From Oaxaca with Love

Arcsine delivers an authentic Oaxacan experience to Oakland with the opening of Agave Uptown.

By Robert Nieminen

If there’s an overarching theme that has characterized both the food and design industries lately, it’s summed in one word: authenticity. Both crafts came together seamlessly in the design of the recently opened Agave Uptown restaurant in Oakland, Calif., named in homage to the agave plant—the central ingredient in mescal production. Designed in partnership between local architecture and design firm Arcsine and Chef Octavio Diaz, the 4,000-square-foot oasis is filled with thoughtful design references that bring the culture, history, and diverse energy of Oaxaca, Mexico to Oakland.

Housed on the ground floor of the Kapor Center for Social Impact, Agave Uptown promises to become an integral part of the Oakland dining scene while joining with the Kapor Center in its mission to narrow gaps in opportunity and access for underrepresented communities, according to Arcsine.

Upon entering, guests are welcomed by a sophisticated yet approachable color palette of cool blues punctuated by earthy reds, yellows, and oranges. A handsome teak floor sets the foundation for wood, copper, porcelain, and brown-braided leather details that add warmth and depth to the space.

The main dining area is defined by a curved wall separating the restaurant from the Kapor Center. Lapiztola, an Oaxaca-based art collective, worked with the design team to create a compelling mural that speaks to Agave Uptown’s dedication to authentic cuisine, the creation of mescal, social empowerment, and community.

i+s recently had a chance to speak with the design team at Arcsine, including Daniel Scovill, founding principal; Irene Yu, architectural designer; and Britney Gildea, interior designer, about what influenced the creation of this inspiring new eatery.

i+s: What were the objectives for the project, and what role did artwork play in helping to create a cohesive narrative?

Daniel Scovill: As it began, it was supposed to be just a small cafe. The other parts of the ground were going to be event space, retail space, and other [areas]. Fairly quickly, the charts changed to being a full-service bar and restaurant, and a private dining room kind of facility—a place that has all of that under one roof. The program changed pretty drastically right off the bat.

The sense of the agave plant, the process of creating mescal, washed with the tastes and smells and sounds of Oaxaca, and specifically, the mole [sauce]—those three things jumped out right from the beginning, and became our guiding light for the rest of the project.

Irene Yu: Octavio [Diaz], who’s the chef of the restaurant, wanted to bring an authentic Oaxacan experience to Oakland, and that’s really what drove the space, as well as the artwork.

i+s: What was the process for working with the Oaxaca-based art collective, Lapiztola, to design the mural?

IY: It was interesting because Lapiztola is Spanish-speaking [only]. It was a little bit difficult. I would be sending e-mails using Google Translate, so that was new in our arsenal. We started with a concept. We gave them an overview of what we were thinking, what our design inspiration was for the space. We sent them our materials palate, so they had all different colors that were going to be in the space.

i+s: Why was a large-scale mural chosen as a medium for artwork? What was the design intent?

DS: From a couple points of view—first and foremost—we had this kind of circular, atrium space, in the Kapor Center. The edge of that circular [form] is one of the demising walls between the lobby space of the Kapor Center and our space. You can’t go through that, but that circular, cylindrical form telegraphs through as this curving wall where the mural sits. That circle ... really responds to the way that Franklin Street bends around this building. The building, originally, was designed to follow the street. You have this arcing façade.

It’s something different. It’s new. It’s not the Kapor Center upstairs. It’s its own space, and to articulate that quickly, we landed on a mural solution.

i+s: Can you discuss the characters and elements seen within the mural itself and what they represent?

IY: It was Octavio wanting to honor his family and this spirit of community, and the grassroots nature of this entire project, that really drove the design for the actual mural. The mural itself is heavily influenced by an Oaxacan festival called the Guelaguetza, which honors the dead. In one of the images, there’s a girl who is holding a basket of marigolds and that’s definitely one of the iconic things that they do during that festival. Additionally, one of the figures is Octavio’s grandfather. He sent an actual picture. It was very important for him to be able to have an image of his family on the wall, to remind him why he was doing this, and the inspiration behind wanting to bring this sense of family to Oakland.

i+s: What about the color palette? How was that chosen and how does it connect with the overall aesthetic of the restaurant?

Britney Gildea: A lot of the creative direction for this project came from Oaxacan textiles. We looked mostly at fashion and rugs for inspiration for colors and patterns for the project. We kept it more on a traditional palate of deeper hues—a little bit deeper red, deeper blue, and then played on that with the tone. We didn’t go to a futuristic, contemporary [palette]—it’s definitely more refreshed than a dated, traditional palette.

Photography by Aubrie Pick

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