Michele LeProhn has a graceful way of moving in her restaurant, Communitē Table. The way she interacts with her employees and customers, it’s clear that she truly cares. She opened Communitē Table in December of 2014 in Oakland’s Laurel district with a mission: to create an accessible, affordable restaurant, where the community can gather with friends and neighbors, or strike up a conversation with a stranger at its long community dining table.
At Communitē Table, LeProhn prepares seasonal, home-style California cuisine — nothing pretentious, just good, quality food. Its menu changes every one to two weeks according to what’s available seasonally.
On a recent visit, a kale and feta salad was on offer, topped with ripe and tangy nectarines and crunchy toasted almonds, and for dessert, a strawberry shortcake, in which macerated berries, topped with a soft whipped cream, were sandwiched in a slightly sweet, perfectly salty biscuit. Diners can also always order generous portions of mac and cheese, old-fashioned chicken pot pie, classic chocolate-chip cookies and bread pudding.
One of LeProhn’s best-selling dishes is the chicken salad sandwich, which comes on a baguette loaded with large pieces of white meat tossed in her house mayonnaise and peppered with crisp celery and salty capers.
When it’s on the menu, LeProhn admits, “I’m a sucker for the pulled-pork slider with fried sweet potato wedges.” Customers can order a house-made lemonade or choose from a selection of local beers and wines on tap, including wines from Region One on the North Coast and Peregrine Ranch in Carneros, as well as beers from Oakland United Beerworks and Half Moon Bay Brewing.
Growing up in Berkeley, LeProhn learned to cook from her parents, who had two very different cooking styles. Her father loved to throw big dinner parties, where the jug of wine was flowing and people stayed late into the evening. Her mother didn’t love cooking, but, regardless, did it day in and day out. Her mom’s meals always included a couple servings of vegetables, a protein on the plate and nary a dessert. Thus, LeProhn has created a menu and an atmosphere that falls somewhere in the middle of the two styles. She maintains the practical side from her mother.
“For me it’s the home-cooked thing where we have a limited larder, and you use things up before you buy a whole lot more stuff, [so] everything is used in at least three or four other places in the course of having it,” LeProhn said. For Communitē Table, that means sweet potatoes four ways: puréed under fried chicken, as a soup, fried in wedges and made into pie. And from her dad’s culinary style? Well, LeProhn’s recreated the general ambience of her dad’s parties of past. There is a constant flow of neighbors who gather at her restaurant nightly.
LeProhn left Berkeley for Boston to study cooking under Roberta Dowling at her Creative Cuisine school, and later to Chicago. But LeProhn — “finally done with winter” — and her husband, George, decided to move back to the Bay Area to be close to family. Here, she worked her most instrumental restaurant jobs that helped her open Communitē Table, at Oakland’s Gulf Coast Oyster Bar, where she became part owner, and at Berkeley’s Poulet, where she worked as a chef and later as the manager.
Already declining in the ‘80s when she joined the team, Gulf Coast Oyster Bar became a lesson in what not to do. LeProhn was there for four years until it closed in 1990, and she started working at Poulet. There, LeProhn worked in the kitchen for six years before becoming the manager. She remained at Poulet for 15 more years, where she learned everything about running a restaurant. Most of the systems she began with at Communitē Table were things she worked with and developed over time at Poulet, which gave her “a huge benefit to starting a place.” She also learned a lot about how she wanted to manage her employees and how to develop her own clientele.
LeProhn has lived in the Laurel neighborhood for 27 years. She moved to the neighborhood in 1990, and during her first years in the area there wasn’t even a sandwich shop to be found. When she decided to open her own restaurant, she never considered opening it anywhere else. She wanted to cook for her neighbors, and that’s what she’s doing at Communitē Table. She chose to open her restaurant on this strip of MacArthur Boulevard because it is where everyone in the neighborhood comes to do their shopping, and, many of these neighbors support local businesses. Over half of her daily patrons, LeProhn said, are return customers.
But another reason for opening in Laurel, she concedes, is convenience. One big lesson working in the restaurant business has taught her is to remember that there are other parts of life outside of work. Whether it be weddings, retirement parties or important kids’ soccer games — she didn’t want to always miss out on those things because she was working. “I didn’t want a commute, and I also knew when you open a restaurant, you have no time, so wherever you can save it, you should,” she said. LeProhn also recognizes that commute time is a major factor in work-life balance not just for herself, but for her employees, too. Almost all of her staff live in Laurel and are able to walk or bike to work.
LeProhn’s vision for Communitē Table also speaks to convenience for her clientele. She originally planned to focus on to-go items, entrées and sides that people could take home for a quick meal. When getting the beer and wine license for the restaurant, however, she discovered that the space was zoned as a full-service restaurant, and to change that would cost her a couple thousand dollars. She decided to move forward with the restaurant, because she could still offer to-go items, but also serve customers on site.
“The dine-in part has been the most delightful surprise… It’s been a bigger part of the business, which did shift my model,” she says. About two-thirds of the business is now dine-in, leaving room for Communitē Table to expand its to-go and catering components of the business.
Eventually, LeProhn would love to grow Communitē Table into a sustainable neighborhood staple that can support her into her future “[It’s] sort of my retirement plan, which is somewhat crazy,” she said. And, she admits that if one of her two children, who are both involved in the restaurant industry, want to take it over, “[that] would be fabulous.” Either way, she’s in it with Communitē Table — as the community’s table — for the long haul.
Katie Lauter is an Oakland-based freelance writer, spin instructor and food blogger who sees an undeniable link between food and happiness. Formerly a professional baker, she now works in culinary educational programming with a local farmers market. She enjoys cooking, hiking and exploring all the food the Bay Area has to offer. Visit her blog to find lots of great recipes: TheLittleArtichoke.com.