‘It’s the end of a generation. Fanny has grown up’

Alice Waters prepares to hang a funeral wreath at Café Fanny on its last day after 28 years of servings bowls of café au lait to Berkeley food connoisseurs. Sharon Jones (right), one of the original founders of the cafe, helped Waters. Photos: Tracey Taylor

Alice Waters came to Café Fanny Friday morning with a funeral wreath to commemorate the closing of the café she opened 28 years ago.

As a long line of people waited to get their last servings of poached eggs on toasted Acme levain bread, beignets, and steaming bowls of café au lait, an emotional Waters, the owner of Chez Panisse restaurant and edible schoolyard pioneer, expressed sadness that the café was closing. She said that the café was losing money, and, with the divorce of the other co-owners, Jim and Laura Maser, Café Fanny had ceased to be a happy place, which is a critical ingredient in the success of any restaurant endeavor.

…See a photo gallery of Café Fanny’s last day

“It seemed like the end of an era,” said Waters. “You want to have someone home at a café. You want at a restaurant to have people who love it. I can’t take care of it now the way it needs to be taken care of. I just didn’t want to disappoint people who expect a certain something when they come here, whether it is a café au lait, a poached egg or a beignet. It is very hard to change a place.”


Customers lined up at Café Fanny as they have done on many mornings for the past 28 years

Waters said that a new café will rise in Café Fanny’s place. Kermit Lynch, the wine merchant who owns the building at the intersection of San Pablo Avenue and Cedar, along with Steve Sullivan, the owner of Acme Bread Company, which has a retail outlet in the complex, and she are determined to create another vibrant restaurant.

“It’s not going to be Café Fanny, but it is going to be something wonderful.”

Lloyd Lee-Lim and his son Benjamin came to pick up treats for his wife who was working

Patrons of the restaurant lined up in the morning to say goodbye and get a last chance to eat their favorite foods.

Lloyd Lee-Lim, who used to live in Berkeley but who now lives in El Cerrito, had come to the café with his two-year-old son, Benjamin. They were there at the request of Lee-Lim’s wife, Meg, who had to work today. She asked that they buy her some of her favorite menu items.

“She wanted the eggs with prosciutto, but if I get it now, she wouldn’t be able to eat it until dinner time when she got off work,” said Lee-Lim. “It wouldn’t be good then. It wouldn’t be fresh.”

So Lee-Lim planned to order a ham and cheese crèpe and a salmon platter to go.

Waters opened Café Fanny with her brother-in-law Jim Maser and friend Sharon Jones in 1984 and named it after the heroine in Marcel Pagnol’s 1930s movies, as well as Waters’ daughter. Maser, who also owns Picante, and his wife Laura eventually took over day-to-day operations of the café.

Jones, who helped Waters affix the funeral wreath to a beam at the café this morning, left the café when her second child was on the way. The father of her children, James Monday, was the architect for the building.

“Café Fanny is a touchstone for many people in Berkeley and this is a significant day,” she said.

After it opened, and with Kermit Lynch’s wine store and Sullivan’s breads right next door, the foodie complex quickly evolved into a symbol of Berkeley food pioneering.

“It was a beautiful place for me to come when Fanny was a child,” said Waters. “I came here every single day.”

The inscription on the funeral wreath roughly translates as “poor Fanny”

Waters learned about two weeks ago that the café was having financial difficulties and would be closing. It made her very sad, she said. But last Thursday, her friend Peter Sellars, the composer, came to lunch at Chez Panisse and helped her think of the closure not as a tragedy, but an opportunity to start something new that might be wonderful.

“He said, ‘Alice, you have to think about it differently. You can’t mourn in this way. Change is something good. It brings a kind of life. It’s a natural thing. You have to find the hope in it. You set a tone. Don’t go to the sad picture. Put something hopeful out there.’”

So Waters added bright flowers to the funeral wreath she hung at the entrance of Café Fanny and selected a cheerful still from a Pagnol film to put on the sign announcing the closure.

The owners only told the staff Thursday that the café’s last day would be Friday. But Waters said she and Maser “will take care of these employees.” They will get severance pay. The suppliers will be paid. “It’s a moral responsibility. Jim feels that, I feel that.”

“I’ve been grieving for a couple of weeks. I am very sad. But I have to believe something good will come. It’s the end of a generation. Fanny has grown up.”

Related:
Alice Waters’ Cafe Fanny in west Berkeley to close [03.08.12]