How many ways can you dish up that perennial kids' favorite, macaroni and cheese? At Oakland's Homeroom restaurant, at least 10 ways, mixed with artisanal cheeses, Niman Ranch sausage, artichoke hearts, garlic, toasted walnuts and other decidedly non-Kraft ingredients. There are vegan and gluten-free versions on request.
Add some down-home-but-better veggies, sip a glass of Napa Valley wine or a local craft beer, and top off - if you can eat another bite - with a brownie or a beer float. (Yes, beer, or rather Old Rasputin Imperial Stout, plus ice cream. For the under-21s, there's a classic non-alcoholic version with housemade root beer.)
Homeroom has created a surprising buzz for a one-dish restaurant since it opened in February, 2011, on 40th Street between Broadway and Telegraph Avenue. The owners are food blogger Allison Arevalo and attorney Erin Wade, who say they both fell in love with macaroni and cheese at about age 5.
We visited for the first time recently with some Thanksgiving weekend houseguests. We left happy and very, very full.
We ordered three variations on the mac-and-cheese theme: the Exchange Student (tangy, with feta, spinach and artichokes hearts), the Mexican Mac (the spiciest on the menu, with chorizo, chipotle peppers and jack cheese)and the Trailer Mac (Niman Ranch hot dog chunks, cheddar, topped with crushed potato chips). Price: $8.75 each, plus 50 cents for the optional but highly recommended crisp topping. Verdict: thumbs up from everyone.
Helpings are more than generous - none of us, all reasonably hearty eaters, could finish our bowls. Sturdy take-home containers showed up without having to ask.
A side salad of mixed greens came with a nice citrus vinaigrette; you can also order a big bowl of salad meant for sharing. We washed it all down with a bottle of very pleasant Sterling Meritage, a half-price special that wasn't listed among the dozens of wines, beers, ales and stouts on the giant chalkboard.
There's no children's menu per se, but there's a Little Mac for $5.25, made with mild cheddar and served in a smaller bowl.
Homeroom does serve a few things besides macaroni and cheese: a grilled cheese sandwich and a BLT at lunchtime on weekdays, biscuits and a "runny egg" sandwich at weekend brunch, and a small but tempting variety of desserts.
The atmosphere is relaxed and cheerful, the service quick and responsive. Seating includes tables, a few booths and a long communal table. The schoolhouse theme is amusing but not heavy-handed. Although the restaurant was nearly full when we got there, we found street parking just a car-length or two from the front door.
One mild criticism: during our meal an employee slipped or tripped, sending some dessert plates flying and spattering the purse and person of one member of our party. Apologies were profuse and the clean-up was quick and efficient, but we felt the restaurant staff missed an opportunity for a good-will gesture, perhaps comping a dessert for our spatteree.
That won't keep us away. Homeroom is a unique addition to the nearby restaurant scene. It's not the spot for a romantic candlelit dinner, but it would be a great place to take an eclectic group of visiting relatives during the holiday season or for a casual meal anytime.
Details: Homeroom, 400 - 40th St., Oakland (at Shafter Avenue), 510-597-0400, homeroom510.com. No reservations. Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Friday, Saturday, 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Happy hour, 3-6 p.m. Takeout and catering available.