Calavera restaurant in Oakland, California is owned and operated by chef and restaurateur John Gnadinger. Gnadinger opened the original Calavera in Walnut Creek in 2011 before expanding to Oakland in 2016. The Oakland location quickly became a hotspot in the city’s bustling Uptown district, known for its modern Mexican cuisine and cocktails.
John Gnadinger grew up in the restaurant industry, with his family operating a number of restaurants in the East Bay. After graduating from the Culinary Institute of America in New York, Gnadinger went on to work at several acclaimed restaurants in San Francisco and New York before opening his first restaurant, Bacio, in Walnut Creek in 2003. The success of Bacio led Gnadinger to open several more restaurants in Walnut Creek, including Va de Vi and Southbound.
In 2011, Gnadinger opened the first location of Calavera in downtown Walnut Creek. Calavera, meaning “skull” in Spanish, was a more casual Mexican restaurant compared to Gnadinger’s previous fine dining establishments. The restaurant focused on authentic Mexican street food like tacos, ceviche, and quesadillas, alongside Gnadinger’s creative cocktails. Calavera quickly developed a devoted local following in Walnut Creek.
Expanding to Oakland
In 2016, Gnadinger brought the Calavera concept to Oakland, opening a location in the bustling Uptown district. Situated on Broadway amongst many new restaurants and bars, the Oakland Calavera fit right into the neighborhood. Gnadinger partnered with chef Jesus Barraza to oversee the Oakland kitchen and adapt the menu to local tastes while maintaining Calavera’s commitment to authentic Mexican flavors.
The Oakland Calavera features bright, modern interior decor reflecting Gnadinger’s trademark style. The restaurant has a large central bar where bartenders mix creative cocktails like the Blood Orange Mezcalita and Pear-Fashioned using Mexican spirits. The dining room accommodates intimate dinners but can also transition into a high-energy lounge on weekends when DJs play and the bar gets packed. Calavera Oakland frequently hosts events like Repeal Day celebrations and Dia de los Muertos parties.
Menu and Cuisine
The food menu at Calavera Oakland remains rooted in traditional Mexican street fare like tacos, ceviche, quesadillas and tamales. Chef Barraza uses local, seasonal ingredients to put his own creative twist on classic Mexican dishes. Signature items include the ceviche with scallops, pineapple and serrano chilies, chicken tinga tacos with homemade corn tortillas, and the giant quesadilla filled with shrimp, huitlacoche and queso fresco.
Calavera is especially known for its mole sauces, made fresh in-house using ingredients like ancho chilies, sesame seeds, chocolate and over 20 other components. Fan favorites mole dishes include the mole coloradito with Mary’s chicken and mole poblano with braised beef short rib. The restaurant also offers specialties from the grill like carne asada and grilled wild shrimp.
On the side, diners can order classic Mexican street foods like elote loco (fire-roasted corn), empanadas de platano, and esquites. The dessert menu tempts with options like churros, Mexican hot chocolate cake, and spiced buñuelos.
The bar and cocktail program at Calavera Oakland is overseen by Gnadinger himself, reflecting his passion for imaginative mixology. The restaurant offers a wide selection of tequila, mezcal and other Mexican spirits. Bartenders mix novel creations like the popular Oaxacan Old Fashioned with mezcal and mole bitters.
In addition to cocktails, the bar offers a wine list focused on selections from Mexico and California. On tap are Mexican beers like Pacifico and Modelo as well as craft brews from local Bay Area breweries. Non-alcoholic options include freshly-made aguas frescas in flavors like tamarind, jamaica and horchata.
Happy hour at the bar daily offers deals like $6 margaritas, tacos and oyster shooters to draw the after-work crowd.
Calavera Oakland’s industrial-chic interior was designed by Gnadinger’s frequent collaborator, designer Paul Vincent Wiseman. The space features exposed brick walls, penny tile floors, and colorful Mexican tilework around the bar. Vintage paintings and photographs decorate the walls alongside Day of the Dead folk art. Strings of Edison bulbs hang above the central bar and open kitchen.
Tables are a mix of low, vintage couches for lounging, tall bar tables for drinking and stand-alone tables for dining. An outdoor patio lined with string lights has additional seating. Music ranges from upbeat Latin pop to rock depending on the vibe and crowd.
While weeknight crowds are low-key, Calavera Oakland comes alive late on weekends when DJs spin and the bar gets packed with revelers. The energy is always lively and festive but never pretentious. The colorful, playful decor reflects the restaurant’s friendly vibe.
Calavera supports the local Oakland community in various ways. The restaurant hosts annual celebrations for Cinco de Mayo, Dia de Los Muertos, and other Mexican holidays that are open to the public. These events aim to showcase Mexican culture, art and music for the neighborhood.
Chef Barraza partners with schools like Milton Academy to host fundraising nights, donating a portion of proceeds to causes like student scholarships and building improvements. Calavera also participates in awareness campaigns like Dining Out for Life to support HIV/AIDS services.
The restaurant sources ingredients from local purveyors and area farmers markets whenever possible to support small businesses. Calavera also composts and recycles to reduce waste.
Since opening in 2016, Calavera Oakland has become a favorite neighborhood spot for locals and earned rave reviews from critics:
- San Francisco Chronicle named Calavera one of the “Top 100 Bay Area Restaurants” in 2018.
- Food & Wine highlighted Calavera’s “skillfully made margaritas and funky tacos” in a 2019 review.
- 7×7 called it a “buzzing and hip Mexican bar and eatery” perfect for margarita fans.
- Oakland Magazine praised the “lively atmosphere” and “bright, acidic ceviches.”
Calavera has been featured in local and national media outlets like the Today Show, Food Network, Bloomberg Pursuits and the LA Times for its creative take on Mexican cuisine and drink. It remains one of the most popular restaurants in Oakland for elevated tacos and margaritas in a vibrant setting.
The success of Calavera Oakland has led chef/owner John Gnadinger to consider further expansion. He is currently scouting locations in neighborhoods like Temescal and Rockridge to bring additional Calavera outposts to Oakland. Gnadinger is also eyeing other East Bay cities like Berkeley for future openings.
However, Gnadinger wants to ensure any new Calaveras stay true to the casual, festive vibe that has defined the restaurant since the original Walnut Creek location. Each new chef team and bar manager will be trained at the Oakland flagship to uphold the restaurant’s commitment to authentic Mexican flavors, top-notch service, and craft cocktails.
With smart growth and sticking to its core concept, Calavera hopes to become the go-to Mexican dining spot for communities across the East Bay. Gnadinger may also consider expanding Calavera to San Francisco or even LA in coming years. But the restaurant’s Oakland location will remain its heart and home base.
Calavera Oakland has quickly emerged as a local favorite and dining destination thanks to its festive atmosphere, strong Mexican flavors, and creative cocktails. Since opening in 2016 under chef/owner John Gnadinger, the restaurant has earned rave reviews for bringing quality Mexican cuisine and mixology to Oakland’s Uptown district.
With chef Jesus Barraza overseeing the kitchen and Gnadinger himself directing the bar program, Calavera delivers satisfying Mexican classics alongside an extensive tequila and mezcal selection. The vibrant, industrial-chic space matches the restaurant’s energetic vibe that attracts a friendly local crowd.
Through community involvement, use of local ingredients, and plans for thoughtful expansion, Calavera Oakland represents a successful neighborhood restaurant. It continues the vision Gnadinger has executed in his restaurants for spotlighting and reinventing Mexican cuisine using high-quality, authentic ingredients and technique. As Calavera grows strategically across the East Bay, the Oakland location will remain the foundation and heart of the operation.