From the start, restaurant goers and food critics dug the low-key, west Berkeley breakfast, lunch, and brunch spot serving stylish takes on classic American fare with quirky names like The Demon Lover (spicy fried chicken and buttermilk waffles).
900 Grayson, an unassuming corner restaurant with a maple pink facade, quietly attracted a following for its menu of comfort cuisine made from quality ingredients — like the natural beef burger with applewood smoked bacon and house-made BBQ sauce — as well as its fresh seasonal fare with Asian undertones like the Ladyboy (a Vietnamese inspired dish with lemongrass prawns, mango, daikon, rice noodles, toasted rice powder and micro greens).
Not long after it opened six years ago, though, the business started by four partners hit some snags. First came the fast departure of chef-partner Sophina Uong (now behind the stoves at Oakland’s Pican). Eighteen months later her former life and work partner, Josh Pearl, followed suit.
A legal dispute over money followed: The two ex-partners were pitted against brothers Anthony and Christopher Saulnier, who stayed on to run the restaurant. Add to that wranglings with Berkeley’s zoning department over dinner hours — the city had concerns about noise and congestion from the restaurant, which is in a residential area that fronts busy Seventh Street — and the restaurateurs had their hands full.
But the Saulniers weathered that early rough patch and now boast a loyal breakfast crowd, which mostly hails from Berkeley, and a steady lunch-time clientele, thanks largely to nearby businesses such as Pixar, Bayer, Novartis, and a host of smaller companies. These days the kitchen is run by committee, with two chefs, Eric Larson and Nick Spelletich, in charge. Larson was featured serving up 900 Grayson grub on an episode of Guy Fieri’s “Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives” show for the Food Network.
Berkeleyside spoke with co-owner Chris Saulnier, 43, after the lunch rush last week.
Did you ever get approval to open for dinner?
We did, finally. When we first opened we couldn’t do it, because of The West Berkeley Plan [Which has since been modified to ease these kinds of uses – Ed]. We had to have a public hearing. It’s been about three years now. At this point my brother and I both have young children and we’re doing so well at breakfast and lunch there’s really no need for us to open for dinner. We do think about it, and I know some of our cooks would like to expand the menu.
What are your restaurant roots?
We grew up in the restaurant business: Our grandparents owned Chez Madeleine in Point Reyes, which is now Marin Sun Farms. My parents owned a restaurant in Sebastapol. They got divorced when I was four. I think working together is really hard for couples — though my grandparents did it for 30 years. My father got the restaurant — he’s a great chef but he’s not a great business man, so he only had it another year and a half and then he lost it. And after that he literally worked in every restaurant in Sonoma County when I was a kid. It’s a tough business, you’re not home much.
My brother and I worked at my grandparents’ restaurant on the weekends. He would wait tables and I would make salads. We always knew we wanted to do this; if you grow up in restaurants it kind of gets in your blood. I’ve never done anything else, it’s always what I wanted to do.
How is it working with your brother?
He and I have always gotten along. We have brothers from other families who work in the kitchen and a brother and sister from the same family who work for us too. But we’d never work with another couple again. That’s not a good idea in this business.
Where did the quirky menu names come from and what is the Hobbit midday meal?
Many of the menu item names originated with Sophina, our first chef. They’re a bit of fun. The Hobbit meal came about for The Saul Zaentz Company, their Middle-earth Enterprises, here at Fantasy Studios. They’re very good customers and they wanted to establish a Hobbit Bar so that if anyone anywhere — like, say in New Zealand — wanted to open one, they could show that one already exists and it’s trademarked. So the Hobbit Bar here is just a little favor we’re doing for them. As for the Hobbit menu, it’s just our regular menu, with names like The Hobbit House Salad, The Gandalf Burger, and Frodo Cookies. My brother is really into all the Middle Earth merchandise and as you can see I have my Gollum belt buckle on and I read The Hobbit as a kid.
Where do you eat out around town?
My wife and I go to Kirala. I love sushi. At lunch I usually get the chirarshi bowl — an assortment of raw fish and vegetables over rice — or the sashimi plate. My wife likes the chicken teriyaki. We had a great time at Rivoli; we went for one of our anniversaries. The food, wine list, and service were all great. My kid’s favorite place to eat is Cactus. She loves her bean and cheese burritos.
Dinner here, in a couple of years when the kids are a bit bigger. And we’re also toying with getting a small retail spot — maybe in Oakland or San Francisco — and doing just chicken and waffles to go. That could be really economical: All you need is a chicken fryer and a waffle iron.
The Details: 900 Grayson Street (cross is 7th Street), 704-9900, Mon-Fri 8-10:45 am, 11:30-3 pm, Sat 8 am-2:30 pm, closed Sunday.
Update: this article has been corrected to reflect that changes to the West Berkeley Plan have eased requirements for certain kinds of uses for small businesses. Previously it linked those changes to Measure T, which was incorrect.
The culinary couple behind Berkeley’s Corso and Rivoli (05.27.11)
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