“Michelin!” In front of their new restaurant in Oakland, the Hi Felicia crew pose for photos, their youthful ambition showing everywhere: in how they change the required ‘cheese’! before photos of how they transformed a restaurant space in just two months. Now they are publicly aiming for Michelin stars.
Hi Felicia is the Bay Area Pandemic darling pop-up, a dining experience first launched in 2021 on the back patio of Chef Imana’s Oakland apartment, which goes by just his first name. The ambience of the early days was more like a diner than the stark, modernist restaurants usually associated with that term “fine dining.” And Imana hopes that feeling of eating “at a friend’s house” will carry over to the restaurant’s new space at 23, near Webster Street. She acknowledges the stakes are higher, but says the team will be serving elevated food — that they can cook properly now that they’re in a commercial kitchen, which helps make things more legit, she says . “It’s always been fine dining,” Imana says of Hi Felicia’s food. “It’s always been rustic and vulgar and free and open. It is physically different, who feels different, and we have all the resources at our disposal. I think that physical space, in itself, allows us to elevate.
The dine-in feeling is front and center as you approach the new space; there’s a parklet up front, but rather than tables it’s a living room with two sofas, a coffee table and a wooden counter for drinks. It’s a space where the restaurant’s 40 diners can mingle while sipping kava before the meal. Inside, guests will be served 12-14 courses of what Imana calls “California comfort food” – small bites influenced primarily by Mexican culture with global touches, created with seasonal Californian produce. Imana talks about some dishes the team has been working on, like fried chicken covered in mole verde; large, tangy salads; moist smoked duck burritos; caviar; plantains; and plain rum ice cream with pork rind. It’s about the comfort food she wants to eat, on a good day or a bad day, that makes everyone feel good when they eat it.
Hi Felicia will only serve beer, sake and natural wine; the vision is to keep a constantly rotating wine list of 20 selections, and it’s a who’s-who in the world of natural wine. Imana named Intern Wine, Iruai Winery, Everything Is Okay, Gearhead Wines, Lula, Two Punx, Purity Wine as favorites that will make appearances on the menu.
If you had any preconceptions about what a fine dining restaurant looks like, check those expectations at the door. When asked what they were going for with her look – a neon green exterior, followed by an all-black interior imbued with art punctuations in every corner – Imana immediately replies “camp”. She selected “the stickiest shit you could imagine”, but it’s a fun mishmash of items that conjure up the tiniest of smiles at every turn, with many items made by local artists or sourced from the region. “I’m really excited to change what the bar is and what the level is and what [fine dining] maybe,” Imana says. “How unstuffy it can be, how much fun you can have, how dynamic a space you can create, while serving incredibly elevated food, that’s exciting to me. It’s that level of detail and it’s another way of intimacy for me: it’s a way of showing people how much I care about what they eat.
This level of care also shows through the team, and speaking of them, Imana begins to cry with pride. “My team, they’re all artists and queer, non-binary people and they love food and they love wine, and they love to go deeper with me,” she says. Her team’s warm welcome is something Imana has never felt before when dining in high-end restaurants, and she wants to preserve that, while providing fine service. It’s been a tough road for Imana to get to this stage at the age of 25, but she fought hard for it. She opened the business with no investors or partners, she says, a difficult feat in itself, not to mention someone who says she grew up just on the poverty line, not always having enough to eat. It’s hard to start from scratch and build a life like this, she says, it didn’t happen by chance. “It was built from so much trauma and stress and discrimination and all those things that people shouldn’t have to go through,” she says.
The constant proclamation by Imana and her team that Hi Felicia will be getting a Michelin star, at first glance seems out of step with the disruptive sentiment. But for Imana, earning Michelin stars will symbolize that there is a place at the table for people like her, that black and brown people deserve a place in the luxury industry, she says. “It’s the best way to show all those white people in this industry that ‘I’m here with you,'” Imana says. “There is no other way, because in our industry [earning a Michelin star] is the measure of success.
So instead of working to help someone else gain professional recognition, she earns it on her own terms as a chef-owner – claiming her place in the industry. Owning a restaurant was not a childhood dream, she says, but something she undertook out of frustration with the food industry and anger that there weren’t more black chefs. recognized at the highest levels of food. “Hi Felicia showed me so many interesting sides of myself,” she says. “I learned that dreams aren’t always exactly what you thought; sometimes they grow out of difficult circumstances – and that’s what Hi Felicia is.
Hi Felicia (326 23rd Street in Oakland) debuts Sunday, April 24 and will be open for Reservations Friday to Monday only, first service at 6:30 p.m. Tasting menu, $195/person. Food and wine pairing, $125/person.