It was a burger joint for the ages
Posted by G.A. Matiasz on June 2, 2015
I started patronizing Oscar’s in 1991 when I first moved to Oakland. Below is Jon Carroll’s column in the SF Chronicle; part eulogy for what we are losing and part paean to simpler times. Sad, indeed.
It was a burger joint for the ages
By Jon Carroll
June 1, 2015 Updated: June 1, 2015 1:48pm
Oscar’s on Shattuck Avenue is closing down. I always assumed it was eternal, a lodestar to guide all the other restaurants in the area — a lodestar now largely ignored by entrepreneurs who have found other means of navigation. But for those really in the know, for those who were Berkeley before Berkeley was a thing, it was Oscar’s.
Oscar’s has an aquamarine logo and an off-pink sign. It has Formica tables and a large counter at one end for your hamburger needs or hot dog needs or milk shake needs or french fry needs. Even your chicken sandwich needs — although anyone having a chicken sandwich at Oscar’s is sort of missing the point.
I started going to Oscar’s when my daughter was young. Sometimes harried parents don’t have the energy to shop and cook, but they don’t have many options, because of budgetary restrictions. There was always Oscar’s, though, three minutes away by car, with a very fine auto takeout window.
The takeout window had no speakers or microphones. You yelled at the guy in the window, and he yelled back, and your order was ready, well, in good time. Because, really, what’s your hurry? There’s one guy with a grill, and he works as fast as he works. Maybe there’s something on the radio.
Berkeleyside broke the story of Oscar’s imminent closure, and tried to get the current owner, Scott (no last name given), to comment. He declined. “I’m not a warm and fuzzy guy,” he said.
That was the attitude at Oscar’s. They weren’t going to bother you with “Have a nice day” napkins or smiley-face logos. The menu board was going to contain no useful information besides the name of the item and the price. It did not care whether anything was sourced. There were no Italian-made products.
Oscar’s is going to be replaced by Sweetgreen, a “seasonal fast-food chain,” which means: “lots of salad.” It currently has 30 locations on the East Coast and one in L.A., and is coming to Berkeley to promote the kind of menu that Berkeley basically invented — as if North Berkeley needed any more vegetarian restaurants. Heck, there are restaurants on University (four blocks from Oscar’s) that are purer even than vegan.
Asparagus that’s been sung to.
I have to say, traitor to my bioregion as I am, that life certainly was easier when we didn’t have to think about what we ate. Get a burger, scarf it down, then it’s time to dance. Have some ice cream, because why not?
At Oscar’s, you could get a big sloppy burger, a burger where the ketchup was always in danger of dropping onto your pants, a burger that would squeeze out the other side when you bit into it, a burger that left your hands greasy and your fingers prone to stick together.
I understand that we should have had a higher consciousness all along, and we should be aware of animal cruelty and pesticides and sustainable land use and gray water irrigation systems. And we need to fight for transparent information. Really, we’re better for it. I’m just saying, subjecting the waiter to a cross-examination is not the Oscar’s way.
Currently, Park Burger in Oakland serves a real good burger, and it is grass-fed and every other kind of good thing. It’s a nostalgic experience and a contemporary one, too. But the meat is less gray than the ideal, and the burger is not slathered with some kind of secret sauce.
The secret at Oscar’s was: Don’t ask about the secret.
Oscar’s was open late, and students would gradually take over the place, replacing the couples with toddlers and the solitary workers. The kids were powered mostly by fries and colas, and they seemed to find endless amount of gossip in mundane events.
The closure of Oscar’s leaves very few hamburger joints open, at least not in my geosphere. There are funky chain places, but a homegrown, home-owned, one-location-only place — not so many.
The Smokehouse on Telegraph remains standing. It, too, remains a great hangout for almost everybody, unemployed dads and PG&E workers and people who need a hangover cure and people who are in a pre-hangover condition.
The Smokehouse is an outdoor place with picnic tables. It has heat lamps, and customers have been known to huddle when the fog blows through. The people who run it — an Afghan family, last time I checked — know every variety of burger on the large menu — triple with cheese, hold the pickles — and produce it efficiently, unless there’s a line. But hey, sit on a bench and meet your neighbors. Talk about burgers you have known.
Or talk about how many years you’ve been coming to the Smokehouse. Some people who are only 35 will say, “Twenty-nine years.” And yet: no special favors for regulars. So it has that Oscar’s vibe, but it ain’t Oscar’s. Goodbye, old friend.
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