It was a quiet Friday night at Fondue Fred, Berkeley’s longtime fondue restaurant. A handful of patrons sat inside its dark wood interior, chowing down on a localized version of Switzerland’s cheese-centric cuisine.
Then it happened: With his Swiss parents by his side, six-year-old customer Nico walked up to Fondue Fred owner Laleh Heravi Aryan and told her, “This restaurant is great.” Aryan responded with a big hug.
It was high praise for an American fondue restaurant run by a 60-year-old Iranian woman. But it was also bittersweet, as Aryan expects to close Fondue Fred by the end of the year. The restaurant is located inside The Village, an all-wood building near the Cal campus that has been marked for demolition once the city approves the applicable permits. The property’s owners, Telegraph/Blake LLC, told Aryan to move out by this December.
“This August, I will have owned it for 20 years,” Aryan said. “It was supposed to be my retirement.”
Aryan continues to look for new locations for her beloved restaurant, with the hope of staying in the East Bay in order to be close to her dedicated employees and customers. But the biggest challenge Aryan faces is finding a space with the same cozy feel as The Village, a location old enough that it was considered for, but ultimately denied, landmark status.
Melted Cheese and the American Dream
It’s unclear whether or not there’s ever been a “Fred” behind Fondue Fred. It’s also unclear how old the restaurant really is. The sign outside claims Fondue Fred was first established in 1958, and Aryan said perhaps it started at another location but was unable to say where it moved from or when. The City of Berkeley does not have historical records readily available to verify the restaurant’s founding date and location, but the earliest article on the restaurant ran in the Berkeley Barb in 1979. The story reported that husband and wife Alan Klepfisz and Ruth Greenberg opened Fondue Fred at The Village about a year before, describing it as a “virtual paradise for cheese junkies,” where customers, choosing from six basic fondues, could dine for the price of $3.60 a person or $6.50 for two.
But the Barb article never mentioned where the name came from. Aryan used to think there was a Frederica that co-owned the restaurant, but now says the name comes from Australian slang for a regular person, or what we’d call in America an “Average Joe.” After Klepfisz and Greenberg, but before Aryan, Fondue Fred had at least one other owner, Aryan’s friend Majid Yusaie.
The Village, a former Pontiac dealership, opened as an indoor mall of retail stores and restaurants in 1972, a few years before Fondue Fred moved in. The eatery’s earliest neighbors included Congressman Ron Dellums’s campaign office and the Federation Trading Post, a Star Trek-themed retail store.
Stores came and went from The Village, but Fondue Fred never left. With its unique cuisine and affordable prices, it became a staple for locals young and old. Even former governor Jerry Brown was a regular when he lived in the area; a photo of him still hangs by the restaurant’s door.
Aryan bought Fondue Fred in 1999. It was another step in her long, exhausting journey. Aryan immigrated from Iran to California with her five-year-old son in the ’80s during the Iran-Iraq war. Married at the time, she divorced her husband not long after moving to Albany, leaving her to raise her son by herself in a country where she was still learning the language.
Aryan had earned a degree in hotel and restaurant management before immigrating to the States, so in her early years in the East Bay, she worked at various hotels and cafés in the area, including Hotel Durant, now called The Graduate, and Jack’s Bistro, which closed in 2010. She worked up to 17 hours a day, but always made sure to come home between shifts and cook her son a meal.
“She never complained,” Aryan’s son Shahin Tabib said. “She doesn’t get tired either. It’s her spirit.”
Buying the restaurant didn’t mean her exhausting routine was over. Actually, it was much more intense, as Aryan held onto her other jobs until she felt comfortable with Fondue Fred’s stability.
“For a few years, I used to change into three different uniforms every day,” Aryan said.
Aryan quit her jobs in the mid-‘00s and dedicated herself to Fondue Fred. Tabib was in sixth grade when his mom bought the place, and he recalls spending many hours there, working on the weekends and even helping Aryan with the menu — it was his idea to add nachos.
“I like to say that I grew up in fondue,” Tabib said.
Stuck in limbo
Aryan says Fondue Fred remains a successful establishment, especially when Cal is in session. But she’s lost some business since Telegraph/Blake LLC bought the Village in 2014. The new owners made Aryan’s lease month-to-month, and with such uncertainty hanging over her she wasn’t able to accept reservations for big events, such as graduation parties. After pushing the owners to change the lease terms, they told her that everyone in The Village had until the end of the year.
“Since they became owners, I’ve never spoken to them directly,” Aryan said.
Telegraph/Blake LLC wants to tear down The Village and put up a five-story apartment building called The Laureate. It’s been working on plans with the City of Berkeley since it bought the building and had come up with several iterations for the development. Last year, the city’s Zoning Adjustments Board approved the latest project plans. According to city spokesman Matthai Chakko, the city is currently “reviewing the project application/plans to ensure that it is compliant with all building codes,” but the building permit has not yet been issued for the project, so a timeline for construction on the site is still to be determined.
The first floor of the project is zoned for commercial space, including a restaurant, but it’s unclear what will move in there. Cody Fornari, the CEO of the company behind the project, Realtex, declined to comment to Berkeleyside, saying he “doesn’t discuss projects in process.”
Aryan says she has no hard feelings. She understands that the company wants to make money. Also, it’s probably a good time for Fondue Fred to leave as “the character of Telegraph is changing.”
“All the mom-and-pop stores are leaving. I don’t know, people would rather support chains,” Aryan said.
Aryan wants to move to a new location but she knows she’ll never find a space quite like The Village. Its campy log cabin decor is reminiscent of a European ski lodge or a neighborhood dive bar, except with the overwhelming aroma of melted cheese. The space is almost essential to the Fondue Fred experience.
“I don’t want something that’s too new, too shiny,” Aryan said.
Tabib, now 35 and a realtor, is helping his mom with her search. He says they’re trying to stay positive but remain realistic.
“Rent is going to be high and she’ll have to downsize to fit her needs,” Tabib said. “Recreating the feel will be impossible.”
The whole situation is hard on the steadfastly positive Aryan. As she talks about her customers telling her not close and how there are so many memories within its wood-paneled walls, her almost-constant smile melts away and she starts to cry.
“This was our job, this was our baby, this was our dream,” Aryan said.