Comal owners plan new Berkeley restaurant

Paluska, Hoffman, Gandin

Andrew Hoffman and John Paluksa (l to r), seen here with Comal Executive Chef Matt Gandin, are hoping to open a new restaurant in Berkeley’s Elmwood neighborhood. Photo: Postcard PR

The owners of Comal in downtown Berkeley are hoping to open a second restaurant in Berkeley, this time in the Elmwood neighborhood.

John Paluska and Andrew Hoffman have their sights on the 3,400-square-foot vacant space in the old Wright’s Garage building at 2635 Ashby Ave. (The renovated retail space is to the left of Dream Fluff Donuts).

The plan is to serve Northern Californian cuisine, and the restaurant will offer craft cocktails, a full bar, and be open for lunch and dinner, said Paluska. The atmosphere, energy and design will likely not be far-removed from Comal. “The space has some of the raw attributes we liked at Comal,” he said.

However, Paluska stressed that the project is in the very early stages of development.

The space at 2635 Ashby Ave. in Berkeley’s Elmwood neighborhood where the Comal owners want to open a second restaurant.

The partners have to apply for a change-of-use permit for the space, and would need to be granted an exception to the Elmwood quota system that exists to ensure a balance in the types of businesses that operate there. Paluska and Hoffman are currently spending time talking to neighbors, neighborhood associations and local merchants — and will hold an open meeting with the community (details below) — to be fully conversant with local sensitivities.

“We are trying to be proactive. We don’t want to focus on the micro-details of the restaurant until we have reached out fully to the community,” he said. “There are complex dynamics in this neighborhood, like many others, and we are aware of many of the issues, including parking. We are hearing from as many people as we can so that their views inform our application.”

The pair opened Comal at 2020 Shattuck Ave. in May 2012. It was the first restaurant for Paluska, who formerly was the manager of the popular band Phish. Hoffman partnered with Paluska on Comal and is general manager at the Mexican-inspired restaurant, which has proved hugely popular. He will assume the same role at the new restaurant, which has yet to be named. Comal is seen to have revived a formerly lackluster part of downtown Berkeley, and was described by the San Francisco Chronicle‘s restaurant critic, Michael Bauer, as the restaurant he would have opened had he become a restaurateur.

Paluska said the eventual appointment of a chef would determine the menu at the new restaurant, but that they are looking to emulate places such as Nopa and Zuni in San Francisco in providing a local gathering place that serves classic Northern Californian dishes.

“We want to be a great neighborhood restaurant in what we see as a really special neighborhood,” he said. “We want it to be a place that is really loved by its constituents, and that is complementary to existing businesses in the area. We are respectful of why the quota system exists.”

Comal interior. Photo- Postcard PR

The pair behind Comal hope a new restaurant in the Elmwood would have a similar atmosphere and design to their original spot, and that it would become a favorite neighborhood gathering place. Photo: Postcard PR

For their application to succeed, the city needs to see a strong show of community support. Paluska said that they have already heard from many locals who support the idea.

In 2007, a group called the Elmwood Neighborhood Association filed a lawsuit against commercial realtor John Gordon and Berkeley after the Council had given its approval for a 5,000-square-foot restaurant in the old Wright’s Garage building. The lawsuit was settled in February 2008 and Gordon let his restaurant use permit lapse. The neighborhood group contended that the city had not put the project through the proper environmental review before issuing a permit, and that the restaurant-bar would bring undue traffic and noise to the neighborhood.

Paluska and Hoffman are holding an open house to talk to the local community about their plans for the new restaurant. It will be at 2635 Ashby Ave. on Monday, July 1, at 7 p.m. The pair will present their preliminary plans — including proposed opening hours, which are expected to be standard commercial operating hours of 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. — and answer questions about the project.

Nosh Talk: Comal chef Matt Gandin (11.14.12)
Bauer waxes lyrical about Comal: A magnificent package (07.16.13)
Comal: New restaurant takes a bet on downtown Berkeley (04.30.12)

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  • Rachel Anderson

    That’s great for the Elmwood … and sitting here in North Berkeley adding another item to my “I wish that we had something like [the elmwood cafe, etc.] in N. Berkeley” list.

  • Cammy

    Wonder if this one will be more “family friendly.” However I realize that’s not the hipster, cool thing in the East Bay/SF where I first heard the words”breeders” and “Stroller brigades….”

  • Adrian Reynolds

    Doesn’t sound too innovative…everyone is doing the well sourced ingredient, craft cocktail, etc etc thing…

  • NonNimby

    if you walk around Elmwood or rockridge you will see nothing but kids and strollers, thus contradicting your impression. Comal by the way is very kid friendly, I take my 3 year old there all the time and she loves it.

  • FNUT


  • LJs

    These spaces on Ashby have been empty for a long, long time. It is time to open our arms to people who have succeeded elsewhere, know what they are doing, and offer an opportunity for the neighborhood. The last time there was a plan for this space the group calling itself the Elmwoood Neighborhood Association stepped in and squashed the plan. The Elmwood Neighborhood Association was made up of many people who did NOT live in the Elmwood. They did not speak for the majority. This time supporters must hang tough.

  • Steven D

    Quotas on restaurants and retail have no functional purpose. The market place needs to determine what’s going to work and what’s not. The absurdity of this should be clear. No one who supports quotas has ever looked at real data on the impact. Limiting retail in general deprives urban neighborhoods of what they need: better quality and desired uses. That’s why business folk look at a location, determine if it will work and make a go of it. The curfu that existed for years at the Berkeley side of Solano Avenue 10:00 pm (I’m up till 1:00 am sometimes) along with the quota on new restaurants did nothing but reduce the mix and create a sort of bland area with a hand full of restaurants, a closed movie theater and empty store fronts. Look at College Avenue in the Rockridge – busy as heck, tons of restaurants and small retail, mostly local and very busy late into the evening. This is what’s called a successful commercial district that provides sales tax revenue to the city, revenue to merchants and fun for it’s residents and visitors alike.

  • anothernonymous


  • Kevin H

    I live in that neighborhood and think it would be a wonderful addition. It would complement the other things there.

  • I fully agree…

    And if they can’t get approval to open up in Elmwood, West Berkeley will welcome them with open arms. We have some great locations down here in the flatlands.

  • punaise

    Same here – hope they can pull it off. Neighbors around the corner on Benvenue do have a legitimate concern about parking impact and accompanying late-night noise.

  • Marti G

    I too, live in the Elmwood and we’d welcome you. Well, most of us will. There is the usual desire not to add anything, especially a car or a person out after 5 pm BUT most of us would love to fill that space with a vibrant restaurant with different offerings than what we currently have. Hang in there!

  • berkeleywalker

    Perhaps the neighborhood will be more receptive to this crew of restauranteurs with such a great track record. How can it possibly be good for The Elmwood to have a big retail space sitting empty for years? Perhaps the Comal crew can work out a some creative solutions to parking at night.

  • Chris J

    Yes, that’s all Berkeley needs is another high-priced $$$ type of restaurant. Comal looks good, but the prices always deter my wife and I don’t argue with her on these issues. Her thinking is that Italian and Mexican are dishes that I can do reasonably well, if not as ‘haute cuisine-ish’ as Comal might, so why spend $$ or $$$ for tomales or pasta?

    Personally, with all due respect to Comal and what is no doubt very delightful, artistically presented food, I’d like to see something more along the lines of the kind of restaurants you see on Diners, Drive-ins and Dives, the obnoxious, branded face of Guy Fieri not withstanding. Good food, maybe slightly clever at times, but where one can get in and out for under $13-15 per person with drinks and a side.

    Or do all restaurateurs position themselves as la-dee-da with pretensions of grandeur, charging bowcoo bucks simply because of a pedigree, a star chef, etc. oh, well, guess there’s a market.

  • guest

    Restaurants come in three varieties: annuals, perennials and redwoods. Some last a season, others a few years and a few seem to go on forever. Despite a strong opening, it’s not yet clear which Comal is, and no one can predict what their Elmwood place might be. Give the site a use permit and let the market decide.

  • guest

    Medium priced junk food ‘a la Guy Fieri’ is the worst of both worlds. Do we really want more?

  • Chris J

    Now, now, you don’t want to really sound like a food snob, do you? Guy Fieri is rather obnoxious, admittedly, but these diners and dives…calling it junk food is a stretch. I don’t qualify $$$ restaurants as non-junk food, as oils and sugars in excess are bad for you, anyway, whether featured at high end or dives.

  • Inky

    I hope they consider adding a quieter patio or back room kind of space. I love Comal’s food but it is way, way too noisy for people like me with hearing difficulties.

    It’s humorous to read that N. Berkeley people are now coveting Elmwood’s places….for years, we coveted yours!

  • Completely_Serious

    I look forward to the arrival of the Comal folks and the departure of Kriss. Probably will occur about the same time. :):):)

    I can’t wait to hear the arguments against — Bring back Wright’s Garage! It’s too far to go to San Pablo to get our cars repaired! The City Council should mandate a local mechanic in every neighborhood.

  • Faded_seaside

    Yeah, I’m confused. I see TONS of kids at Comal (and Ramen Shop, too, which I’d assumed was hipster). I think people are confusing the terms “hipster” and “yuppie,” at least in the East Bay.

  • Faded_seaside

    They did; it’s called the Elmwood Cafe.

  • Faded_seaside

    I think a good food truck or two would accomplish this — potentially in the 7/11 lot or that disused flower shop at the corner of russell and college.

  • David Denton

    The issue here is not about the cuisine called out in this proposal. It is about whether a Use Permit should be issued for a 3400 SF restaurant with an ABC on-sale general license. While the developer of Wrights Garage was very effective at getting approvals to convert a building that offered customer parking, employee parking, and tow truck parking into a building with NO parking, this does not alleviate his responsibility for the parking deficit created by his tenants.

    At 3400 SF, this use will have 120 to 150 seats. Add employees and it becomes clear that this proposal would require a minimum of 50 parking spaces.

    Where are those spaces? They are in the nearby residential neighborhoods.

    Just cruise around until you find one.

  • Greg

    So your argument is that the restaurant quotas in the Elmwood district should be removed so that the Elmwood district can become a ‘successful’ commercial district like the Elmwood district?

    Note, I agree with many of your points. There are many other factors that contribute to the success of the Elmwood district. It is quite possible that it is arguably the most successful commercial district in Berkeley despite having the most strict zoning regulations in the city.

    However, it seems pretty clear these restrictions have not caused the Elmwood to fail as a commercial district (yet).

  • Adrian Reynolds

    College Ave in Rockridge dies after 9 p.m…I grew up in the neighborhood…I know.

  • guest

    How concentrated is ownership of the retail real estate? In other words, is there true market competition for rent or is it a small number of landlords who get to decide which retail businesses win and which lose?

  • guest

    …Good food, maybe slightly clever at times, but where one can get in and out for under $13-15 per person with drinks and a side.

    Sorry, that’s not likely to happen, at least not with the lease rates these folks are going to pay for their space. The expensive rent is going to require higher menu prices to cover their costs.

  • zaza1

    I’d love to see someone do something in the old Sea Salt location on San Pablo near Dwight.

  • Greg

    Sorry, either I misread your comment or it changed. The former seems most likely. I thought you’d said “College Avenue and the Rockridge”.

  • Chris J

    True dat. West Berkeley has loads of unoccupied retail spots which could really add to the local energy and highly localized economy. More restaurants? There is a space at Delaware and San Pablo which has remained unrented now at least for three years–and big enough for a lot of seating.

  • Chris J

    Damn shame, that. Odd to consider that opportunism and greed might have fostered the foodie trends toward high end restaurants only in Berkeley.

    What’s wrong with $ restaurants, I ask you?

  • Chris J

    Somebody did already, but that restaurant apparently failed, as well.

  • Chris J

    Oops. Not saying that Sea Salt failed. It was closed and then reopened under new name and cuisine.

  • Mbfarrel

    Oh no, not another restaurant in the G.G. It would DESTROY the neighborhood.

    On the other hand the building which housed VegiFood on Vine is being re-modeled and I would love to see an unpretentious, solid Mexican restaurant move in. $ for lunch maybe $$ for dinner. A real Mexican breakfast would be a plus. A south of the border replacement for what Chester’s was, when they still cared.

  • guest

    The food sucks.

  • Chris J

    Not always

  • Frustrated progressive

    The Elmwood has been a business district for some time now– homeowners on Benvenue and nearby bought in the neighborhood when it was already a business district, and the presence of the business district was built into the price that hey paid then (and the price that they can get today today), so they do not necessarily deserve any special deference now. And as for all of the supposed congestion that this restaurant supposedly would cause, it will pale in comparison to all of the unnecessary congestion already caused by the nonsensical system of diverters. I am a resident of the neighborhood but the myopic, narrow-minded attitudes of some of my neighbors is such a turn-off.