Last year when news surfaced that Paul Canales, formerly chef at Oliveto, along with Rocco Somazzi would be opening their new Uptown district (468 19th St.) eatery DUENDE anticipation has been high for this latest addition to the ever evolving hot Oakland nightlife area in the vicinity of the Fox Theater And justifiably so for DUENDE, which opened last month, is more than simply an enticing new East Bay dining destination; it is a many faceted, ambitious new nightlife addition that is also a music venue, art gallery, and wine store.
And as for the food - its primary draw - DUENDE offers a refreshing original cuisine by the renowned East Bay chef whose Basque heritage plays a subtle yet distinct influence in his approach to cooking. Described as "Spanish based" but with a broad blend of flavors (drawing from African, French, & Italian) Canales told the San Francisco Chronicle that for DUENDE, "I really wanted a flexible food concept. I didn't want to be stuck in a style of food." promising that he will never settle for traditional Spanish fare (or "Spanish museum food" as he dismisses it).
Originally expected to open last summer DUENDE, following many months of hard work and adhering to building codes and various city codes, finally officially opened in January. Its location is at 468 19th Street in historic Floral Depot building in the short block between Broadway and Telegraph Aves. a stones throw from the Fox Theater and round the corner from The Uptown nightclub and the various other clubs, restaurants, and art spaces that have filled this revitalized, vibrant, once dormant part of Oakland over the past several years. Inside the high-ceilinged, exposed brick and beam, large but cozy space - the work of Arcsine Architecture - seats up to 84 diners, while a wide iron stairway leads upstairs to the live music area where a black and gold emblazoned grand piano (pictured below) is the centerpiece. Recently I caught up with Rocco Somazzi who handles the music end of things at DUENDE to ask him about the new space and his own rich history which anyone from Los Angeles already likely knows about (LA Magazine once wrote of Rocco that, "The best jazz club in L.A. is wherever Rocco Somazzi handles the booking on a given night...He is the rare local booker who keeps jazz fans wondering what he’s going to do next.")
Amoeblog: With both yours and Paul Canales' credentials it seems like you are power duo for whom success is inevitable. Yet there still must be challenges in fine tuning a new business like DUENDE. Are there?
Rocco: It is very challenging to fine tune a business that is based on creativity and passion so that it runs smoothly and can become successful and profitable as fast as possible. We can’t really follow any proven model so we constantly have to evaluate, analyze and strategize.
Amoeblog: Is Paul as passionate about music as you are and what is his personal favorite genre of music - jazz or other?
Rocco: Paul is at least as passionate about music as I am and he’s been around longer than me so he knows a lot more stuff than I do. He listens to all kinds of music with a strong inclination towards experimental and improvised music, whether it be punk, rock, jazz or electronic.
Amoeblog: Does the Spanish food menu substantially influence the bookings you will make?
Rocco: Not really except that we’d like to have some good Flamenco shows at some point. I’ve been a fan of flamenco for a long time and I think at its best it can transcend its cultural specificity and tap into pure musical soulfulness.
Amoeblog: Who are some of the artists that we can look forward to seeing at DUENDE?
Rocco: Artists we’re talking to are Sex Mob, Steve Kuhn, Trio M, Fred Frith, Ben Wendel to name a few. There are many prominent national acts that have no venue to play at here in the Bay Area so we’ll try to fill that gap. On the local side you will see people like Scott Amendola, Myra Melford, Ben Goldberg, Todd Sickafoose, and Patrick Cress. Soon I’ll start calling some of my LA associates like Billy Childs, Slumgum, Bobby Bradford, and Dwight Trible and see if I can get them up here too.
Amoeblog: If you programming pre-recorded music - a DUENDE dining mixture so to speak - what would the top five artists and or songs to be included on the playlist?
Rocco: Most of my favorite music would be inappropriate for that purpose but here is some the prerecorded albums I like to play during dinner hours (in no particular order of preference):
Miles Davis Sketches of Spain
DJ Krush & Toshinori Kondo Ki-Oku
Flying Lotus Cosmogramma
Kneebody Low Electrical Worker
Wayne Horvitz (Sweeter than the Day) American Bandstand
Amoeblog: What are the benefits of being in your new location with so many clubs and concert venues like the Fox Theater and the Uptown all within a block of you?
Rocco: There is a vibrant nightlife in this neighborhood and I think that is going to help us draw in all kind of people who may or may not be familiar with the music we program.
Amoeblog: What are your thoughts on the vast changes/makeover that downtown Oakland has gone through in the past decade and where do you see going in the next decade?
Rocco: I’ve only been in Oakland for a year but I’ve heard a lot of stories about the transformation of the downtown area. I’ve seen something similar happen in downtown LA, where I’ve lived for six years. My feeling is that it’s still in the beginning phase and there is still room for a lot more development but I hope that whatever happens it will keep a distinct Oakland identity. It would be a shame if we start seeing chains popping up.
Amoeblog: I read an interview with you where, in reference to the first Rocco club in Bel-Air, you described the space as a "dining room designed to be a serous music-listening space" and I wondered about getting people in a restaurant to really listen to music and not dismiss it as background noise to talk over as so often seems to be the case. How do approach this challenge: is it the menu, the clientele, or the artists performing or all of the above?
Rocco: When I opened Rocco in Bel Air I was 26 and had a very idealistic outlook. I thought that if I book good music people would be engaged and would not talk over it. Unfortunately, the diners I needed to keep the business afloat couldn’t care less about music so it was a constant struggle to make the whole thing work. That’s why I eventually sold the business and moved to Hollywood to build a venue solely dedicated to music which presented its own challenges as it is very hard to generate revenue without a bar and/or restaurant. For DUENDE we decided to create a music space in the upstairs loft that is sheltered from the dining and bar area but not completely isolated. Serious listeners can go upstairs and focus on the music but you’ll also be able to hear it at about half the volume downstairs while dining. We tested it out on a few occasions, including a spectacular concert by Charlie Hunter in December, and it seems to work very well.
Amoeblog: Any chance of a jazz festival in area like the Angel City Festival you have done in LA?
Rocco: Producing a festival is so much work, I can’t imagine starting another one at this point. For now I’ll focus on getting DUENDE going and who knows, maybe in a few years I’ll be ready. It sure would be a lot of fun to do one here.
DUENDE is located at 468 19th Street, Oakland, CA 94612 (Uptown Oakland area). Bar and restaurant hours are Sun-Thurs: 5:30PM to 10PM, Fri and Sat: 5:30PM to 11PM. Bodega hours Mon, Wed, Thurs: 7AM to 10PM, Fri: 7AM to 11PM, Sat: 9AM to 11PM, and Sun: 9AM to 11PM. Recommended to make reservations (especially for large parties) two weeks in advance. Contact DUENDE via phone or email - (510) 893-0174 and firstname.lastname@example.org. For more info on the menu, the gallery, and the schedule for music bookings, etc. visit the website DUENDEoakland.com