There’s a mural above the indoor bike rack at Actual Cafe that reads, “We are the people in your neighborhood.”

It features a delicate illustration of telephone wires and an Oakland skyline, created by Actual Cafe employee Kim Babnik for the cafe’s two-year anniversary.

Actual Cafe is literally my neighborhood cafe – I live a few blocks away from its recognizable location on the corner of San Pablo and Alcatraz avenues – so it’s a slogan that is both accurate and intensely local in that Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood kind of way.

But it’s also a reflection of Actual Cafe’s mission and the intention behind its founding: To be a space that offers a local, neighbor-to-neighbor, community-focused, non-virtual interactive experience in a North Oakland community that doesn’t have many gathering spaces to speak of. The “non-virtual” part of the intention is big – there even used to be an Actual Cafe manifesto that partly reads, “That blue light coming from your screen isn’t love. Those text messages from your friends aren’t hugs and kisses … . Say hello to the person next to you, whether or not you know them.”

Owner Sal Bednarz lives a few blocks away from the cafe, too, so it’s his neighborhood that he’s talking about when he talks about building community relationships that make us all collectively stronger.

“When I moved here [into the Golden Gate neighborhood] in 2001, a lot of the mom-and-pop and neighborhood-y places had gone away,” Bednarz said. “I felt we were turning into a city full of generic chain stores and places that weren’t very interesting. I decided I wanted to do something about it.

“Instead of moving to someplace more interesting, I could just make my neighborhood more interesting and remind people of what it’s like to have places in their neighborhood that have something to do with the neighborhood.”

Actual Cafe celebrates three years of neighborhood-building from 6 to 10 p.m. this Saturday, March 23. They’re throwing an all-ages party with live music from Even TaylorKim Tillman,Genevieve WolffArbielle and Lindee Hoshikawa; beer courtesy of 21st Amendment Brewery; and cupcakes by James and the Giant Cupcake.

In honor of Actual Cafe’s third anniversary, I spent a week in the life of my neighborhood cafe to remind myself of the experience of the “actual,” non-virtual experience of hanging out with my fellow community members. Here’s to three years and many more.



It’s 4:30 p.m. on a beautiful Saturday afternoon at San Pablo and Alcatraz. The cafe is packed with patrons. My boyfriend and I are sitting at the sun-drenched window counter at Actual, leisurely sipping Lagunitas IPAs, which might be one of the finer leisurely activities in life. Now that I’m not in my 20’s anymore, a couple of afternoon beers is kind of an all-day investment – it’s rare that I don’t have Saturday afternoon or evening plans for which to be sober and/or awake. Luckily, I’ve got lots of chances to take my stab at it: Actual’s “Afternoon Delight” happy hour offers $10 pitchers every Saturday from 3 to 7 p.m. Affordable day drinking for all!

There’s nothing like some cheap pitchers of beer to fuel interaction between people, but just to up the ante, Actual Cafe is laptop-free on weekends. Here at Actual, checking your email and working on a presentation is not what the space is for on weekends. They’re really pretty adamant about that. You’re instead welcome to meet up with a friend, strike up a conversation with a stranger, browse the art on the walls, doodle in a notepad, pull out a book, stare out the window, nibble at a scone or pretty much anything other than stare at your laptop screen. Oh, or you can sip a beer or pitcher or two.



On weekends, Actual Cafe serves brunch fare that they don’t serve up on weekdays – stuff like belgian waffles doused in real maple syrup and butter and bowls of polenta doused in the same. The cafe also makes savory versions of those dishes, like a belgian waffle made with bacon and parmesan. (By the way, just typing that made me accidentally drool onto my keyboard.) My current favorite is the “Mash It Up,” a $5 bowl of polenta topped with bacon, swiss cheese and scallions that can usually tide me over ’til dinnertime. On Sunday morning, I pop into Actual to get some much needed post-run bacon-based sustenance.

Again, no laptops allowed. I eat my savory polenta at the long communal table over a good book, stretching back in my seat every once in a while to observe my fellow patrons and enjoying the casual anonymous breakfast company.



Despite the insistence on actual person-to-person interaction, Actual Cafe is also a great place to buckle down and get work done on weekdays if you’re keen to sit elbow-to-elbow with your fellow man. The coffee is good (it’s roasted by neighborhood roaster McLaughlin Coffee, just down the street from the cafe), the indoor bike parking is convenient, the WiFi is reliable and there’s usually an available outlet or someone willing to share one. I head to Actual on Monday afternoon to do a cafe work session with a fellow photographer friend. We sit companionably side by side at the big plate-glass window, doing invoices and editing photos, watching bikers and pedestrians roll by outside. My friend orders a sandwich. I drink my coffee. The bustle around us is a white-noise soundtrack to our neighborhood workday.



I meet up with Bednarz on Tuesday afternoon to chat about Actual’s three-year anniversary. Again, the cafe is packed. Bednarz has just spent the day attending to a plumbing issue. He invites me into his office, which is essentially the stock room with a desk squished into it, and starts telling me about his 23-year involvement with the city of Oakland. He said he never meant to live in Oakland for so long when he first moved here, but he never ended up leaving – mostly because he initially spent a lot of time at neighborhood cafes and made lifelong friendships there within the first few months of living in Oakland. That’s a part of his personal history that fueled his own eventual interest in creating a neighborhood cafe.

As he’s talking, there’s a knock on the door. A man pokes his head into the office/stock room, holding a small plastic vial. “I emailed you a few days ago,” the man says to Bednarz. “I make olive oil, and … ”

Bednarz cuts him off with the expertise of someone well used to solicitations and tells him to go ask for Chris, the chef. Then Bednarz turns back to me, realizing that he was midway through a sentence he’s now forgotten and shakes his head.

“It never stops, really,” he said.



I’m craving meat tonight and Actual Cafe happens to be connected to a burger joint called Victory Burger. Bednarz opened Victory Burger last year with support from a well-publicized Kickstarter campaign, because along with a neighborhood need for community space, Bednarz also identified a neighborhood need for good burgers.

Victory Burger serves up chicken banh mi, veggie burgers and arepas (a cornmeal-based alternative to traditional buns), too, but I go for the basic $8 Victory Burger, a Five Dot Ranch patty on an Acme kaiser roll. It’s a highly decent burger with a small paper-wrapped packet of pickled green beans alongside, made even better by the fact that you can ask for it to be delivered to you at Actual next door.

Tonight, I’m one of those patrons whose face is illuminated by the blue light coming from my laptop screen – made even more illuminated by the fact that it’s nighttime in the cafe – but I get the pleasure of half-listening to the two patrons next to me apparently meeting and falling in love with one another. He’s an older student. She’s a writer who is struggling to write her life into a book. As I work, I listen to the cadence of their voices and delighted laughs, thinking, “This is exactly what this cafe is for – falling in love with a stranger on a Wednesday night.”



Thursday night is Bicycle Bingo night at Actual. I won’t say much more than that. Just go. You can buy Bingo cards – $3 each, two for $5 or five for $10 – and win prizes and drink beer to benefit local nonprofits like the East Bay Bicycle Coalition and Phat Beets Produce. You’re guaranteed to laugh with great, fun people. You’re not guaranteed to, but might get to if you’re lucky, ride the Bingo Bike.



I often meet a friend for coffee at Actual on Friday mornings at 7 a.m. At that hour, the cafe is just opening its doors and getting the coffee started; the corner of San Pablo and Alcatraz is so quiet that the sound of passing cars seems to echo. Still, each Friday, we’re rarely the only two people at the cafe. Patrons sleepily shuffle in to order coffee and pastries to go; one or two take seats at the communal table and flap open newspapers. The sun starts to come up as we talk and drink our coffee.

And, as the neighborhood moves daily through it and around it, another week at Actual Cafe starts to come to a close; another week starts to begin.


If you go

Actual Cafe’s Three-Year Anniversary Party

 6 to 10 p.m. Saturday, March 23

 Actual Cafe, 6334 San Pablo Ave., Oakland

 (510) 653-8386

More info:


Oakland Social is a weekly arts and culture column devoted to upcoming events, new places, and narratives about going out in Oakland. Have ideas for what to cover? Contact

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