I HOPE THE DAY will arrive when finding Saturday-night quality entertainment in Oakland on a Wednesday evening won't send me into spasms of exuberant optimism.

But for now I am grateful. I am grateful for the music and laughter that bubbled up Wednesday night like percolating coffee at the Spice Monkey cafe as patrons sat shoulder-to-shoulder sipping wine under the glow of dangling Moroccan lamps.

Lunch is still Spice Monkey's strongest suit, but owner Kanitha Matoury has created a little island of life after sunset in the otherwise dark patch of downtown east of Broadway.

I stumbled across Spice Monkey by chance, which is how Matoury found the shimmery art deco gem that once housed the Robert Howden & Sons tile factory.

She had been searching without luck in San Francisco for the right place to put a restaurant. So she decided to cruise through downtown Oakland and happened across a building at 16th and Webster streets that beckons like a siren robed in incandescent black and ocher tiles.

"It was love at first sight," Matoury said.

Spice Monkey beams with feel-good vibes that match its neighbors: a taqueria boasting "the world famous happy burrito" across the street from the Take It Easy Thai restaurant. The Sunny Relax Center is down the street.

But Spice Monkey is one of the few spots east of Broadway to stay open after the lunch crowd leaves. Closing time is 10 p.m., though sometimes the bar stays open later.

The building is so beautiful and the atmosphere so comfortable it should be a destination point, Matoury said as an explanation for staying open late. She was sitting at the custom-built redwood bar she installed during what would be the real estate version of "Extreme Makeover."

Matoury and her husband excavated the Mediterranean glory of the tile showroom turned Indian restaurant that was hidden under layers of paint, grime and neglect. Tiles, walls, arches and even doorknobs were freed from layers of paint a color best described as a cross between magenta and psychedelic circus pink.

They knocked down walls, uncovered sky lights and fixed the majestic fireplace, bearing a cedar forest in its stone tiles, which stands to the right of the entryway. Water bubbled again from the tiled fountain in the center of the downstairs floor. Matoury could have fit four more tables in that space, but the trade-off is worth it, she said, comparing the restaurant to a diamond in the rough: "You have to polish it to make it beautiful."

Long days of trial and error have passed since opening day May 1.

"It's not glamorous, but at the end of the day, food can make people happy," Matoury said.

The menu has been narrowed so that ingredients overlap, even though the recipes come from different continents. Appetizers include empanadas stuffed with guajillo chili-braised Niman Ranch beef, raisins and caramelized onions; polenta pie; and macaroni and cheese made with cheddar, mozzarella and Parmesan. The choices change every six months to match the season.

"We make everything with love, even our own mayo," said Matoury, who was born and raised in Camdodia until she was granted political asylum in the U.S. at age 14. Now 28, she has a business degree and stint in the U.S. Air Force under her belt.

She also has worked as a line cook, saucier, sous chef and pastry chef.

Dishes are made from scratch, including the spices, which are dried and blended to create signature concoctions. Thyme, sage, lemon grass, basil, cardomon and mint put the "spice" in Spice Monkey.

The monkey comes from Matoury's fondness for the animal and its association with being fun, wild and creative — the same association she is trying to conjure up as a chef and in her eclectic menu, which is accompanied by "Happy Monday" or "OMG Booze!" (the restaurant recently got its liquor license) and a heart on the board outside announcing Spice Monkey's lunch specials. Those included vegan black bean chili, four-cheese veggie pizza, chili-infused brownies and black mango iced tea.

Signature dishes include Spice Monkey potatoes, monkey Cobb salad and monkey pilaf. On the dinner side are seared snapper, slow pork, a weekly market special ("the best of the market paired with the best from the butcher") and hippie chicken, described as grilled marinated chicken breast served on a bed of sauteed veggies and exotic rice.

"Some people think the menu is confused," Matoury said, but she exudes the sort of thoughtful, decisive determination of a perfectionist

"People don't need much. You need food, water, love, hugs, smiles, friendship, and you're good to go."

That's all for now, ladies and gentlemen. But if you have a cool shindig, e-mail me at awoodall@bayareanewsgroup.com or visit the Night Owl blog www.ibabuzz.com/nightowl for more events and oddities.

If you go
  • what: Spice Monkey cafe
  • where: 1628 Webster St., Oakland
  • when: Weekdays 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 5 to 10 p.m.; Saturdays 5 to 10 p.m.; closed Sundays. Live music on Wednesday evenings.
  • contact: 510-268-0170