After months of pop-ups, private events, and travel while cooking pan-African and Afro-Latino food in the Bay Area and beyond, chefs Solomon Johnson and Mike Woods are on the verge of the next big step for their businesses the Bussdown and fine dining supper club OKO. The duo is taking OKO to the Tribune space in downtown Oakland beginning October 10; meanwhile, their more casual project, the Bussdown, is opening in Western Market food hall in Washington, D.C. “We’re in a really good space right now creatively,” Johnson says.
It doesn’t seem like landing the 8,400-square-foot Tribune space would be a time to slow down, but compared to their jet-setting ways and time spent in a tiny Oakland ghost kitchen these last two years, it’s a welcome break. “To finally be in a space where we can settle down and just get back to creating really awesome food, we’re just really excited about that,” Johnson says.
It’s been an arduous path out of the ghost kitchen, where Johnson and Woods built a loyal following as the Bussdown making food for delivery. Johnson detailed the frustrations that came out of that arrangement, from high rent to constant power outages to flooding. But now with the chefs settling into OKO at Tribune, it’s a full circle moment. Both Johnson and Woods have some history with the restaurant: Woods worked there as chef de cuisine and Johnson put in time on the lunch line, too. The Bussdown also did a monthlong residency at Tribune in March. When the Tribune team wanted to take the restaurant space to the next level, chef and co-owner Omri Aflalo tapped Johnson and Woods to take the helm. “We couldn’t be more excited to have these two great guys come in and take over,” Aflalo said in a statement. “We feel the restaurant has a grand allure and would be a shame for anyone else to operate the space other than Mike and Solomon.”
It’ll be a fast turnaround for both the OKO and Tribune teams as Aflalo is set to depart October 9, though much of the staff plans to stay on. Johnson described the partnership as a hybrid consultant-residency for the next year, during which he and Woods will be “bringing OKO in and phasing Tribune out.”
The move follows closely on the heels of other good news for Johnson and Woods: the duo is preparing to open the Bussdown in Johnson’s home state of Maryland. If the buildout at Western Market goes well, they could be throwing open the doors to the fast-casual spot in two to three months. The Bussdown will take the biggest spot within the food hall, Johnson says, and will serve many of the same dishes that popularized the restaurant in the Bay Area, such as a jerk yard bird and smoked sofrito seafood dish. They’ll also add some local items such as Maryland-style blue crab cakes since the crustacean is available year-round, plus an alcohol element including Caribbean rum-based slushies and frozen daiquiris. With the revenue created by the D.C. location, Johnson and Woods intend to eventually bring the Bussdown back to the Bay Area.
As for their move to the Tribune space, there won’t be any changes to the decor or interior, but Johnson says OKO will change slightly before making its debut at Tribune: the menu will move to la carte options rather than OKO Supper Club’s previous iteration as a tasting menu format. Johnson says they’ll be building on the French menu in some ways, such as adding a Creole twist to some dishes and slowly transitioning new ones into the mix. They aim to make the restaurant more approachable, a less intimidating experience — or, “user-friendly” Johnson adds — though he promises the same elevated food and standards as before. “We’re really excited to just be able to start showcasing some of the ideas that we have that reflect our food diasporas and philosophy.”