Comal: New restaurant takes a bet on downtown Berkeley

Berkeley architects Abueg Morris designed Comal to be "textural and warm, and not afraid to show the patina of age". Photo: Tracey Taylor

On Friday, John Paluska will throw open the heavy steel doors to his ambitious new restaurant, Comal, which he hopes will become a magnet for local residents and a cultural incubator. “I see it as a big tent that I hope will become the heart of the community,” he said last week as he stood in the expansive, airy space at 2020 Shattuck Avenue, overseeing a plethora of pre-launch preparations.

Comal will be cooking up Oaxaca-inspired Mexican food — masa-based dishes such as Tetelas, memelas, and tlayudas, whole grilled fish, chickens and fresh vegetables –– much of it cooked on an Italian wood-burning range and two “comals” — large round griddles which take center stage in the restaurant’s open kitchen and, says Paluska, also serve to evoke the “hearth as gathering place” ambiance he is seeking to create there.

Chef Matt Gandin, formerly of Delfina in San Francisco, says he wants to explore the complexities of a cuisine that he feels is “waiting to be discovered”.

Bar consultant and "spiritist" Scott Baird, center, is focusing on cocktails that harmonize with food. Photo: Tracey Taylor

Other than taking the usual risks associated with opening a new restaurant, probably Paluska’s biggest gamble is betting that downtown Berkeley is going to rise up to meet his expectations. He admits that when he starting drafting the business plan for Comal, friends expressed skepticism about choosing Berkeley. But Paluska did his research and concluded it was “a no-brainer”.

“There was Measure R, the PBid and the Downtown Plan,” he says, referring to the recent measures that are already leading to changes in Berkeley’s core. He cites the plans to reopen the UC Theater on University, the Acheson Commons project and the new Berkeley Art Museum/Pacific Film Archive as other developments he hopes will fuel a continuing renaissance in downtown. “Downtown Berkeley has a tremendous amount of untapped potential,” he says.

The two comals, from which the restaurant takes its name, will be used to blacken and finish masa-based Mexican dishes. Photo: Tracey Taylor

Paluska has called on an impressive roster of local designers and artisans to craft the sleek, 140-seat eatery which is in the space formerly occupied by two stores: Paper Heaven and Another Change of Hobbit.

West Berkeley based Abueg Morris were the principal designers, David Trachtenberg created the Cor-Ten steel façades, lighting is by Alice Prussin at Illuminosa, Lawrence Grown of Metro Lighting and Lee Miltier of Photosynthesis on Bancroft Way. The landscaping in the showpiece back patio is by Robert Trachtenberg, the tables are by Heritage Salvage, while Richmond based Ferrous Studios are responsible for all the steel elements, be it the table and stool bases or the gigantic trusses for the terrace canopy. “They have their fingerprints all over this place,” says Paluska.

The restaurant's large, heated outdoor patio has its own bar with beer and wine on tap. Photo: Tracey Taylor

Last but not least, Berkeley based Meyer Sound has created a highly sophisticated music and acoustic system — their first custom-design for a restaurant — which promises to produce low levels of reverberation and ensure customers enjoy their conversations as much as the music. Paluska’s investment in state-of-the-art sound is perhaps not surprising given that for many years he was the manager of the hugely popular band, Phish.

“The overall feel is earthy,” says Marites Abueg who, with her husband Keith Morris, orchestrated the look and feel of the restaurant with their company Abueg Morris, fresh from completing the second Nopalita restaurant in San Francisco. “John wanted it to be like a ‘third place’, a living room in downtown Berkeley — which is exciting to us as we live in downtown and think that kind of place is missing,” she says.

The result is textural and warm and not afraid to show the patina of age. Ceiling joists are exposed as are showers of dark scratches in the wood floors, the consequence of ripping out decades-old carpet tiles.

Bar stools were designed by Ferrous Studios with seats branded by sculptor John Bisbee. Photo: Tracey Taylor

As for the fare on the plate, Paluska says Gandin likes to cook as if Mexico was another Californian state — mixing local, seasonal ingredients into regional Mexican dishes. That may translate, says Gandin, into grilled artichokes served with epazote butter, or a ceviche of local King Salmon. “It’s a journey of discovery,” he says.

That’s not to say sourcing authentic Mexican ingredients isn’t a priority. “The bar staff have been returning from research trips to Mexico with duffle bags full of chilies that are usually grown and reserved for local families,” Gandin says.

Scott Baird is in charge of the restaurant’s two, generously proportioned, bars — one at the front, one outside on the back terrace. (Baird and his partner Josh Harris are from Bon Vivants and they are the cocktail consultants who developed the drinks menu.) Baird says he’s concocting a Tequila education with a curated repertoire, including a homemade artisanal offering, and a program of sangritas. There will be ten beers and two Sonoma wines on taps. “The emphasis will be delicious not precious,” he says. “And cocktails will be designed to pair well with food. I have experience cooking and it’s important to me that the drinks harmonize with the food.”

A curated selection of tequilas, used for seasonal cocktails, will be on offer as will a program of sangritas. Photo: Tracey Taylor

Paluska, who says he greatly admires the “uncompromising values” of local restaurants such as Doňa Tomas, Gather, Ipukku and Revival, says he sees Comal as a “second-wave colonist”. “I am hoping all the colorful people of Berkeley will come here and come as they are — we’re polished but relaxed.”

And his response to the skeptics who urged him to consider Oakland or San Francisco rather than Berkeley for his foodie venture? “I believe you have be the change you want to see,” he says.

Comal, at 2020 Shattuck Avenue, opens on Friday May 4 and will be open every night for dinner, serving from 5:30 pm to 11:00 pm.

View a photo gallery of the restaurant.

Berkeleyside publishes many articles every day. To see all our stories in chronological order, including previous Police Blotters, check out our All the News grid.

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  • Susie

    I can’t wait to try this place out. I hope I love it.

  • megan

    A back terrace?!  So exciting!  

  • Doc

    Is Downtown finally succeeding? Congratulations all arround: city developers, University, if so.

  • Bruce Love

    I hesitate to point this out — being persistently typo-prone and a bad speller myself —  but, while a (pardon me but) “cervice of local King Salmon” is certainly an interesting concept,  perhaps the restaurant is more likely to serve a ceviche of local King Salmon?

    I could be wrong.  You can never be too sure with these high end places.

  • Bryan Garcia

    Have they posted a sample menu yet?

    I hope they have some vegan options. “Pre-Columbian” cuisine if you will.

  • Thanks for pointing it out. Fixed. 

  • Biker 94703

    Downtown has been pretty ok for years.  You should try visiting sometime.

    Personally I think congratulations are due the small business owners and their patrons, but to each their own.

  • Guest

    it looks beautiful.
    i hope they are successful.

  • I don’t see any sound baffles. The noise is going to be atrocious.

  • Doc

    Thanks. There each day. The new housing has helped lots. Still many beggars, but better than Telegraph and getting better with each new project. Looking forward to BAM.

  • Susie

     Guess you didn’t read the whole article: “Berkeley based Meyer Sound has created a highly sophisticated music and acoustic system — their first custom-design for a restaurant — which promises to produce low levels of reverberation and ensure customers enjoy their conversations as much as the music.”

  • Bob

    Can’t wait to check this place out. I commend the Comal team for committing to downtown Berkeley. The interior looks amazing and the food and pedigree of the chef is impressive. 

  • Former Reporter

    I wish the Berkeleyside writers would not assume we know things that we may not. For example, I had not heard of plans to reopen the UC Theater.  If something like this is in an article –and unless it’s common knowledge– it needs to be explained/amplified. And many of us probably could use our memories refreshed on Acheson Commons. That’s just good, inclusive reporting. Thanks

  • biker 94703

    The UC is being considered by the folks who run Slims to be turned into a live music venue, but its had the yellow tags up for years so it isn’t clear if it is moving forwards or what. The Acheson Commons is the next student dorm nee put-Ace-Hardware-out-of-business project. Both are pretty common knowledge if you follow downtown development.

  • Marites Abueg

    There is sound baffling and attenuation throughout the entire ceiling, behind artwork and along the vertical surfaces of the soffit and wainscot. It was a top priority by the whole team. Come down and hear for yourself!

  • Jerry D

    Wood burning stove? What happens on spare the air days?
    Was in Downtown Berkeley last. The place was hopping.

  • joan strand

    PARKING always a problem, keeps us away from Phil’s Sliders, which we love. And we have handicap placards, but still usually have to park in the lot on Berkeley Way between Shattuck and Milvia. That is too far for my husband to walk.

  • Marissa LaMagna

    I have lived and worked within blocks of Comal for over 13 years and have seen the downtown coming more alive each year. First the beautiful library was renovated along with the High School. Then the Hotel Shattuck Plaza was resurrected.  Now there’s the new Magnus Art Museum and Freight & Salvage, The Jazz School, The David Brower Center, The Marsh, Revival Kitchen + Bar and countless other  wonderful new restaurants, movies, music venues, pubs, bookstores, bike stores etc. Now even flower baskets hanging from the lamposts! I can’t wait to find out more about this new spot.

  • TizziLish

    I am not a journalist .  Does a small local news website have a duty to include any possible facts that you might not know, Former Repoter, or any possible facts that any potential reader might not know? And how would a small business like Berkeleyside ever keep track and make sure they always report all possibly relevants facts that someone like you does not know?

    I have read about UC Theater possibly reopening several times in recent months — on Berkeleyside. How many times do they have to report a fact until it penetrates your awareness?

    Anyone who pays any attention to the unfolding experience that is Downtown Berkeley, and esp. anyone who spends any time in Downtown Berkeley, like anyone who goes in or out of the main entrance to that BART station, has been able to SEE Acheson Commons and see its progress. Plus there have been stories published here updating that building’s progress.  Plus anyone who goes to the Saturday farmers market gets within a block of Acheson Commons and could also witness its progress, which suddenly, and fairly recently, was rushed to completion. Who would not notice, esp. someone following news of our downtown?

    I think your complaint is unreasonable.

  • Bryan Garcia

    Have you tried the lot under the David Brower Center? We have never had a problem finding a space there.

    But frankly, this is the downtown area of a semi-urban city. What do you expect, giant parking lots everywhere like they have out in the suburbs??

  • Charles_Siegel

     I have the opposite problem: I have heard about plans for reopen the UC Theater for so, so long that I no longer believe them.  (I hope I am pleasantly surprised one of these years.)

  • Bruce Love

     Capital formation is hard, especially these days.   If we all keep talking about how all the other projects in town are right on the verge of getting funded and breaking ground, then maybe one of our projects will get funded and actually be able to break ground.   Confidence.   You’re supposed to project confidence.  That’s the name of the game.  It’s a confidence game.

  • Biker 94703

     A minor clarification: the development on Center st you’re referring to is the Arpeggio/Seagate building.

    The Acheson Commons is still in proposal/design stage.  It would subsume the Ace Hardware building, the Acheson Physicians building, and the long-derelected brown shingles north of Ace and it’s parking.  The proposal retains the University Ave facades and otherwise seems a pretty standard dorm development.

  • The Sharkey

    I agree that the complaint is a bit unreasonable, but including links to past articles about some of those topics might be a good idea and could drive up reader immersion and page hits.

    But there are already a lot of links in the article and over-linking could be distracting I suppose.

  • Charles_Siegel

     Latest rumors that I’ve heard say they will be able to keep Ace Hardware there. 

    I hope so. If Ace closed, it would be a hardship to many people who live in or near downtown and who do not own cars. It would also subvert the goal of making downtown more pedestrian oriented.

  • Mike Farrell

    I look forward to trying Comal and a their perspective on Mexican cuisine, but, flat stools and booth benches? I hope the seating is more comfortable than it looks.
    It appears lovely, however seating is intended for a part quite a distance from one’s eyes.

  • Biker 94703

    I hope so too.

    Perhaps BAM should stay in its delightful modernist structure next to campus and the PFA should move into the UC theater.  It wouldn’t replace thursday night kung-fu double features, but then what could?  The space could serve double duty for lectures and some of the smaller graduation ceremonies.

  • David D.

    Looks nice. Except the seats. Hopefully they are more comfortable than they look…

    Any word on vegetarian options? I’d round up my friends for dinner if I knew I’d have some meal options.

  • John Paluska told me vegetables would be very much part of the menu — lots of seasonal vegetables cooked on the grills etc. (There simply wasn’t room to include every detail that we discussed!)

  • Bill

    They’ve had a permit sign up for a year (years?) and the hopes of getting something open are fading in my estimation.  Maybe they’re waiting for a lotto win to finance.

  • Sarah S

    There’s also the Center Street Garage. Without a placard it’s $5 flat rate after 5pm (at least on weeknights). Assume it’s free with the placard, and they have an elevator. Comal and Phil’s Sliders are literally up the street & around the corner.

  • Cammy

    Sounds great! What a nice looking space. Thanks for choosing Berkeley!