Fans of Comal in downtown Berkeley can look forward to a new restaurant from its owners, John Paluska and Andrew Hoffman, after the Berkeley City Council last night denied an appeal filed by a neighborhood group that argued the new business would create increased parking headaches in the area.
Those who opposed a restaurant moving into the old Wright’s Garage space at 2635 Ashby Ave. were outnumbered by dozens of supporters. Council had received more than 100 letters from residents, many of whom live within walking distance of the Elmwood shopping district. In emails, and also in public testimony, they spelled out how much they would appreciate having an upscale restaurant and bar with late opening hours in their neighborhood.
Denise Pinkston, for example, said she moved to the Elmwood with her family recently from North Berkeley because she wanted to live in “a vibrant, walkable mixed-use neighborhood.”
“I think a place open to midnight would be wonderful,” she said. “I’m 53 and still stay up past 10 p.m., but feel like an octogenarian because there is nowhere to go in the evening with my husband and friends after the movies or theater.”
Paluska said he was pleased with the outcome of what had proved to be an unpredictable process.
He and Hoffman had their original proposal approved by the Zoning Adjustments Board on Dec. 12, 2013. They had done outreach in the community to discuss the project, commissioned an independent parking stud,y and made concessions of the scale of the project before submitting their plans. The appeal, by 35 neighbors calling themselves the Elmwood Neighborhood Association, was lodged on Jan. 2, 2014.
Paluska said there was a silver lining of having gone through a much more protracted process than they had for Comal, however.
“It has meant we have really got to know our neighbors,” he said. “We feel connected to the neighborhood already. As long as we deliver a good restaurant, I already have a clear idea of who are going to be our regulars. And those who opposed the plan will be welcomed as well — and I hope lots of their concerns will turn out to be overstated.”
Paluska said he is aiming to open the 100-seat restaurant “as soon into 2015 as we can.” He said he is having a “promising dialogue” with a chef he feels good about and that appointment will determine the food on the menu.
Whoever’s at the helm in the kitchen, the restaurant will be “approachable and comfortable,” Paluska said.
“This is not going to be an occasion restaurant. The food will be very good but we want it to be the sort of place you want to go back to a lot.”
The cuisine is likely to be Northern Californian, Paluska continued, which translates as not driven by one particular ethnicity — the menu at Comal is Californian-inspired Mexican — but might mean dishes with Mediterranean or Asian influences. The bar will seat a dozen people.
There has been enthusiasm for the project from couples with young children who said they would frequent the restaurant for date nights, and several mentioned during the hearings that they would enjoy being able to stay in Berkeley rather than heading to places like Wood Tavern, Oliveto or Bourbon & Beef, all of which are in Rockridge.
While most council members said they understood the sensitivities of the parking issues, they voted unanimously to deny the appeal.
“I agree this will exacerbate parking problems,” Councilman Laurie Capitelli conceded, echoing the views of his colleagues, “but there’s a trade-off: [if you live in the Elmwood] you live in one of the most wonderful neighborhoods on the entire planet. It’s one of the balances we need to weigh.”
The group that filed the appeal, the Elmwood Neighborhood Association, succeeded in halting a restaurant moving into the same space seven years ago. In 2007, the Council gave its approval for a 5,000-square-foot restaurant, but ENA filed a lawsuit against the landlord of the building, John Gordon, and Berkeley, arguing that the city had not put the project through the proper environmental review. The suit was settled in February 2008 and the space has been vacant since then.
Paluska originally considered 2635 Ashby for Comal, he said, but Gordon steered him towards the downtown space, at 2020 Shattuck Ave., instead — a better fit for that type of restaurant, according to Paluska. The new venture, which doesn’t have a name yet, although two possibilities are being discussed, is smaller and likely to be more neighborly than urban buzzy.
Comal, which opened in April 2012, is included in the Chronicle’s Top 100 Bay Area Restaurants list and was described by that paper’s restaurant critic, Michael Bauer, in 2012 as “exactly the type of place I’d have liked to open.”
Comal owners get go-ahead for new Elmwood restaurant (12.13.13)
Comal owners plan to open new restaurant in Berkeley (06.25.13)
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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