When Charles Phan was an architecture student at UC Berkeley, he spent a lot of time in Wurster Hall.
Phan left Cal before he graduated, but he is about, once again, to spend time at Wurster, as he is planning to take over the café there in the fall serving his trademark organic, international food. It will be the famous chef’s first venture in the East Bay.
“I am 99%, not 100% sure,” Phan said about the opening. Describing his vision for the space, he said: “You walk up, you get some food. It’s affordable, it’s fast. My goal is to take care of the students.”
Robert Lalanne, the vice-chancellor of real estate at UC Berkeley, approached Phan many months ago about serving food at UC Berkeley. Phan is best known for the critically acclaimed The Slanted Door restaurant in San Francisco. Talks are ongoing, but both men told Berkeleyside they feel confident they will strike a deal. UC plans to redo the plaza outside Wurster Hall for the new café, said Lalanne. The building is named after William Wurster, the famed architect and dean of the Berkeley Architectural School, now known as the College of Environmental Design.
The Phan family opened the original Slanted Door on Valencia Street in 1995 and it remains one of the area’s most highly regarded restaurants. It is now located in the Ferry Building, and is celebrating its 20th anniversary. Phan has been involved with several other restaurant projects over the past few years, including the Moss Room at the California Academy of Sciences. Along with Slanted Door, his current interests include two Out The Door take-out restaurants, Mexican eatery South at the SFJazz Center, and the Hard Water whiskey bar, all in San Francisco. Phan said he employs a total of around 400 people.
Phan said his career is dotted with times he tried to take organic and sustainable food into unlikely places, like when he opened Out The Door in Westfield Mall in San Francisco.
“It has always been our model to change the world… we’ve got to make good food and change the way people eat,” he said.
That Out The Door closed because of some plumbing issues, but, even though it wasn’t the best fit, Phan said he doesn’t shy away from experimenting. His recently shuttered Coachman was an homage to his father who had to flee China in 1951 and Vietnam in 1975. After bringing his second family of 10 to the United States via Guam, and settling in a two-room apartment in the Tenderloin district of San Francisco, Phan’s father supported his family by working at the old Coachman, a British pub.
Phan worked as a busboy at the Coachman when he was 15 years old, the first of many jobs in the food industry. He attended Marina Junior High and Mission High School. He was always artistic and wanted to be a potter. “I always liked to do stuff with my hands,” he said.
Phan’s father told him he hadn’t escaped Vietnam to have his son become an artist. So Phan decided to enroll in the architecture program at UC Berkeley.
Phan never ate at Chez Panisse when he was a Cal student, or at Zuni Café, the trendsetting San Francisco restaurant owned by Judy Rodgers. But when he decided to start his own restaurant he looked at them for what to do. Phan noticed they had a limited number of items on the menu, maybe six plates. Chinese restaurants, in contrast, had 175 menu items. Phan thought he could do something in between.
“I figured it couldn’t be that hard,” he said.
Phan also knew he didn’t want to open a clichéd Asian restaurant with bamboo and lanterns. His family’s house in Vietnam had been modern, and he had an appreciation for design because of his architectural studies. The Slanted Door in the Mission was architecturally forward, one of the many reasons it received so much acclaim when it opened.
Wurster Hall, one of the most loved and also most reviled buildings on the UC Berkeley campus, currently houses Ramona’s café which offers made-to-order panini, Asian rice bowls, as well as baked goods. It has indoor and outdoor seating.