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Sensory Delights and the Magnetic Charlie Hallowell Lure at Oakland's Penrose

Fish is of particular focus at Penrose. This dish of hamachi crudo with pickled mustard seeds, preserved lemon, celery leaf, and watermelon radish is a sensory delight. Photos by Eric Wolfinger 

When he started kissing babies, I was convinced: Oakland restaurateur Charlie Hallowell, 40, is on a tear. Hailed for his first two hits, Boot & Shoe Service on Grand Avenue and Pizzaiolo in Temescal, he makes the rounds at Penrose, which opened in late November, with the charisma of a politician and the authenticity of a favorite local chef. And with rapier wit and the mouth of a sailor, Hallowell is as much a part of the experience as the food.

(Left:) Cocktails are a draw at the hopping bar. Pictured here, The Citron Fizz and Zombie. (Right:) Hallowell expresses his expertise in dough with crisp grilled flatbread and mercurial toppings, like merguez sausage, pickled onion, and cabbage.

At Penrose, the chef departs from his trademark Italian fare in favor of worldly flavors and dishes enlivened by open-hearth cooking—think charred flatbread coated with earthy za’atar and served with harissa, chermoula, and tahini yogurt; Berber carrots roasted alongside feta and pomegranate; and grilled pork loin with currant-ginger chutney. Like any Chez Panisse alum, Hallowell takes seasonality seriously, so it’s unlikely that any dish will stick around for long. (But should you happen upon an uni toast—which was served with Meyer lemon–jalapeño relish on our visit—don’t miss it.) Presented on mismatched antique plates (all flea market finds), each meal is an eclectic feast.

(Left): “I’m a lusty guy. That’s why I cut up animals and cook them over fire,” says Hallowell, who is happy to be cooking on a grill once again. (Right): Hearty braised chicken leg, speckled with bread crumbs, tops a bed of borlotti beans, nettles, and hot pepper. The restaurant’s antique plates were sourced at local flea markets.

The dining room is a variety show of handsome 20-somethings perched at communal tables, poring over Instagram and oysters, and ladies of a certain age tangling spoons in persimmon panna cotta and Seville orange granita. Diversity is also a theme at the bar, where manager Cate Whalen offers a range of cocktails, from the classic mint julep to the quirky Cerulean Hart (tequila, rhum agricole, lime, ginger, orange, house-made pineapple gomme, and bitters).

Charlie Hallowell and builder Eric Pankonin took the interior down to its 1920s studs, exposing the original pine and brick walls. The striking hood was inspired by old Paris Metro stations.

Marvin Gaye plays in the background as sparks from the grill fly into the dramatically lit hood, which has a shape reminiscent of a Chinese fan. Hallowell takes a break from the flames, navigating to a table by the wall of large glass windows, which will open to the outside come springtime. Here, he stops to charm yet another happy diner. By the look of things, he might do well if he ran for office. But we’d rather he stick to cooking.  

This article was published in 7x7's March issue. Click here to subscribe.