As the hour nears 6:30pm, the crowd gathered outside Hi Felicia’s uptown Oakland door buzzes with the anticipation of theatergoers waiting for the show to begin. Glasses of sparkling wine passing from hand-to-hand rises the din to a fever pitch.
When Hi Felicia was still a super-successful, moderately illegal pop up, chef and founder Imana began each dinner party with a toast. That’s one of many rituals that hasn’t changed since she moved into a permanent, brick-and-mortar space. With her staff gathered around her, she lifts her glass in the warm evening sun, raising the proverbial curtain on the night’s performance.
Drippy candles, campy art, exposed brick, and plants galore set a comfy, playful vibe at Hi Felicia.(Photography by Erin Ng)
Inside, candles burn everywhere, their wax hanging low like vines from tree branches, their flames flickering against the bar’s onyx tile. Campy, intentionally ridiculous artwork—sad-faced clowns, oddly proportioned portraits, brightly colored abstracts—hangs everywhere. On one wall, the restaurant’s name Hi Felicia, which inverts the slang send-off “bye Felicia” to welcome those who don’t always fit in, is painted in stark white against black brick.
Hand-written name cards on each table direct diners to their seats just like they did in Hi Felicia's dinner club days and, as soon as everyone is comfortably seated, the first courses arrive in quick succession: tartly refreshing beet-and-strawberry gazpacho, raw scallops dressed in salty plum and habanero, salmon crudo with dill, and a piquant madai aguachile.
Then Imana, who goes by one name only, takes the stage.
Imana is just 25 years old but she is already a force of nature. She radiates with confidence as she welcomes her guests and describes each of the meal’s 14 courses in detail. Her California comfort food is heavily influenced by regional Mexican cuisines and tonight they include tamales made with lavender-scented masa, caviar sopes, and the “very polarizing” pickled onion granita. Since everyone expects fried chicken from a Black chef, she says, a conspiratorial smile touching the corners of her mouth, she’s included her take on that too: fried hen served with rustic grits and collard greens.
Over the next three hours, a beautifully choreographed dance plays out in the kitchen and dining room. The traditional distinction between those who prepare the food and those who interact with the guests doesn’t exist here. Each course is carried out by a different amiable and unapologetically individualistic staff member, even those wearing chef’s whites.
“I want the terms front-of-the-house and back-of-the-house to be obsolete,” Imana tells me later over Instagram. “We are one team. I never want someone to think of my restaurant and have this illusion that it’s just me who created it. We all did.”
It’s no secret that Imana has designs on a Michelin nod and, as I devour the dishes one by one, I can see her star rising. The squab tostada (substituted with mushrooms in my case) is meaty and cravably seasoned. The cashew queso, a molten vegan cheese dip made with caramelized onions, jalapeños, and house-made tortilla chips, is lick-the-bowl-clean indulgent—and the only dish that’s consistently shown up on the menu since the restaurant’s pop-up days. The raw halibut with miso, cashew slaw, and blue corn tortillas is a burst of intensely delicious flavor.
But if that star comes, it will honor more than what appears on the plate. It will be for a collaborative cast that is almost entirely Black, brown, or queer. It will be for a restaurant where people of color and diverse identities aren’t just welcomed but celebrated. And it will be for the way a 25-year-old chef and entrepreneur is expanding the definition of fine dining, establishment be damned.
Chef Imana (center) with her diverse, rock star team at Hi Felicia.(Photography by Erin Ng)
“The game is completely rigged. Try as we might, this world is unfair and unbalanced, and I often feel like I can never win,” says Imana, who grew up on poverty’s razor edge in L.A. “I’m extremely direct and forward and intense in every single aspect of my life and I know it’s what I owe everything to.”
When it's nearly time for the curtain to fall on the night’s culinary performance, each table is given their bill with a side of agua fresca to sweeten the deal. Hi Felicia isn’t cheap. Dinner here will set you back $195 per person. Wine pairings are an additional $125, and each check includes a mandatory 20 percent service charge.
But while that puts the restaurant out of reach for many, the move to charge exactly what the meal and all of the Hi Felicia staff are worth is also a subversive one. Why shouldn’t they charge a hefty sum for gorgeous food and excellent service? White-owned, male-owned restaurants do it all the time. Just look across the bay.
“I will never fail because even if something doesn’t work out, I have nothing to lose ever from being exactly who I am,” says Imana. ”That’s how I know, in my heart, anything I do in life I will excel at. I have nothing to lose.”
// Hi Felicia is open for dinner Fridays through Mondays by reservation; 326 23rd St (Oakland), exploretock.com/hifeliciasupperclub.
It's a vibe.(Photography by Erin Ng)