After 10 years on Telegraph Avenue, chef Nigel Jones says he’s shutting down his popular Jamaican restaurant Kingston 11 on Saturday, March 25. It’s not a permanent goodbye, he says; instead, there are a number of plans already in motion for Kingston 11’s future. Jones will retain the restaurant’s distinctive space at 2270 Telegraph Avenue but will instead use it to focus on catering, while also hosting onsite private events. Jones shares the restaurant has been struggling with filling out the front of house staff and customer service has suffered because of it, both reasons that have driven him to the decision to close. “It’s been getting frustrating for me personally because I feel like people come here to the restaurant with certain expectations,” Jones says. “They walk in and, depending on what day they’re here, they show up and they can get great service or they could get subpar service. I feel like it’s hurting the brand and that’s the main reason why over the last two weeks, it’s gotten really bad — we’re running on fumes.”
Jones is quick to stress that Kingston 11’s food will still be available to the community, outside of catering. Popular dishes including oxtail, salmon, and jerk chicken will transition over to his new restaurant Calabash, located on Valdez Street, just four blocks away. Like the rest of the menu there, those items will be available at the restaurant, as well as for takeout and delivery. “As far as the customer is concerned, they will continue to have access to the foods that they love — and we can do that confidently,” Jones says.
Ideally on busier nights, Jones says Kingston 11 would have three or four servers on the floor to help with orders along with two bussers, something they could have done before the pandemic. But staffing issues have continued through the pandemic, and as recently as last week, Kingston 11 only had one server working a packed restaurant, forcing Jones to ask a Calabash server to come over and help out with service. “It’s heartbreaking for me, and I’m sure it’s stressful for that server to have to be in an environment where they’re overwhelmed,” Jones says. The back of house team will remain intact and continue making Kingston 11 food to be served at Calabash; the front of house staff all work other jobs and Jones expects they will move on, but says if anyone wants to move over to working at Calabash, he would welcome them at the other restaurant.
Kingston 11 serves as a cornerstone of First Fridays in Oakland and Jones has plans to keep that going if he can. If Kingston 11 can make ends meet with catering, the plan is to rally staff together for First Fridays — or for other planned public events at the restaurant — with servers bringing out food and bartenders making drinks for customers who come in. For First Friday on April 7, following the restaurant’s closure, Jones says he hopes to have the restaurant look as it always has, ready for the community. If the stars align right, Jones hasn’t closed the door on reopening Kingston 11 as a full-service restaurant. “If I see down the road that we can provide high-quality service again, by having adequately trained staff, I would look at that for sure,” Jones says. “Right now, I don’t see that.”
Jones is sad about where the restaurant is these days. Reminiscing about its early days as a pop-up at Guerilla Cafe in Berkeley, he says he always wanted Kingston 11 to be not only the best Jamaican restaurant in Oakland, but also one of the best restaurants in Oakland, period. Families have celebrated birthdays, weddings, and special events at Kingston 11 and while Jones says the restaurant will now “exist in a different way” he hopes to continue to be part of the fabric of Oakland. “I hate to think about it in terms of the past since I want to have the brand continue to live on,” Jones says. “I’m dialing it back to protect it, I don’t know where it’s gonna go from here. It’s emotional for me because it’s my baby, I created this from scratch, and I was blessed to see how the city and the community embraced us.”
Kingston 11 (2270 Telegraph Avenue, Oakland) will remain open for its regular business hours through the month of March until Saturday, March 25, when a closing night party will be held with their longtime house DJ, drinks, and food to celebrate the restaurant.