, sake, and natural wine; the vision is to keep a constantly rotating wine list of 20 selections, and it’s a who’s-who in the natural wine world. Imana named Stagiaire Wine, Iruai Winery, Everything Is Okay, Gearhead Wines, Lula, Deux Punx, Purity Wine as favorites who will make appearances on the menu.
If you had any preconceived notions of what a fine dining restaurant looks like, check those expectations at the door. When asked about what they were going for with its look — a neon green exterior, followed by an all-black interior effused with punctuations of art in every corner — Imana immediately replies, “camp.” She selected “the tackiest shit you can imagine” but it’s a fun mishmash of items that evoke the smallest of smiles at each turn, with many items made by local artists or sourced locally. “I’m really excited to be changing what the bar is and what the level is and what [fine dining] can be,” Imana says. “How unstuffy it can be, how much fun you can have, how vibrant you can make a space, while still serving unbelievably elevated food, is exciting to me. It’s this level of detail and it’s another way of intimacy for me: It’s a way to show people how much I care about them dining.”
That level of care is also shown through the team, and when talking about them, Imana starts to tear up with pride. “My team, they’re all artists and queer and non-binary people and they love food and they love wine, and they love going deeper with me,” she says. The welcoming feel of her team is something Imana’s never felt before while out dining at high-end restaurants, and she wants to preserve that, while offering refined service. It’s been a hard road for Imana to get to this stage at the age of 25, but she’s fought hard for it. She opened the business without investors and partners, she says, a difficult feat in itself, let alone from someone who says she grew up right at the poverty line, not always having enough to eat. It’s hard to come from nothing and build a life like this, she says, it didn’t just happen. “This was built from so much trauma and stress and discrimination and all of those things that people shouldn’t have to experience,” she says.
The constant proclamation by Imana and team that Hi Felicia will get a Michelin star, at first seems out of step with the disruptor sentiment. But to Imana, earning Michelin stars will symbolize that there’s a seat at the table for people like her, that Black and brown people deserve a place within the luxury industry, she says. “It’s the biggest way to show all of these white people in this industry that, ‘I’m right there with you,’” Imana says. “There’s no other way, because in our industry [earning a Michelin star] is the measure of success.”
So, instead of working to help someone else achieve professional recognition, she’s earning it on her own terms as a chef-owner – claiming her space in the industry. Owning a restaurant wasn’t a childhood dream, she says, but something she took on out of frustration with the fine dining industry and out of anger that there aren’t more Black chefs being recognized at the highest levels within food. “Hi Felicia has shown me so many interesting sides of myself,” she says. “I learned dreams aren’t always exactly what you thought; sometimes they develop from harsh circumstances — and that’s what Hi Felicia is.”
Hi Felicia (326 23rd Street in Oakland) debuts Sunday, April 24 and will be open for reservations only Friday to Monday, first seating at 6:30 p.m. Tasting menu, $195/person. Wine pairing, $125/person.