Story and photos by Natalya Suttmiller
I generally journey to San Francisco for live DJs and intriguing food and drinks under one roof, but last summer, I found my dream space right near home.
The experience starts on an impossibly pointy corner in Oakland’s Civic Center at the slim Lionel Wilson Building, a handsome eight-story Beaux Arts Classical structure built in 1908. Look for a side window with a blue neon sign that says “Slug” and enter through the tall black doors under a cute line drawing of a slug dosing a snail with a bottle of wine. The art is by Slug Bar’s assistant general manager Jules Butt (pictured at right holding the kitchen’s boudin blanc).
Slug is the younger sister of Snail Bar, a beloved denizen of Oakland’s Temescal district. More than just a clear evolution of Snail’s natural wine bar concept, the newer late-night spot sports a tasteful wine selection (and bottle shop), dynamic share plates, and gorgeous architecture set off with a glinting disco ball. It fits right in with Downtown Oakland’s cultural undercurrent.
Local collaboration is key at Slug Bar. Food sourced from nearby producers and a diverse list of natural wines reflect the conjoined efforts of owner Chef Andres Giraldo Florez (who created Snail Bar), wine buyer and co-owner Jake Michahelles (mentored by the late and beloved Jonathan Waters of Chez Panisse), and Chef Spencer Horovitz (previously at Itria in San Francisco).
Cozy up at the bar to hear the stories behind bartenders’ favorite bottles as they pour generous tastes of Michahelles’s natural wine selections. “Right now is an amazing time for natural wine, with so many people dedicated to organic practices and pushing the boundaries on how they make different wines in different regions,” the wine buyer says. “It’s … a big step away from conventional practices for a lot of these producers.”
Wines pair well on the table with Slug’s rotation of seasonal favorite dishes and surprising specials, all reasons to keep coming back. Plates shine with local ingredients given distinctive flavors, surprising textures, and refreshing finishing touches. Some dishes repeat from Snail’s menu (the decadent ham and cheese sando, for one), but many are unique to Slug.
At Slug’s grand opening in July 2022, Chef Spencer Horovitz served up a gorgeous oceanic cucumber salad. “We were looking for a way to have a fun vegetable-focused dish on the menu, and I wanted to try and incorporate some familiar flavors of my childhood,” he says. He gives the dish a base of aioli made with tarako, a cured Japanese roe used in place of the egg, and mixes in kombu-poached potatoes and cucumber lightly flavored with lime juice and soy sauce. “Around the plate we’ve scattered some fried chickpeas for some texture,” Horovitz adds. “We garnish with bronze fennel and ogo seaweed to tie all the components together.”
In a summer rendition of Horovitz’s staple boudin blanc, the Fatted Calf sausage sunbathed like a supple slug by a pool of bright-green basil oil, where a flotilla of K&J Orchards peach wedges proudly waved basil leaves like signal flags. Underneath this pool party, Horovitz laid a Brentwood corn purée with brown butter and crème fraîche splashed with Chateau Fiasco, a wine made by Slug Bar friend Devon Magee, who works out of the Purity Wine space in Richmond. “It’s aged under flor for two years to make it a really beautiful, oxidized wine,” says Michahelles.
Decorated with art books and paintings, the space looks simultaneously intimate and impressively grand with Oakland artist Gabriel Kasor’s huge commissioned mural looking down over the bar. The scene of friends enjoying a wild dinner is like a mirror of the delicious debauchery the team anticipated for those who would gather under Slug’s roof.
Once nine o’clock rolls around on a Friday or Saturday night, expect a lively scene as DJs play mixed sets that change nightly, just like the food and the wine and people who gather. Drinking delicious wines, nibbling on colorful fare, and making connections with friends is the bare minimum of what one can expect. It’s a tight-knit establishment and a welcoming community. No reservations necessary. ♦
102 Frank H. Ogawa Plaza, Oakland
Natalya Suttmiller is a storyteller, photographer, and adventurer who uses holistic methods that thread connections between people, places, and food.