The sign for Berkeley’s Taiwan Restaurant (2071 University Ave.) reads, “Since 1972 Same Chef.” That’s a claim that very few Bay Area dining establishments can match in today’s high-turnover restaurant scene, in which staying in business for even four years — much less forty — is cause for celebration.
It’s a minor miracle then, that the restaurant’s distinctive pinkish-purple facade has held court — more or less unchanged — just off the corner of University and Shattuck avenues for as long as it has. But the family-run Berkeley institution’s long run is finally coming to a close. According to the Lin family, who owns it, Taiwan Restaurant will close at the end of the year due to their inability to secure a long-term lease with their landlords.
Jason Wu, a third-generation member of the Lin family who helps manage the restaurant, said that when his grandfather, Shui-Kung Lin (the aforementioned chef), and great-uncle first opened Taiwan Restaurant in the early 1970s, not only was it the first restaurant in the area to serve Taiwanese specialties (e.g. beef noodle soup and, on weekends, soy milk and Chinese fried doughnuts), it was one of the first Chinese restaurants of any type in that part of Berkeley.
Now nearly eighty years old, Lin still works in the kitchen every day, and the restaurant staff is composed almost entirely of three generations of Lins.
Despite the proliferation of other, often fancier, Chinese dining options in the area, Wu said Taiwan Restaurant continues to do brisk business after all these years. He explained that the restaurant is especially popular among UC Berkeley’s various Asian student organizations, which often book the space for fundraisers and other special events, and Cal alums, who return to the restaurant years later with their kids.
The building was purchased by Berkeley-based Gordon Commercial Real Estate Services last year, and, according to Wu, the company was unwilling to offer Taiwan Restaurant a long-term lease, even after the owners said they’d be willing to pay market rate. Wu said the company told him that their long-term goal was for the space to house a more upscale, contemporary restaurant.
As of this printing, Gordon Commercial representatives didn’t respond to phone calls and emails, but according to the property’s LoopNet.com posting, plans for a “dramatic renovation” include combining the Taiwan Restaurant space with the retail space next door to create a reconfigured 4,000-square-foot restaurant with a rear patio and the prospect of a full liquor license.
Taiwan Restaurant’s last day of business will be December 31. In the meantime, Wu said that his family hopes to eventually move the restaurant to another location nearby, but that they’ll probably take a breather before they start searching in earnest.
For longtime customers like Miranda Ewell, the move — if and when it happens — will likely be bittersweet. In an email, Ewell said Taiwan Restaurant was her favorite hole-in-the-wall Chinese eatery — for its “dingy, unreconstructed surroundings” and “delicious Taiwan specialties.”
As Ewell said about the restaurant’s impending closure, “It will be a great loss to the community, to the old gentlemen who meet there regularly for lunch specials (cheap! companionable!), to Chinese families, and all the rest of us in the ‘hood who eat there regularly.”
A Place for Communite
The stated aim of Communite Table (4171 MacArthur Blvd.), Michele LeProhn’s new restaurant and prepared foods business in Oakland’s Laurel District, is to bring simple, high-quality food to the working masses — to folks in the neighborhood who might not have time to cook themselves, but who appreciate being able to pick up a nice salad or chicken pot pie to supplement their home meal. Even more than that, though, she hopes the restaurant will become a gathering place for the community — or “communite,” if you will. As LeProhn put it, “People like to be known and to be seen.”
Communite Table officially opened for lunch and dinner service earlier this week. LeProhn, who started her cooking career at the age of sixteen at a Berkeley restaurant called Curds and Whey, was most recently the manager of Poulet in North Berkeley. A 25-year resident of the Laurel District, LeProhn said she has long seen a need for a home-style takeout option for young families and other people in the neighborhood. Communite Table serves a streamlined lunch and dinner menu with just a few entrée options — coq au vin, beef stew, and a vegetable galette for dinner this week, all priced in the ballpark of $15. There’s beer and wine on tap, and the small dining area is centered, appropriately enough, around a long communal table.
The main focus of the business will be a deli case filled with six to eight different salads (say, a curry chicken salad or roasted Brussels sprouts with parmesan), pints of hummus and herbed cream cheese, and pre-packaged entrées that customers can easily reheat at home — a pork stew or one of the aforementioned pot pies, for instance. All of the food falls under the broad umbrella of “soulful comfort food,” with a dash of French influence. Mostly, it’s set up so that people can purchase “a quart of this or a pound of that,” LeProhn said.
But the community aspect is what’s most important. Prior to the restaurant’s opening, LeProhn did a series of weekly Friday night pop-up dinners at nearby Cafe 3016, and what she noticed was that customers were always running into people that they knew. Beyond that, she wants Communite Table to be a place where customers will find “good people behind the counter who begin to know you.”
“That kind of dynamic between the hominess and the interpersonal relationship is what makes something thrive,” LeProhn said.