Bites: John’s Ice Cream in Berkeley shutters; Ben ‘N Nick’s lives another day; Doña opens on Piedmont Avenue

Catch up on the latest East Bay food and events.

John's Ice Cream in downtown Berkeley has closed.
John’s Ice Cream in downtown Berkeley, known for its affordable scoops, has closed. Photo: Sarah Han

DEAR JOHN When John’s Ice Cream opened at 2204 Shattuck Ave. in downtown Berkeley in 2009, it was an instant hit. Fans loved its thrifty $1 scoops and varied and plentiful flavors — from classics to those less common, like buko pandan and avocado. For 10 years, John’s has been an outlier for keeping prices low; the last increase bumped the price to $1.75 a scoop — a real steal. However, that era has ended. A now-deleted post written by a former staffer on the business’s Yelp page said John’s closed Nov. 26. Nosh called the sister shop in Brentwood, where an employee there confirmed that John’s in Berkeley has closed for good, but she could not tell us further details. The owner has not responded yet to our request for more information.

ALBORZ RETURNS TO BERKELEY Nosh got word this week that a former long-loved downtown Berkeley restaurant will soon return to the area. In 2005, restaurateur David Dornan opened the third branch of Alborz at 2142 Center St., where it became popular with locals for its koobideh, fesenjoon and other Persian fare until 2017, when it closed. (Today, there are still Alborz locations in San Francisco and Walnut Creek). For about a year, the space became a second location for Guacamole 61, and, since this spring, it’s been home to another branch of Chinese restaurant Easterly. In the meantime, Daryoush, a new Persian restaurant sprang up next door at 2144 Center St. All that to say Alborz will not be returning to Center Street, but its new location isn’t too far away.

A business license filed with the city shows Alborz will come to Allston Way in the location last occupied by the vegetarian diner Saturn Café. And some may remember, another Dornan restaurant once stood here — Orso, which started as an Italian restaurant and then morphed into a Middle Eastern eatery called Azerbaijan before it closed in 2010. Alborz will be at 2175 Allston Way (at Oxford Street), Berkeley

Ben 'n Nicks in Rockridge. Photo: Damon Styer/Flickr
Ben ‘n Nicks in Rockridge. Photo: Damon Styer/Flickr

LIVE ANOTHER DAY Over the weekend, Oakland’s Rockridge neighborhood was buzzing with the news that local family-friendly watering hole Ben ‘N Nick’s was closing. On Friday afternoon, via a Facebook post titled, “Last Call from the Owner Guy,” Mark Graham announced the pub would close Dec. 22 due to labor costs and competition. He added, “Also, I just turned 75, need a cane and can no longer drive. Time to kick back.” Graham thanked loyal customers and encouraged them to visit his other bar, Cato’s Ale House on Piedmont Avenue. But shortly after Graham posted the message, he deleted it. And by Monday afternoon, he updated Ben ‘N Nick’s page with a new message: “By popular demand, Ben n Nicks is staying open.”


On Tuesday, Nosh spoke with Graham on the phone, who explained his original post was a “knee jerk reaction,” one he now regrets. But, he added, the problems he’s facing are real. “The place hasn’t been doing all that well,” Graham said. Aside from the reasons listed above, he added that Ben ‘N Nick’s has to upgrade its point of sale software, which will cost $9500, and several of his key staffers are considering moving on to more lucrative careers. However, after seeing the outpouring of support on Facebook and from customers who came to the bar over the weekend, Graham has decided to continue the business. “I am committed to keeping it open as long as possible,” he said. His wife, Barbara Summers, who was also on the phone, chimed in, “We’re so happy [Ben ‘N Nick’s] means so much to [customers]. Mark has put his heart and soul into this business. We’ve met people from all over the world. We’ve been in Europe and have bumped into people that go here.”

Despite business being down overall, Graham said the bar did well last month, which will help them stay alive for now. “We did really good last month, best in a year,” he said. But he’s realistic, too. “We made good money; I don’t know how long that will keep going.” Still, the thought of closing made Graham realize he’s not quite ready to give it up. “I always wanted to make bars that are a third place. The first is the home; second is work, which is a rat race; and the third is only for socializing and is totally inclusive,” he said. Ben ‘N Nick’s is that third place for many in the area. “I like it when people are happy there; I like that feeling.” Ben ‘N Nick’s, 5612 College Ave. (at Ocean View Drive), Oakland

Doña on Piedmont Avenue
The dining room at Doña on Piedmont Avenue. Photo: Sarah Han

HOLA, DOÑA Dona Savitsky’s counter-service follow-up to Doña Tomás is now open for business. Doña takes up part of the ground level of the former Chow Oakland, seating about 90 diners inside (19 at the full bar), and 30 out on the patio. The restaurant is open 8 a.m.- 9 p.m., Monday through Friday; 9 a.m.-9 p.m. Saturday and Sunday (although hours this month may vary, as the restaurant settles in). Doña Tomás fans will be glad to see the return of some of the former restaurant’s favorites, like tacos, bowls and burritos, nachos, tamales, enchiladas, chile rellenos, quesadillas, the Doña salad, sopa de lima and ceviche tostadas. Doña, 3770 Piedmont Ave. (near Yosemite Avenue), Oakland

Chef Leilani Baugh of Roux and Vine is opening a new wine bar at the California Hotel in West Oakland.
Chef Leilani Baugh of Roux and Vine is opening a new wine bar at the California Hotel in West Oakland. Photo courtesy of Leilani Baugh

NEW YEAR, NEW CHEER While chef Leilani Baugh is an Oakland native, her catering company-turned-restaurant Roux and Vine specializes in comfort food that speaks to her family’s Southern roots. But along with shrimp and grits, fried chicken and red beans and rice, Baugh’s diners will also find lumpia, garlic noodles and a crispy prawn salad on her menu — dishes that speak to the other side of her upbringing, her Chinese side, which is why Baugh calls her food “Creole and Casian.” Roux and Vine has been leasing the kitchen at Brix 581 in Jack London, where it’s been gaining traction, especially for its brunch.


In the meantime, Baugh has been working on a new project called Magnolia Street Wine Lounge & Kitchen to open at the historic California Hotel in West Oakland. Baugh told Nosh that the hotel’s owner, East Bay Asian Local Development Corporation (EBALDC), approached her about opening a business there, and she’s very excited because she grew up nearby, on Magnolia Street. At the wine lounge, Baugh will serve the same menu as Roux and Vine, along with a list of wines from many black and other POC winemakers. During the day, the space will be open as a café, and Baugh also plans to host evening events, like dinners, where local chefs, winemakers and artists collaborate for the meal. Magnolia Street Wine Lounge will give a nod to local creatives in other ways — it’ll host live music three days a week, with musicians from the Oakland Public Conservatory of Music, and feature rotating works by visual artists on its walls. Baugh aims to open the lounge on Jan. 1. Magnolia Street Wine Lounge  & Kitchen will be at 3443 San Pablo Ave. (near 35th Street), Oakland (Annika Constantino Kim contributed reporting.)

A GRAND HANUKKAH Both locations of Grand Lake Kitchen will be offering a menu of Hanukkah-inspired nosh this season. The eats will be available from 5-10 p.m., Dec. 22-29 (except Dec. 24-25, when the restaurants will close). Dishes to look forward to include latkes with applesauce and crème fraîche, matzoh ball soup, brisket, noodle kugel, sufganiyot (jelly donuts) and a lux version of Gefilte fish, featuring local halibut, rye dumplings and pickled watermelon radish in wild mushroom broth. Wine flights ($18 for three 3 oz. pours of Scribe Pinot Noir Nouveau, Selim Celebration Sparkler and GLK Rosso by Unti Vineyards) will be available for extra cheer. Grand Lake Kitchen, 576 Grand Ave. (between Euclid Avenue and MacArthur Boulevard), Oakland and 2042 MacArthur Blvd. (at Dimond Avenue), Oakland

SAUCY BRUNCH Over in Temescal, pan-Asian focused Saucy is hosting a one-time brunch pop-up this Sunday from 10 a.m.-2 p.m., presenting some of their favorite a.m. recipes. The menu is still TBD, but expect dishes like ube pancakes, pandan French toast, short-rib Saucy moco, Thai sausage skillet and mimosas flavored with strawberry guava or watermelon lychee. Saucy Oakland, 3932 Telegraph Ave. (near 40th Street), Oakland 

BLUE BOTTLE GOES GREEN This week, Blue Bottle Coffee announced it will start a pilot program early next year banning single-use cups at two Bay Area cafés. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, the move is a first step before its nearly 70 U.S. locations go zero-waste by the end of 2020. The two pilot locations have not yet been named, but Blue Bottle says customers who order drinks there will either have to enjoy them on-site, bring their own mug or pay a deposit for a reusable cup for to-go orders. The two cafés will also stop selling bagged whole beans, requiring customers to purchase beans by weight in reusable containers brought from home, or rented with a deposit. And food items, like yogurt parfaits sold in glass jars, will also require a deposit.

Farmers of Maya I’xil, a small indigenous coffee farm in Guatemala, have started beekeeping for a second stream of income during the coffee off-season.
Farmers of Maya I’xil, a small indigenous coffee farm in Guatemala, have started beekeeping for a second stream of income during the coffee off-season. Photo: Courtesy of Mr. Espresso

MORE EAST BAY COFFEE DO-GOODERY Starting tomorrow, Oakland’s Mr. Espresso is partnering with three East Bay cafés with a 12-day promotion called “A Dozen Days to Donate.” From Dec. 12-23, Brewed Awakening and Northside Café in Berkeley and The Local in Alameda will be raising funds for Mr. Espresso partner, Maya I’xil, a small-scale indigenous coffee farm in Guatemala. Some of the farmers of Maya I’xil have started a beekeeping project with the help of Food4Farmers, to sell honey as a second stream of income when the coffee season has ended. Mr. Espresso will match all donations raised at the three café over the 12 days. Funds raised will go to train the farmers in best practices and business development in their beekeeping endeavors and get their honey organic-certified, to bring in higher prices. Brewed Awakening, 1807 Euclid Ave. (near Ridge Road), Berkeley; Northside Café, 1878 Euclid Ave. (at Hearst Avenue), Berkeley; The Local, 1333 Park St. (at Alameda Avenue), Alameda 

Sarah Han is Nosh editor at Berkeleyside. Email: sarah@berkeleyside.com.