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Dine About Oakland: Aunt Mary’s Cafe

November 18, 2008

We love brunch, so when I heard that not one but two new brunch spots were opening up on Telegraph in Temescal, they had to go onto the “to do” list. Usually the brunching is done at Albany’s Sunny Side Café or Berkeley’s La Note or Rick & Ann’s, though I also love Cock-a-Doodle Cafe in downtown Oakland. But I’ve been hoping for more Oakland places to add to the list for a while now, and this one seemed promising. (Apparently I’m the one person in Oakland who is not in love with Mama’s Royal Cafe, the brunch place closest to our house….)

So anyway. Aunt Mary’s. It’s oozing with potential, though it isn’t quite there yet. Our food was all very good, but some of it was cold (presumably because it was waiting for the other orders?) The service was a bit wonky in general—they brought us coffee right away, but then forgot to come take our food order for 20 minutes or so. Afterwards, they completely forgot to bring the check for another long stretch. Luckily, we weren’t starving and were happy chatting, but it was a little disconcerting given that the place wasn’t anywhere near full. The one super attentive worker was the ten-year-old with a giant sign around her neck that said “I do this because I want to! My mother makes me wear this sign.” She leapt up to greet us and help clear the tables as we sat down, but unfortunately then she settled down to read for the rest of the morning (because, you know, the child labor thing and all). Oh yes—they do have a reading and toy nook if you have small people who are into that sort of thing. And in fairness to the staff, we were there only a few weeks after they opened, so they get some wiggle room to get the kinks out.

Food has a southern flair (though not on the scale of, say, Luka’s, or even Blackberry Bistro) and comes with homemade bread, cornbread, or biscuits. We had the latter two, which were both tasty. Menu has a huge range, from the traditional (waffles and eggs) to the innovative (intriguing scrambles and sides like calas, New Orleans rice fritters) to the exotic (congee even makes an appearance!) Coffee was fine; not incredible, but it is fair trade organic, which gets them lots of points. Atmosphere was a bit odd and a little sterile—we spent a while debating what the space had been in its past life, since none of us could remember. I think when the place is filled with people, it will have a much better vibe. (They did have great art on the walls, though!) Prices are on par with most of the other local brunch spots, which is to say you’ll easily spend $10-$12 a head with coffee.

As for the food, our table had an order of the Southern Bubble & Squeak (described as a potato and greens cake with eggs), which was excellent;  two of the Veg & Asiago “Rumble” (a scramble made with asiago, chard, and roasted tomatoes)—also good but less unique; and a fourth dish that I continue to blank on (since apparently it wasn’t another bubble & squeak), but that might have been “Zorba the Omelet.” The Small One who was with us munched on a buttermilk pancake quite happily, though she’s not picky about such things. Oh, and breakfast came with Blue Chair jams, which were tasty as always! The one disappointment on the food front, aside from the eggs being a bit cold, was that they forgot to come refill our coffee, so after a while we had to go ask the cashier. (Oddly, they had coffee carafes sitting on the counter, but didn’t want us to fill our own—it might make sense to just make it a do-it-yourself kind of gig like Bakesale Betty has going on.)

All told, Aunt Mary’s has a great deal of promise. Check back this time next year, and I think there’ll be a line out the door on weekend mornings. (The lunch menu sounds like it could have some winners, too.) They have a great location and a patio to boot (though it looks out onto Telegraph). We’ll definitely be back, but I think we’ll give them another month or so to figure out the service thing. They also now seem to have some specialty brunch menu items featured each weekend, something new since our visit. (One of the things that brings us back to Sunny Side week after week is their innovative “tasting menu,” which changes with the seasons; for $30, two people get small plates of most of what’s featured that week, plus giant glasses of orange juice and a cup of fresh fruit. If only it included coffee or tea too, it would be the perfect breakfast deal! Maybe Aunt Mary’s will catch on to this plan and debut it in Oakland??)

Update (11/30/08): We made a repeat visit to Aunt Mary’s this morning, since a friend who used to live in Temescal was visiting and he wanted to check out the old ‘hood. Wow! They’ve definitely gotten the service issues together—on this visit (about six weeks after our first), there were multiple servers floating around, each asking to help. Coffee and service were quick and good. We started with the calas, which were okay but not great. Everything after that was wonderful, though. Our group had the breakfast burrito, which came with the most delicious home fries; the red flannel hash, a mix of root vegetables and beet sauce with poached eggs, also terrific; and a repeat of the Southern bubble and squeak. The last dish has changed a bit since we enjoyed it last month and now has a much more prominent sauce, but D. pronounced it “even better!” All of the food arrived piping hot, and coffee refills were plentiful. They also now have glasses instead of the plastic cups they were serving cold beverages in last month, which is a marked improvement. Our friend mourned that Aunt Mary’s hadn’t opened while he still lived a block away, and sighed, “the East Bay is so much better than DC….” So, yeah. Good food—give them a try.

Grade: B+ A-
Price: $$

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