Oakland Zoo Unveils $13 Million Restaurant and Gondolas

By Justin Phillips

June 5, 2017 Updated: June 6, 2017 1:27pm

The Landing Cafe in Oakland. Photo: Justin Phillips

Photo: Justin Phillips

The Landing Cafe in Oakland.

Oakland’s newest restaurant features 190 seats and totes a $13 million price tag. Its window-lined dining room, nestled in the rolling hills, has views overlooking six Bay Area counties and can be accessed only by a four-minute ride on Northern California’s only urban gondolas.

And those gondolas? They’re just a couple of feet past the giraffes.

You don’t need to scour OpenTable to secure a table at the soon-to-open Landing Cafe. All you need is a few bucks for admission to the Oakland Zoo. As the fleet of gondolas ferries people over sweeping vistas of Knowland Park, an argument could be made that the new king of scale in the Bay Area food scene is in Oakland.

The upcoming opening of the Landing Café marks the first phase of the Oakland Zoo’s California Trial expansion, a $70 million project that will double the size of the complex to roughly 100 acres.



The Landing Cafe marks the first phase of the zoo’s California Trail expansion, a $70 million project that will double the current size of the zoo to 100 acres. Zoo officials said the restaurant will open once final inspections are completed, likely midweek.

The eight-passenger gondolas, which cost $5 million, take diners to and from the restaurant on the top floor of the Kaiser Permanente Visitor Center. In total, when combining the cost of the Landing Cafe space with the transportation required to get there, roughly 25 percent of the zoo’s expansion budget went to restaurant-related work.

From a food standpoint, the Landing Cafe isn’t revolutionary but fits comfortably into the quintessential Bay Area niche of regional familiarity. The dishes are just enough to keep locals interested without scaring off outsiders — breaded chicken sandwiches, avocado toast, pizzas, salads and the like. There’s a seasonal component with ingredients rotating based on availability. Nearly 80 percent of the food is locally sourced.

“I came with the idea that I’m going to respect what Oakland and the Bay Area has, in terms of food and ingredients, and just use it,” said Ian Webster, 29, who serves as the executive chef for the Landing Cafe. Webster was most recently the executive chef of a restaurant at Colorado’s Cheyenne Mountain Zoo.

The Landing Cafe’s very existence raises a unique question: At what point are aesthetics more important than food? For Nik Dehejia, the zoo’s chief financial officer, the two components are inseparable.

And even though the chicken sandwiches may not be Bakesale Betty quality and the avocado toast walks a familiar line, the menu is still far better than the traditional reputation of zoo food — mediocre cafes with subpar menus featuring chewy hot dogs and lukewarm popcorn.

“We want to change the perception of zoo food,” Dehejia said. “And here, with these views, we want the food to match the setting. It has to.”

Justin Phillips is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email jphillips@sfchronicle.com. Twitter: @JustMrPhillips

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