The Advocate. Stunning décor, amazing food, vibrant atmosphere. I met with owner Andrew Hoffman, (who with partner, John Paluska, also own and manage Berkeley favorite, Comal) to talk about the East Bay dining scene, his restaurants, and an unexpected thing one can find on Craigslist.
24E: How did you get into the restaurant business?
Andrew Hoffman: I got into the restaurant business in college, working as a bartender.
24E: Were you here?
AH: No, I grew up in Chicago. After college, I went to graduate school and worked as kind of every position in a few different restaurants.
24E: What were you studying in grad school?
AH: I was in graduate school for political science, and was on kind of an academic track, and saw myself as a professor one day. When grad school ended and that didn’t work out, I was soured by academia. The only thing that I had been doing since was working in restaurants.
24E: Still in the Chicago area?
AH: No, I went to graduate school in Washington. Bellingham, Washington, north of Seattle. Spent a few years there working for a guy who had a couple different places, and kind of ran out of room to grow there. I had friends moving to the Bay Area, I caught a ride and moved to Berkeley. I started working in a restaurant the same day I moved, which was on Fourth Street in Berkeley called Eccolo. It’s was an Italian place, the chef’s name was Chris Lee. I worked there as a server for a couple years until a management job opened up, and I jumped on that. Kind of caught a few lucky breaks in the meantime, and worked for the right people. I met my current business partner about four or five years ago, and we opened Comal in Berkeley. Then, opened this restaurant.
24E: What was the inspiration behind this restaurant?
AH: The inspiration behind this restaurant was the neighborhood [Berkeley’s Elmwood]. We had a great building to work with in what we consider to be one of the best neighborhoods in the East Bay. It’s a small two blocks, but it’s dense. When we were going through the process of building the restaurant and permitting, etc., we met countless people who said, “I’ve been living here for 40 years, I’ve been in the Elmwood for so long.” People really love this neighborhood. That was attractive to us. We wanted a neighborhood type of restaurant.
24E: What was this space?
AH: This whole stretch, even down towards the chocolate shop at the end [down Ashby towards Shattuck], was called Wright’s Garage. It was an auto body garage that sat empty for years. It was actually open and available when we opened Comal. When we finally felt like Comal was at a good place, and we could start thinking about growth. We came back to this location and it was still available. We thought the space had the potential to be a great restaurant space. It’s kind of a rectangle, and we envisioned this big dining room here with kitchen in the back.
24E: Who did you work with for the design?
AH: We worked with the same people that we worked with for Comal. The architect and design duo are a husband and wife team in Berkeley, Keith Morris and Marites Abueg. They have a firm [Abueg Morris Architects] on Sixth Street in Berkeley.
It was essentially all the same people [general contractor, builders, steel workers, artists] that we worked with at Comal, we worked with here. They’re all local folks.
24E: What was the inspiration behind the menu, and the type of restaurant you wanted to open after having a Mexican restaurant?
AH: We wanted something that was a little more classic feeling; that spoke very much to California and of its place. We didn’t want to be a fancy restaurant. We like to talk about making a menu that’s “Tuesday night approachable.” It’s the kind of place that you can come to celebrate on a Friday night, and have a nice bottle of Champagne. It’s also a place you could pop in on a Tuesday with your family at 5:30pm.
24E: How did you find your chef?
AH: Believe it or not, we meet John Griffiths via Craigslist. We had gone down the road with several other candidates that ultimately did not work out, and then along came John.
24E: What’s your favorite dish here?
AH: Wow, that’s tough. I guess, lately, I’ve been eating a lot of the pappardelle, or the tagliatelle, sometimes he makes it skinnier or wider, but essentially he’s making a lamb ragu that I think is really delicious. I eat our chicory salad a lot. I’m a big salad guy. Chicken liver toast, I eat a lot. I spend a lot of time here at brunch. We do brunch now.
24E: On both weekend days?
AH: On Saturday and Sunday. Our brunch menu is really delicious. Soft scrambled eggs…
24E: Did you have a heavy hand in picking the menu here?
AH: Yes. Both my business partner, John, and I, had a pretty clear vision of what we wanted the menu to kind of look like, but we wanted to leave enough room. We’d been working on the project for more than a couple years before we met our chef. We deliberately left a lot of room for finding a chef who uses his or her own voice with the menu, not have it so set up.
We knew we wanted to have a wood grill, and a rotisserie, and we knew we wanted to have nice, beautiful salads, and California produce, a hamburger, and flatbreads.
Restaurants are, for the most part, not cash making machines. This restaurant, for example, has 50 employees, and they’re all so interconnected. It’s one big organism, and the way in which we work together and work with each other and take care of each other is how it happens. Every day, just about, it’s 5:29pm, we’re getting ready to open the doors, and…are we all together? Have we collectively got to the point that we need to get to at 5:30pm to open the doors and have five hours of service? Sometimes I call it a helicopter with a million moving pieces. If one piece breaks, you’re toast. If one piece of the chain falls apart, the whole thing struggles. When it doesn’t, and it all works together, it’s this really beautiful dance. That’s the really great part about it.
24E: When you were young, did you ever think you’d be doing this when you grew up?
AH: Nope, I didn’t. Until I was about 20 years old, I thought I was going to be a professional baseball player. I went to college and I played baseball, semi-professional baseball. I had an injury, I had an arm injury and ended my career, and that’s when I went to grad school.
24E: What happened to your arm, a rotator cuff?
AH: Yeah, it was the rotator cuff. It was a lot of things. It was actually, I’m like a medical textbook case now. My arm was so unbelievably destroyed after years of playing baseball. I had this massive reconstruction, and wasn’t able to return at a very competitive level. That’s when I thought, “Okay, I’ll go into academia and I’ll be a professor. I like being on campus,” but I always liked food. By the time I was in high school, I had a real appreciation for food. I liked to cook, I always liked to have people over and have dinner parties. I’m really into food and wine.
24E: What’s your favorite thing to serve for friends if they came over for dinner?
AH: I had a big dinner party at my house and I made paella for the first time. I did it outside.
24E: How did it turn out?
AH: It was good. It was like, a B+.
24E: [laughter] What was wrong?
AH: It was a little overcooked and a little under-seasoned. I was actually joking with a friend that if I ever write a memoir, that’s going to be the title: Overcooked and Under-Seasoned. That’s the story of my life. I’m looking forward to making it again. It was really fun to have. It feeds a lot of people. It takes a lot of preparation, which I like. You’re able to do it outside, which is nice. I’m actually hoping I can rally another group of 12 or so soon and do another paella.
24E: Changing direction…Where is your favorite East Bay place to get away from it all?
AH: To get away from it all? Probably Tilden Park. I go to Tilden. I’m sure that’s probably a common answer. We’re so lucky to live right here. I look over to the left [outside the restaurant towards the hills] and there’s Tilden. I have a young daughter. Since she was born, I’ve been taking her there.
24E: How would you describe the East Bay restaurant scene as a whole?
AH: It has some centers of real, strong development. I think there are some really amazing restaurants in Berkeley and Oakland. I think it’s got a lot of room to grow to catch up to San Francisco. I don’t know that it ever will, ever needs to, necessarily. We’re really lucky here. I guess since I’m in the industry, I’m always interested in seeing more and checking out new places. There’s really so much happening.
24E: Is there anything in the East Bay restaurant scene that you’re desperate to see, that we don’t have yet?
AH: That’s a good question. The thing that I was most looking forward to in Oakland that really fit my life was this place on Grand Avenue called Grand Fare Market. It opened, and actually closed already. I was really looking forward to that. I didn’t, unfortunately, have time to go.
I thought something like that was really good for me, personally. It had a market feel to it. You could pop in for a lot of different reasons. I like the connection a lot between restaurants and market. Chow [in Lafayette] is where I certainly learned the idea. I think there’s something really beautiful that happens when people can pop in for not only a restaurant experience, but can buy packaged food to go, or just fresh vegetables to make dinner. Rotisserie chicken and a bottle of wine. That appeals to so many more people, especially in the East Bay, with families. It appeals to me. I wish I could leave this restaurant sometimes at 5:30pm and pop in for…
24E: A rotisserie chicken?
AH: Yeah. I take a rotisserie chicken and a bottle of wine from Comal, I don’t know, once a week. I would like to see that.
24E: Do you take reservations here?
AH: We do.
24E: But you don’t at Comal?
AH: At Comal, we take limited reservations. We take reservations just for 5:30 at night, when we open the door.
24E: What’s the intent behind that?
AH: At Comal, we’re able to serve far more people with far less of a wait overall, without reservations. The truth is that reservations can be a really inefficient means to fill up a restaurant. If I take a reservation for this table tonight at 7pm, well, the people who come in at 5:45pm can’t sit here, and they’re ready to eat.
Here, it’s a little different. Here, we have a smaller space. We don’t have that gigantic patio like Comal has. Comal is such a pleasant place to wait. If it’s a half an hour, you can go out to the picnic tables, have some guacamole, a margarita.
24E: How do you define success?
AH: I’m not sure how to define success (still working on that!) but I know one sign of it is when/if we can grow our business at the same rate as the individual growth of the people working with us. For example, both of our restaurants have a General Manager that started when we opened Comal as Assistant Managers. Our best servers are now managers only because we were able to grow enough (i.e. open The Advocate) to create positions for them. If not, they would have gone on to management positions elsewhere, as they had reached that level.
24E: What’s the inspiration behind the names of your restaurants?
AH: The Advocate was the name of one of Berkeley’s first newspapers. It was right here in the Elmwood District. It was in the 1880s and 90s. It mostly dealt with land distribution issues. People were breaking off plots. It was a newspaper documenting all that. Again, we wanted the restaurant to tie itself to the neighborhood and be rooted in the Elmwood. It kind of had the secondary benefit. We had to go through a lot of advocating to get this restaurant open. It was a long, long process. It was contentious at times. We had to do some advocating. The name The Optimist was taken, but that could’ve been a good name, too. We liked the idea of advocating something. Of going out there and putting your foot out there and saying something.
The word Comal is the name of the surface that you cook tortillas on. Like a griddle. In Mexican homes, there’s this hearth with an either clay or steel top on it where you cook tortillas and masa. We have a big comal right in the middle of the restaurant, and we thought that would be an appropriate name.
24E: When are you your happiest?
AH: When am I my happiest? I’m my happiest when I’m in one of the restaurants…When I see that all these things are firing. When the staff is totally dialed in and I can tell that they’re engaged in meaningful, joyful work. I can see our guests getting turned on and having something delicious to eat. Being around their friends and family. Part of working in a restaurant is being able to feed off of that inherent pleasure people take in dining out. In being with their friends and having something delicious to eat.
When I walk in, hopefully tonight, I’ll come in here, it’ll be 6 o’clock when I come in. Everyone will be in the zone. The kitchen’s firing on all cylinders, the staff is hustling and having fun. That’s when I’m my happiest.
Visit THE ADVOCATE.