Change isn’t immediately obvious when you walk into Dora’s at 1966 University Avenue in downtown Berkeley. The new signs haven’t arrived, so the windows still read A Dora Pie, reflecting the pie-centric focus of the restaurant that opened there in 2014.
The walls are still green, and pies, in their sugary glory, still sit front and center at the counter. You’ll have to look up towards the menu, or back towards the beer tap, to notice that things aren’t quite as they were.
Dora’s manager and chef, Christopher Blue, who also runs Chocolatier Blue next door, wants to emphasize that the ethos of the place is what has changed. While, yes, there are still pies and cookies and meringues on offer, Blue wants customers to think of Dora’s as a beer place first, and a restaurant and bakery second.
He added a full 12 taps to the kitchen, and each is filled with beers from local breweries. Six of the taps belong, permanently, to West Berkeley’s Fieldwork Brewing. The remaining ones are currently split between Berryessa, Hen House and Altamont, and all of the breweries have total control over what they’ll be offering. “They can bring in whatever they want,” said Blue. “Brewer’s choice.”
This means Dora’s may become a place where beer drinkers can venture for special one-off brews, and that the offerings will rotate frequently.
At the moment, there are, perhaps, more IPAs on draft than necessary (we counted six when we visited on opening day this Monday), but they’re balanced out by a good mix of easier drinking lagers, a low-gravity pale ale, and a couple of farmhouse and saison-style brews.
And while there are still several indoor tables up front, the best place to nurse one of those beers is in the back, among the rose bushes. Blue had a friend build new bar seating out there, alongside seating for the block’s other restaurants, Brazil Café and soon-to-open Maker’s Common. Somehow it almost always feels sunny and relaxing back there, even while construction continues on the apartments next door.
To eat, there’s pie, of course, but if you prefer savory nibbles with a beer, Dora’s is now offering “bunzas,” stuffed sandwiches that Blue grew up eating in Nebraska. Bunzas will look most familiar to those who’ve eaten piroshki, stuffed pies from Eastern Europe that commonly contain fillings of beef, cabbage, mushrooms and potatoes.
Through Blue’s eyes, a bunza is a highly versatile canvas that needn’t be limited to simple fillings. Right now, he’s developed three different bunzas: chicken korma, beef and cheddar, and Vietnamese pork, each encased in a brioche dough and served with its own unique sauce. More bunzas are in the works, including a Chinese-influenced vegetarian option, which will be on the menu soon, said Blue.
We tried the beef and cabbage bunza during our visit. It was surprisingly light, given the lineup of ingredients, and an excellent match to a pint of Fieldwork’s Hammock Baja lager.
“It took a lot of learning to get the sandwiches right,” said Blue.
He added that there’s also been a learning curve for the beer system. He’d never managed a tap system before reopening Dora’s. These hurdles, plus the inevitable holiday and Valentine’s Day rush at Chocolatier Blue, kept pushing back the work at Dora’s — it took several months longer to get things finished than Blue initially planned.
But now he’s excited to begin to shift his focus away from the gifting industry, as he has been doing with Chocolatier Blue, and towards the drinking (and eating) business. Blue had a Chocolatier Blue store on Fourth Street in Berkeley, as well as one in San Francisco, but he said he won’t be adding or reopening any of its previous locations. However, the next-door chocolate shop will keep on doing its thing. “That one’s not going anywhere,” he said.