Amy Murray moved to Berkeley and opened Venus Restaurant on Shattuck Avenue in 2000. The restaurant began serving up seasonable, organic, sustainable California cuisine with worldly accents — which was something of a novelty back then.
A nice nod early on by Kim Severson, then a restaurant critic for the San Francisco Chronicle, now at the New York Times, gave the funky little brick cafe just the kind of exposure it needed to draw in diners.
Last month, Murray opened Revival Bar + Kitchen in a 1901 building also on Shattuck that most recently housed Downtown Restaurant. The chef-owner divides her day working in, and walking between, her two restaurants.
Murray came to the restaurant business at the urging of friends. While traveling for several years — she’s visited 26 countries and counting — she was struck by how other cultures, particularly in Japan and Italy, viewed food as a way of life. When she returned here in the early 1990s, friends began encouraging the home cook to consider starting a food business. She vowed to bring the kind of sensibility she had seen abroad to her own eatery.
Her first venture was Happy Belly Deli & Cafe — a takeaway lunch spot featuring soups, salads and sandwiches, often with an Asian flavor — which she opened on a shoestring budget in 1994 with Dave Korman in Jack London Village.
The 40-something Murray lives on the Berkeley-Kensington border. We chatted over tea in a booth at Revival a week after the restaurant opened.
Why the name Revival?
This is a Revival-era building, Berkeley’s downtown sorely needs a revival, and there’s a food revival going on.
When I was planning this restaurant I immersed myself in the history of this area at the main library. The downtown area, back in the day, used to be a really grand place. At the turn of the 20th century it drew famous architects, opera singers and other dignitaries. Now it’s the face of urban blight. I see the decay every day as I go back and forth between my two restaurants.
We could have such a vibrant downtown again. I want to be a part of the area’s revival.
How are your two restaurants different?
Ambience-wise, I think of Revival as a more sexy, romantic, adult venue than Venus, which is entering its adolescence. For me, Revival is part of a continuum that I started back with Happy Belly, which was my baby. Venus is my child. And Revival is a bit more grown up.
Revival has a bistro feel and a full bar. We have the space at Revival to do things we can’t do at Venus, like accommodate larger parties.
We can also do more in terms of what we cook. We can bring in a whole goat, for instance, and use every part of the animal, from snout to tail. Nothing is wasted. There’s more room for experimenting in the kitchen too.
What do the two places have in common?
A very clean feel to the food, a high standard of purveyors and a California sensibility with a twist. I like to use a word a friend coined — “vitalitarianism”. We’re cooking local, fresh food prepared with care, commitment and love.
Do you have a favorite neighborhood eatery?
Local 123. Since I run two restaurants, I rarely eat out. But I do visit this cafe on San Pablo near University. They serve really good coffee. True to their name, they serve local food — very local. They source produce from neighbors’ backyards. And they feature local art. I like the brick patio out the back.
What’s a misperception about diners here?
That Berkeley diners are all bold. The average palate is still very conservative. We have a lot of people here who have a higher food consciousness but we also have a lot of people who follow a traditional, almost 1950s diet of meat, cheese and bread. It’s very carbo-centric. Sometimes I’m shocked at what people eat.
What’s missing on the food scene in town?
A place making laksa, just a casual little shop selling this Malaysian noodle soup. Also some really authentic Japanese sushi in the style of a Japanese country pub.
Who are your local food heroes?
I have a special place in my heart for the purveyors at Tuesday’s farmers’ market: Cultured‘s Alex Hozven who sells pickled and fermented products like sauerkraut, tsukemono and kombucha. And Casey Havre of Lou Lou’s Garden: she’s been preserving fruits and making jams from a garden on land that’s been in a family for three generations. And the farmers from Quetzal Farm in Santa Rosa who grow so many different varieties of chilies. These people work hard. It’s not an easy life selling such specific foods. But they’ve persevered and made a go of it.
Each Friday in this space food writer Sarah Henry asks a well-known, up-and-coming, or under-the-radar food aficionado about their favorite tastes in town, preferred food purveyors and other local culinary gems worth sharing.
Henry is a freelance writer whose stories have appeared in the Los Angeles Times Magazine, The Washington Post and San Francisco Magazine. A contributor to the food policy blog Civil Eats, she muses about food matters on her blog Lettuce Eat Kale. Follow her on Twitter and become a fan of Lettuce Eat Kale on Facebook.
If you have an idea for a Berkeley Bites interview, send your suggestion to firstname.lastname@example.org or leave a comment here.
To read previous Berkeley Bites profiles click here.