Alexeis (Lexi) Filipello knows how to craft a killer sandwich. Feeding folks in the center of Oakland from sun up to sun down, the owner of Stag’s Lunchette and Bar Dogwood stuffs her signature sammies with local, seasonal, and sustainable ingredients in crave-worthy flavor pairings that have people coming back for more.
At Stag’s, they line up for the Pastrami Reuben: smoked organic 5 Dot Ranch brisket, gruyère cheese, piquant in-house dressing, and spicy kraut tucked inside Semifreddi levain bread. Over at Bar Dogwood, home to craft cocktails and house-made charcuterie, the favorite is a grilled cheese on thinly sliced levain. Its secrets are a slather of French butter, a sprinkling of Maldon sea salt, a filling of two blended cheeses (Belton Farms white cheddar for a sharp, savory taste, and Belfiore mozzarella for the stretchy texture that defines a model melted cheese toast), house-made mustard on the side, and add-ons like whiskey bacon chutney or tomato onion jam. Hungry yet?
Filipello, whose family ran a string of what she called “failed” Bay Area restaurants, learned how to cook eggs and make coffee at an early age. “Being born on Thanksgiving I think I just had an immediate affinity to food, particularly meat,” says Filipello, 37, who lives in North Oakland. She recalls her family struggling financially, but that her mom valued good, wholesome food. Filipello carried those same values through years of industry experience—oyster shucker, line cook and caterer, long-time co-owner of the San Francisco bar House of Shields—into her current businesses.
Dogwood, named after the favorite tree of her late stepmother, has attracted a loyal crowd since it opened its doors in February 2011, revealing a hip hunting lodge aesthetic (think stuffed pheasants on the walls, dark, heavy drapes on the windows, vintage light fixtures). The bar has quickly earned a rep for its classic cocktails and seasonal fruity sips. For summer, try Hibiscus Cocktail (Plymouth gin, hibiscus rosehip tea syrup, lime juice, and absinthe rinse) and the Kiss and Tell (Zapopan silver tequila, Del Maguey Mezcal Vida, jalapeño pineapple syrup, and lime juice). Cooler months bring Mateo’s Cocktail (Broker’s gin, Benedictine sour cherry liqueur, lime, bitters) and Bloom Sir (Grey Goose L’Orange Vodka, Dolin Blanc Vermouth, blackcurrant cordial, and orange peel.)
Filipello realized a week after opening Dogwood that food would be key. “I’m very European that way; when I sit down with a drink I want something light to nibble on,” she says. But more than good bar grub was needed in the neighborhood: During the building upgrade— Filipello did the build out herself—and once Dogwood was up and running, Filipello and her crew found themselves eating at the same nearby Mexican restaurant every day of the week. Filipello liked the food well enough, but she and her team wanted some variety.
Sensing another opportunity, Filipello created Stag’s Lunchette, which has become a go-to destination for the breakfast and lunch crowd since it quietly opened in July 2012. Its design hallmarks include tall wooden tables and ironwork from local crafters. As you might expect given the name, Stag’s features antlers on the wall and sepia-toned sketches of deer. Filipello has something of a taxidermy fixation; she admits that her whole home is covered with stuffed animals.
Filipello’s Italian-American family went the snout-to-tail route back in her youth, well before the whole-animal butchery renaissance hit the Bay Area. Butchering her first chicken was challenging and she briefly became vegetarian. But she got over her aversion to breaking down animals and has gone on to champion less-familiar cuts. Filipello is committed to serving quality meat with a conscience: Customers can expect cruelty-free, hormone-free, antibiotic-free meat that is brined, cured, dry-rubbed, and smoked in-house.
The sandwich menu changes daily. Stag’s typically offers eight options a day (with a couple likely to be vegetarian). The Emigh Coop Lamb Shoulder Sandwich comes with preserved Meyer lemon, wine poached red onions, and arugula. Fennel Crusted Pork Belly includes a celery root-fennel-apple slaw, and lemon zest aioli with arugula. A pork chop sandwich in the summer might showcase grilled Frog Hollow Farm peaches and Japanese greens. Breakfast features bagels from new local favorite Baron Baking, coffee courtesy of Roast Co., and an olive oil-poached egg on a brioche bun with aioli, Swiss cheese, bacon, and mizuna that has regulars buzzing.
Sandwich prices seem surprisingly reasonable (typically $10–$12, with a grilled cheese for as little as $5 and a Wild Prawn and Crab Cake Sandwich as much as $14), given the pedigree of the ingredients. And Filipello confesses she’s not making much money from the business. Despite the lines during lunch rush she refers to it as a labor of love; presumably her cocktail menu ($8–$12) picks up the slack.
Filipello prides herself on the diverse crowd she’s attracted to Bar Dogwood. “When I look across my room I can see every race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and age group represented,” she says. “That’s a win for me. I wanted to create an environment where everyone felt welcome.” And, she adds, in her trademark, straight-shooter style: “It’s not a meat market.”
Dogwood has found itself in the middle of recent protest actions, including marches during the Occupy movement and uprisings following the Oscar Grant and Trayvon Martin verdicts. While sympathetic to the causes, Filipello laments the senseless damage inflicted on small business owners and their employees. During this year’s Trayvon Martin rally, Dogwood had its windows broken, an employee at Flora was smashed with a hammer, and Hawker Fare was briefly closed due to a fire started in trash cans that melted the restaurant’s electrical meters.
“It’s tough being a business owner in Oakland during those times,” says Filipello. “Oakland is a difficult city when people want to get together and protest. The people who come and start raising hell mostly don’t live here. Unfortunately when sh*t goes down in Oakland this is where it begins. Every time something like that happens Oakland pays so dearly for it. Insurance wouldn’t cover my windows: I had to pay out of pocket. It’s the cost of doing business in downtown Oakland.”
And yet, there’s nowhere else she’d rather be. Plans for a Dogwood expansion include a larger kitchen, more seating, and a private room. When asked what’s behind her popularity, Filipello is quick to give credit to her employees. “My staff are the reason I’m successful. I tell business owners: ‘Be good to your people,’” she says. “My team is like my family. Having a happy crew who want to come to work is key.”
362 17th St, Oakland
1644 Telegraph Ave, Oakland