Chikara Ono’s East Bay restaurants come alive again
Back in March 2021, I wrote about how four restaurants owned by one of the East Bay’s most prolific Japanese restaurateurs had closed their doors. As of 2022, however, Chikara Ono — the Kaiseki-trained chef behind restaurants like BDama and Delage — says three of its eatery are now open, but the reopening date for a fourth has yet to be determined.
Ono found himself in a difficult position when the Bay Area’s pandemic restrictions only allowed restaurants to serve takeout. Most of its establishments were built for full-service dining on-site, so closing seemed like the only option. Instead, he opened a pop-up-style restaurant in the Berkeley Bowl West coffee shop, serving sushi to-go, hot items from the menu at his omakase restaurant in Old Oakland, Delage, and other dishes that diners turned up for stood in line at the legendary market.
Ono’s Berkeley Bowl spot was so packed, he said, that things were almost at “pre-pandemic” levels. When his restaurants reopened, he retired from the grocery business and refocused on his businesses. He also opened a new operation, which has already received critical acclaim.
Please note that some of the restaurants listed below can only dine indoors. While indoor dining is currently allowed in the Bay Area, most local health experts say they don’t dine indoors, even given the risks associated with unmasked indoor gatherings.
Dela Curo is Ono’s newest restaurant, opening in Swan’s Market in June 2021. The restaurant specializes in black curry, a popular Japanese dish known for its dark color, rich flavor and thick texture. Ono adds ground chicken or beef and other spices and vegetables to his black curry sauce, which he ladles over rice, fried chicken or pork chops, rice omelettes, and more.
Not too long after it opened, SF Chronicle food critic Soleil Ho referred to as curry by Delo Curo “Unlike any other in the Bay Area.” But from a business standpoint, Ono said the location has been difficult to maintain as the pandemic continues to reduce foot traffic and overall business at Swan’s. While there are still plenty of people out for lunch, Ono says they’re a lot smaller than they were in days before the pandemic. With the cold winter weather, early sunset and rains, it was also more difficult during the restaurant’s dinner hours.
Ono told Nosh that he hopes to continue to expand the menu as customers get more customers, and maybe add a new pasta option. At the moment, omu curry, fried chicken and curry and traditional tonkatsu curry are the most popular dishes; His katsu is made from black pork, which is more tender and has a less firm texture than regular pork, he said.
There is also a vegan curry with lightly fried vegetables and a tomato and onion based black curry. The restaurant also serves beer, sake and wine. It is currently open for lunch and dinner Tuesday to Saturday, with indoor and outdoor seating in the parklet and nearby courtyard. Take away is also available. Dela Curo, 907 Washington St. (at Ninth Street), Oakland
Ono is splurge worthy, Michelin listed The sushi spot reopened its dining room in June, but limits diners to 10 people per seat, with two seats per night. Guests wishing to watch Chef Mikiko Ando select their fish can still sit at the bar, which is now open protected by a transparent plexiglass pane.
Like the Dela Curo, the Delage is located in the food hall of Swan’s Market, so outdoor seating isn’t an option. And since this is an in-person experience, no takeout is available. For those willing to dine indoors, reservations are recommended for Delage available on Resy, for $100 per person. Reservations canceled less than 48 hours in advance will be charged the full fee, so plan carefully. Delage, 536 Ninth St. (between Clay and Washington), Oakland.
The upstairs, fixed-price, jazzy Japanese restaurant reopened in September and once again sold out with ravenous diners Michelin approved Eight-course okimari menu with raw and cooked fish dishes. The restaurant still has two seats Wednesday through Sunday; but its eight people per seating rule has been reduced to six in the cozy space due to the pandemic.
There is no alfresco dining or takeout for the $125 per person meal, but reservations for the indoor dining experience are available on Resy. Utzuzu, 1428 B Park St. (near Santa Clara Avenue), Alameda
Opened early in the pandemic, this uptown spot is a Japanese sandwich spot helmed by veteran sushi chef Masa Sasaki. But the fish here wasn’t raw and on rice, it was fried and served on a bun, with your choice of tuna belly or mackerel. There was also a Wagyu beef burger served American cheeseburger style. It opened in July 2020 in the space last occupied by Hutch and closed during the flood of that winter.
Ono told Nosh he’s still in talks with Sasaki and another investor about a reopening plan, but due to the current spike in coronavirus cases, he doesn’t expect to reopen any time soon. He also cited construction work near the restaurant as an additional obstacle. Despite these challenges, he confirms that the restaurant will eventually reopen. Masabaga, 2022 Telegraph Ave., (near 21st Street), Oakland.
Momo Chang is a freelance journalist based in the San Francisco Bay Area. She writes about food, culture, Asian American topics and more. She is co-director of Oakland Voices, a community journalism training program that is part of the Maynard Institute for Journalism Education.