Two lifelong friends have teamed up to renovate a former bike shop in South Berkeley to create a new neighborhood restaurant in an area that’s undergone a revival this year.
Creekwood Café & Catering — still at least six months from opening — is the brainchild of Greg Poulios and Mark Louie. Both are 44-year-old California natives who met as pre-school students in Oakland. They stayed friends through high school and college, then later worked at the same restaurant in San Francisco. Their lives continued to be interwoven in the decades since.
“We’ve always talked about doing something of our own,” said Poulios. “We were looking around and we finally found the spot.”
The duo spent three years scouring the area for the right location. They searched College and Shattuck avenues, but found them “already super developed” with restaurants, said Poulios. They were looking for a place that would work as a “family, neighborhood kind of restaurant.” And they wanted to own it so they wouldn’t have to worry about a lease or rent hikes.
The place they found, at 3121 Sacramento St., spans 1,700 square feet, with enough room for 48 seats inside, and sidewalk seating beneath an awning for 16-20 people. Poulios — who’s worked in a range of Bay Area restaurants, from 1 Market, Farallon and Zuppa in the city, to Rick & Ann’s in Berkeley — said he liked that the property has a wide sidewalk, big windows and “a lot of sun in the afternoon.”
(Poulios has lived in Berkeley for 22 years and runs the catering operation for International House at Cal.)
Said Louie, who teaches fourth grade in West Oakland: “It’s just really exciting to find a neighborhood that we think is on the rise and to be able to provide something to add to the community. It just feels like there is a lot of positive movement and a good mix of a wide spectrum of people.”
The Creekwood vision, he added, is “basics, but done well, using locally sourced, good, fresh food.”
Neighborhood momentum on the rise in South Berkeley
The block where Creekwood is slated to open — on the western border of the city’s historic Lorin District — hasn’t been much of a restaurant destination in recent years, but that appears to be changing. In April, Moxy Beer Garden opened across Sacramento at 66th Street, with a focus on craft beers and grass-fed burgers. Earlier this month, Take 5 Café opened right across the way, serving Bicycle Coffee and a variety of pastries, with handcrafted salads and sandwiches planned.
Several blocks southeast, also in the Lorin, Alchemy Collective, Easy Creole and Next Door restaurant are up and running as of this year, with a slew of others planned: Hoi Polloi Brewpub, Lemat Ethiopian, Domino’s Pizza, a new Thai restaurant and Rasa Caffe. Sweet Adeline Bakeshop, which opened in 2006, is seen by many to have started the trend. The relocation of the farmers market, from Derby to Adeline Street last year, also brought more people to the area.
(View NOSH: Lorin District Restaurant Guide in a larger map.)
Though much of the activity has centered on Alcatraz near Adeline, merchants and residents have also been organizing on Sacramento north of Ashby Avenue to address local blight, build connections and boost the economy. The city is playing a role, too: Thursday, Oct. 24, from 6:30-8:30 p.m., Office of Economic Development staff will meet with stakeholders at San Pablo Park, 2800 Park St., to come up with an action plan for neighborhood improvements in the Sacramento corridor.
Much in planning stages, but ideas abound
The Creekwood team is working with Laura Martin Bovard Interiors — the firm that helped create Southie and Wood Tavern in Oakland — to design the new space. The restaurant is slated to feature tile, reclaimed wood and polished concrete floors. A panel of Japanese-style burnt wood siding, called shou-sugi-ban, will spruce up the stucco outside. The lot is already zoned for restaurant use, but must go through the city design review process before construction can start.
Initially, Creekwood will serve breakfast and lunch, with dinner to be added if all goes well. The menu will emphasize egg dishes and “a lot of baked goods” made in-house (including doughnuts). Vegan and gluten-free items are planned. Lunch could include salads, handmade pasta, fish and grilled meat. Don’t expect burgers — a specialty of Moxy across the street — but there will be beer and wine. An open kitchen and counter seating will promote interaction between customers and staff.
Poulios said he’ll focus on bookkeeping, strategy and catering, while Louie — who has no plans to stop teaching — will do front-of-the-house management, and menu and wine-list development. “He’s great with food,” said Poulios. “He won’t be in the kitchen, but he’s a really good cook.”
Poulios described the restaurant industry as challenging, but worth the sacrifices.
“It’s so time consuming. You’re working when other people are off,” he said. “But it’s fun to try to help people have a good time, to serve people. There’s something intrinsically rewarding about that.”
He said he liked the idea of opening Creekwood in the East Bay for a range of reasons, citing better weather, the preponderance of families and the slightly slower pace.
“I used to love working in San Francisco, but I loved coming home to the East Bay,” he said. “In terms of the food scene, it’s always been a very progressive spot, with great places to eat that aren’t super expensive.”
He noted the East Bay’s “great markets,” such as Berkeley Bowl, and the wide range of restaurants, from institutions like Chez Panisse, to smaller spots around town. (Some of his favorites include La Burrita near campus, Manpuku on College Avenue and Little Star Pizza.)
Poulios said he knows Creekwood will be stressful and expensive, but believes the perks — such as building relationships with customers and having control over the operation — will make it worthwhile.
“I’ve managed a lot of places. I’ve done it for other people before. I’ve just never done it for myself,” he said. “I had an opportunity and I thought, ‘I’ve got to go for it.’ Otherwise I’m going to regret not taking the chance.”
Sacramento Street mural honors history, brightens area (08.16.13)
Partners to open Take 5 Café as new Berkeley hub (07.31.13)
South Berkeley neighbors ask city for help to improve (04.19.13)
New beer garden, burger spot for South Berkeley (03.15.13)