Oakland’s Commis has a loyal following that come from near and far to dine at this intimate and gorgeous space on Piedmont Avenue. Founded by restauranteur and Oakland native, James Syhabout, who graduated from Oakland Tech just a few blocks away, Commis earned its first Michelin star just four months after opening. And the decor is as fabulous as the food. I talked to James about what he hoped to create for diners as they walked through the door. Come read what he said, what element garnered slack for years for being “pretentious,” and the kinds of places he will always go to for comfort food. Plus…see our round up of items for how you can score the decor to dine like Commis at home.
24 East: What do you hope people feel when they walk into the door of Commis?
James Syhabout: My idea was to make it feel more residential, rather than commercial. Like a live-work loft.
24E: Was having an open kitchen something that you always wanted to do, or did it take some convincing?
JS: It’s a great feature of the restaurant, because it’s something unique. When we opened in 2009, there weren’t really fine dining kitchens that were open. A restaurant of this caliber with an open kitchen is usually always outdoors. It was a challenge. It was something new to me, so I thought it would be fun. It would be a different experience. It was a positive thing to do.
24E: In terms of the color palette and the tone, and the design, did you always want something pretty neutral?
JS: Yes, I wanted something very neutral. It’s just funny. When we opened, I wanted everything to feel residential and we didn’t have a sign outside. And people thought that was pretentious. We did that for three to four years, and then finally, I got sick of getting beat up on Yelp about how pretentious it is. Like, you guys just don’t get it.
24E: How have you enjoyed being in the area?
JS: I enjoyed it a lot. The neighborhood’s great. I’ve been in Oakland for a long time, pretty much a native. So yeah, it’s been very well. It’s fun to see how Piedmont Avenue has changed and grown. We have Bay Wolf, our next door neighbor, [which just reopened] as The Wolf. That’s exciting.
24E: Is there anything you credit to what’s made Commis so successful and popular?
JS: Well when we opened in 2009, people didn’t want to come to Oakland to open. Especially a fine dining restaurant with a pre-fixed menu. Then we got a Michelin star after 4 months of opening. That definitely put us on the map.
24E: Are there any places in Oakland that you like to go for a comfort food?
JS: I still go to the places I used to go to as a child, mom-and-pop Vietnamese stores. They never fail. For me, that’s the Oakland that I knew, growing up.
Original images for 24 East by Lauren Andersen.