UC Berkeley cafe gets a revamp from Charles Phan

wurster west may 2016

At a nearly 150-year-old university, every stone column and classroom has treasured stories to tell. But with that history come the logistical challenges of operating in outdated spaces—especially for foodservice. Such is the case at University of California at Berkeley, where longtime cafe Ramona’s in Wurster Hall closed in March to make way for an updated, as-yet unnamed concept.

With little more than a steam table and coolers, Ramona’s was limited by its lack of ventilation. And, as a former classroom space, it never was intended to function for foodservice, says Jennifer Wolch, dean of the College of Environmental Design, which is based in Wurster Hall. “It started as a cafe during the anti-war movement, when students started bringing in sandwiches and soup and doughnuts and things like that to feed other students who were working on protest posters and other related activities,” she says.

The university decided to turn it into a cafe operated by Cal Dining, with the most recent improvements made in 1984. “I’m sure it was very nice at the time, but after 25 to 30 years, it was really showing its age,” Wolch says. UC Berkeley sought an outside vendor to lease and reconcept the space and selected chef Charles Phan, whose San Francisco restaurant Slanted Door won a James Beard Award for Outstanding Restaurant in 2014, and who also has a special connection to UC Berkeley, having studied architecture there in the ‘80s. In advance of the restaurant’s fall debut, FoodService Director talked to Phan and Wolch about Ramona’s dire need for a new look, reducing food waste and the Berkeley faculty’s uncontained excitement for espresso.

Why Ramona’s needed a reboot

With no ventilation to speak of, Ramona’s relied on steam tables and coolers to serve grab-and-go items such as rice bowls and panini. Aesthetically, it wasn’t what you would call an appealing place to hang out, Wolch says. “It was very cave-like inside,” she says.” We needed more informal learning and social interaction space in the college. And if you look around the university, a lot of the older buildings didn’t have much of that kind of space.”

Why Phan was interested in the venture

“I always had an interest serving food to the masses, if you will,” Phan says, whose noncommercial foodservice resume includes operating The Moss Room at the California Academy of Sciences from 2008 to 2014. “[At Slanted Door,] we’re Vietnamese food—high-end dining—but I always think that good food and sustainable food does not have to be in a fine-dining environment.” There’s the added bonus of good company at his old stomping grounds. “I get to hang around a bunch of really cool, smart designer types,” he says. “It’s just another way of me giving back, and making a difference in making food.”

Why Phan was a good match

“Charles is very much dedicated to local sourcing and sustainability, and so those values were in sync with the values of the college—and also the fact that he studied architecture here,” Wolch says. “It’s such a wonderful link, and he really wanted to give back to the students in the college.”

A new look, inside and out

“We’re a college of architecture and landscape and urban design and planning, and we are in a building that is a 1960s brutalist concrete building,” Wolch says. “It’s a very tough building, meaning it’s muscular architecture, very strong. One of the things I think [the new cafe] will do is be a much more welcoming entry into the building, and in some ways contrast to how tough the building is.” Inside, a total gut is in store, says Phan. “We’re putting a brand new hood system in, getting a brand-new deck outside,” he says. “There will be power plugs on every table so you can juice up your phone and laptop.”

The new concept also will incorporate outdoor dining space. “We had a donor alumnus indicate that he would support the development of what is now kind of a plaza area with three large oak trees,” Wolch says. “[Presently, the outdoor area is] a pretty big space, but it doesn’t actually lend itself to eating, as it’s currently designed for a place for people to hang out and talk.”

Why the menu won’t be huge

“It’s the same people every day, so you can’t be selling the same thing over and over again,” Phan says. “So this morning could be oatmeal and fruit, or tomorrow it could be Vietnamese duck porridge and Chinese doughnuts or a Spanish fried egg.”

On whether Phan’s architecture studies have helped him in the restaurant industry

“Oh God no—I didn’t graduate!” he says, laughing, of his time at Berkeley. “I have a great architect, Olle Lundberg. I saw an opportunity to have a modern designed restaurant with Vietnamese food, so that’s how Slanted Door came about. So architecture definitely helped me; I think it just helps you break down problems and visualize things.” There’s the added pressure here of designing a restaurant in a building for design students. “It’s a little nerve-wracking. Needless to say, it has to look cool,” Phan says.

Why they’re waiting on a name

The cafe’s name hadn’t officially been set at press time, and Phan plans to adjust operations as needed based on diner feedback. “We’re probably [still] going to call it Ramona’s, and it’s a work in progress. I want to see what the reaction of the consumer is,” Phan says. “We’re not part of the school dining program, so we have to earn your business.” 

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