The Bay Area is known for high-end cuisine, but its food culture has notable roots in the coffee houses and diners that served industrial workers and office 9-5ers before farm-to-table was a phrase anyone knew. A few relics remain — Mel's Drive-In, for example, which has been feeding San Franciscans since 1947; and the Fosters Freeze chain, opened in 1946. But many were shuttered and replaced by other food establishments, retail shops, or in some cases, nothing but plywood and graffiti.
One such forgotten food hotspot is the old Biff’s Coffee Shop, at the corner of Broadway and 27th in Oakland’s Uptown neighborhood. Although it’s easy to overlook the historical significance of the building where Biff’s once lived, it’s hard not to notice the structure itself, which is unlike almost any other in the city. The completely circular, shingle-sided, single-story building more closely resembles restaurants found in Los Angeles, since it follows the LA-bred “Googie” tradition of architecture, which favored Jetson’s-style retrofuturistic forms.
Biff’s was in fact designed by Los Angeles firm Armet & Davis in 1963. Its endless circle of windows let light pour in on the diner booths and central counter, which surrounded the open kitchen. According to one Oakland blogger, among the fare offered at Biff’s was coleslaw with peanuts, a dish you could say foreshadowed this golden era of experimental and fusion cuisine.
In 1996, Biff’s (which operated in its twilight years as JJ’s Diner) was slated for demolition when Chevron decided to develop a combination gas station/McDonald’s on that corner. But neighbors rose up to object, and eventually succeeded in getting the Oakland Landmark Preservation Advisory Board to designate the building as an historic site. Unfortunately, the designation did not restore the place to its former position as a bustling dining hub for the neighborhood. The building still sits derelict, but the resurgence of its surroundings may, one hopes, eventually lead someone to take over the old Biff’s and turn it into something great again.
Learn more about the Bay at the Oakland Museum of California's exhibition, Above and Below: Stories From Our Changing Bay.