John Paluska and Andrew Hoffman’s second Berkeley restaurant after Comal will be called The Advocate and is slated to open next month in its Elmwood location, at 2635 Ashby Ave.
The name was chosen because it was also the name of Elmwood’s original newspaper, said Paluska. It also seemed fitting for a restaurant in a city known for its activism. “It’s a tip of the hat to Berkeley,” he said. Hoffman added: “Like Comal, The Advocate is a Berkeley restaurant, very much of its place and its neighborhood.”
The name could also be seen as a tongue-in-cheek reference to the legal battle the owners had to fight to open the new eating spot.
The Advocate will offer a menu of dishes inspired by southern Mediterranean and Moroccan/North African cooking, “all viewed through a Northern Californian lens,” according to the owners. (At Comal, chef Matt Gandin serves refined Oaxaca-inspired Mexican-Californian cuisine.)
Paluska and Hoffman have recruited John Griffiths to be the new restaurant’s executive chef. Griffiths was most recently at The Kitchen in Sacramento, a well-known spot where food is treated as theater and chefs are expected to emcee as well as to cook. Griffiths left The Kitchen in October after 16 months in the job to join The Advocate. The Michigan native was the opening chef at Larry Forgione’s An American Place in St. Louis, and was later executive chef at Truffles in the same city. He has been working with The Advocate team in December 2014.
“We were very excited to meet John,” said Paluska. “He’s been an executive chef since a very young age and eats, sleeps and breathes food and restaurants.”
Unusually, the owners found Griffiths through a Craiglist ad, a place one might find a bartender of sous-chef, but rarely the top honcho.
“He’s something of a sleeper,” said Paluska. “Really accomplished but he hasn’t cooked in high-profile places. He is a voracious consumer of ideas and cuisines from all over the world and can bake, make amazing pasta and breads.”
While Griffiths has lots of expertise in Italian cuisine, among others, the three agreed the new restaurant should have a point of view in terms of its menu. “We want it to be coherent and to hold together,” said Paluska, hence the focus on the southern parts of the Mediterranean and North Africa.
Comal’s barman, Matthew Campbell, and its wine director, Corin Weihemuller, are developing the new restaurant’s cocktail, beer and wine lists. And Weihemuller is set to be The Advocate’s general manager too, with Hoffman overseeing the overall running of both restaurants.
Berkeley-based Abueg-Morris Architects, who designed Comal, are at work on the new 3,400-square foot restaurant that will seat 100. (That number includes the bar where customers can order from the full menu as well as drinks.)
The designers are aiming for a “rustic-modern design” with lots of warm wood, tile and metal finishes, including what is being described as “a dramatic Douglas Fir end-block floor in the dining room.”
A large wall sculpture by Maine-based sculptor John Bisbee will be placed above the bar. (Bisbee, who uses only large nails for his artworks, had a hand in Comal too: the seats of the downtown restaurant’s bar stools, designed by Ferrous Studios, were branded by him.) An early rendering of the restaurant, published most recently in September last year by Berkeleyside, has been superseded by a new design, according to Marites Abueg.
Just as at Comal, The Advocate will also feature a pioneering acoustic system designed by Berkeley’s Meyer Sound which allows ambient noise in the space be controlled, and — the main goal — customers at the same table to have conversations without shouting.
Since it opened in May 2012, Comal has been a popular destination, that also brought life to a formerly unprepossessing part of Shattuck Avenue in downtown Berkeley. The buzzy, high-end restaurant with its expansive outdoor eating patio, is consistently listed in the San Francisco Chronicle’s Top 100 restaurant list, and — just three months after it launched — was cited by the newspaper’s restaurant critic, Michael Bauer, as “exactly the type of place” he would have liked to open had he chosen to be a restaurateur.
Paluska and Hoffman began planning the new Elmwood restaurant in the summer of 2013. They held a series of community meetings to solicit input from the neighbors before forging ahead with the project. They were cognizant that a previous attempt to open a restaurant in the space, albeit it a bigger one, was unsuccessful following a lawsuit brought by a group known as the Elmwood Neighborhood Association. Nevertheless, the same group lodged an appeal and then filed suit to put a halt to the Advocate project, arguing that the new upscale eatery would cause unacceptable parking and traffic problems. The suit was settled in September 2014.
The plan is to introduce weekend brunch a few weeks after the restaurant opens. Paluska and Hoffman both point to the particular ambiance of the Elmwood where people hang out on Saturdays and Sundays for the sheer pleasure of it, as well as to shop.
“The neighborhood has a great energy on the weekends,” said Paluska. He said he hope to have the restaurant be open in the afternoons for people “to drop by for a glass of wine at 3 o’clock,” brasserie-style.
Dinner hours at The Advocate when it opens will be 5:30 p.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday to Thursday, and 5:30 p.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday. It will likely not be taking reservations. Weekend brunch should follow soon afterwards.