Branden Nichols is readying to open an oyster bar this December in the Temescal neighborhood of Oakland, and one thing he’s firmly settled on is he doesn’t want to open that kind of oyster bar. “We’re differentiating and getting away from your traditional oyster bar that’s full of anchors and buoys and boats,” he says. “I just don’t want my place to look like a shipwreck because everyone’s done that.” That’s just one of the ways Nichols is looking to separate himself from the pack as he moves into the former Doña Tomas space at 5000 Telegraph Avenue to serve up oysters under the name Small Change.
What led Nichols to the oyster life is an unusual one: He doesn’t consider himself a chef and was not classically trained in a cooking school. In fact, he currently is a manager at a construction and demolition company that breaks down restaurants. Still, he has a deep love for oysters and seafood, and ran enough pop-ups in his off time from work to earn the nickname of “Oyster Guy” in his hometown of Martinez. And since then it’s been a series of fortunate events, as Nichols puts it, that places him in a position to open up this latest oyster bar. “Maybe like a year ago, if not less, I was just doing an oyster pop-up on the street in front of a wine bar and got the opportunity to go in and open one in a public market,” he says. Nichols opened Shuck It at the Market & Main food hall in Martinez, but when things ultimately did not work out there, he landed at the Temescal space soon after.
After that time at Shuck It, Nichols has a vision for his new space, achieving it with the help of friends Emilio Domingo and Andrew Lott of Top Hat Barbershop, and architect Anand Sheth — with a nod toward family, as well. Together, they’re taking inspiration from mid-century diners in the hopes of getting that feel Nichols is looking for: a fun, accessible place for people to enjoy seafood. “The whole vibe is we just wanted this to be a really fun, communal space, where we’re not taking ourselves too seriously with seafood,” he says. “My thought process with getting into delivering seafood to the masses is that it’s going to be at its best when I don’t get in the way.”
The focus of Small Change, then, will be to get beautiful, well-sourced oysters and seafood that stand on their own. There will be Royal Miyagis, oysters brought in locally as well as from Alaska and elsewhere, and even oysters Rockefeller. There will also be a rock cod, shrimp ceviche, and East Coast-style clam chowder served in ceramic mugs with oyster crackers. For drinks, Nichols is planning for extravagant micheladas with a crab claw and shrimp on the rim and an oyster on top, as well as house-made sangria. There will also be a wine list focused on low-intervention wines, Champagnes, and albariños to compliment the menu.
The restaurant name itself is inspired by Nichols’s grandfather, who was a bass fisherman with a boat called Small Change — a play off their last name, Nichols, as well as a family joke about how purchasing the boat left him with “small change in his pocket.” Although opening is still a few months away, Nichols has plans to pop-up once or twice a month until Small Change is ready with that sense of hospitality and perfect seafood that he’s looking for. “I don’t want to give off a vibe where it’s a diner’s privilege to be in there with us,” Nichols says. “I just really want to get back to a space where people come in and it’s our privilege for them to be there — and not the other way around — and have that reflected in our service and the food we’re serving.”
To find out where Small Change is popping up ahead of their opening at 5000 Telegraph Avenue, follow them on Instagram @smallchangeoysterbar.