.In Praise of Old Restaurants

Raising a glass to the indomitable Bette's Oceanview Diner — and to the last days of Genova Delicatessen.

In this age of infinite food blogs, carefully calibrated PR hype, and Yelp reviews posted five minutes after a restaurant first puts up a sign in its window, it’s easy for a food writer to get caught up in the chase for the Next Big Thing. In food, as in most things, we tend to prioritize the new and exciting over the steady and established — or what Bette Kroening, co-owner of the 34-year-old Bette’s Oceanview Diner (1807 4th St., Berkeley), calls the “old and exciting.”

But look: It’s a minor miracle if a restaurant can keep itself afloat for even three years — to say nothing of ten, twenty, or ninety years, as has been the case for Genova Delicatessen (5095 Telegraph Ave., Oakland), which has anchored Oakland’s Temescal neighborhood since 1926, but will likely be forced to close this spring due to a looming rent hike.

It’s instructive, then, to consider what “secret sauce” — to borrow a phrase from Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf — has helped keep these iconic eateries plugging along, as deliciously as ever, for all these years. When you sit down to eat a stack of pancakes at Bette’s or stand in the sandwich line at Genova, you’re getting a food experience that hasn’t been shaped by the latest culinary fad. What’s more, you are in a small but tangible way making a connection to East Bay history — a history that is, in the face of rising costs and displacement, in danger of being forgotten.

Perhaps the most amazing thing about Bette’s and Genova is how little the places have changed over the years. Kroening said that when she opened Bette’s — with her husband Manfred Kroening and her friend Sue Conley, now the proprietor of the Point Reyes Station-based Cowgirl Creamery — in 1982, she drew inspiration from a diner that she frequented when she was growing up in Teaneck, New Jersey. A giant slice of cherry pie hangs from the ceiling near the entrance. An old-fashioned jukebox boasts an enormous, eclectic collection of 45s — and was acquired by Kroening and her partners even before they purchased the diner’s stove.

Then and now, the menu covered the gamut of American breakfast standards: pancakes, corned beef hash, home fries, and lots of crispy bacon. But instead of embracing your typical greasy spoon aesthetic, Kroening wanted her diner to have more of a fine-dining ethic. Everything is made with a little bit more care than you might expect from a short-order breakfast cook — the Eggs Benedict is topped with a beurre blanc sauce instead of hollandaise, and scrambled eggs are served soft and custardy like how the French prefer them. The menu has expanded a bit over the years, but Kroening has essentially been serving the same food for the past three-plus decades.

If anything has changed, it’s just that the restaurant has gotten a lot more popular — thanks, in part, to a 2010 appearance on the Food Network show Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives, which Kroening credits/blames for the fact she can never take the diner’s famed soufflé pancakes — which are cloud-like and “kind of a pain” to make — off the menu.

Of course, with popularity comes a certain shift in clientele. When Bette’s first opened, Berkeley’s ritzy Fourth Street shopping district was mostly populated by home improvement stores — catering to hippies who had saved up enough money to buy a Victorian, Kroening said. Many of her early customers were carpenters and contractors. But even if Bette’s has become more of a tourist destination, for Kroening, the restaurant is still defined by its regulars. Come at 6:30 a.m. on a weekday, and you’ll see the same people crowded at the counter every day — many of them blue-collar folks enjoying a beer at the end of a graveyard shift.   

Recently, I braved the famously long line for weekend brunch for the first time in at least two years, and, if anything, the food was even better than I remembered — the omelet, tender in the middle and stuffed, French-style, with a simple filling of herbed cream cheese; the bacon, extra-crispy; the pancakes, fluffier than just about any other version in town.

Meanwhile, Genova Delicatessen’s second-generation co-owner David DeVincenzi, whose father bought the business in the Fifties, said the deli is one of the last vestiges of the time when Temescal was a thriving Italian-American enclave. DeVincenzi, too, has been working at Genova since he was six years old, when he’d get picked up every day at Sacred Heart Grammar School and dropped off to learn the trade from the old Italian guys in the back.

“You either learned or you got kicked out,” he said.

The sad news is DeVincenzi doesn’t have much hope that the deli will be saved — citing the fact that the landlords are being “completely unreasonable.” At most, he’ll try to install a counter inside the Genova’s factory on Broadway so that customers can buy prepared lasagnas and ravioli. But the deli counter will be no more. “All I can say is, ‘Goodbye,'” DeVincenzi said.

If that’s true, it’s a damn shame, because there isn’t any other place like Genova in Oakland — nowhere else where you’ll find a whole lineup of wise-cracking deli men and bad-ass deli ladies who will assemble your sandwich to order meticulously, weighing out each portion of prosciutto, fresh mozzarella, and roasted peppers. There’s a strong case to be made that the “Genova Salami” — a monster of a deli sandwich stuffed with salami, prosciutto, mortadella, provolone, marinated mushrooms, and a nice hit of oil and vinegar — is the best cold sandwich you can buy in the East Bay, bar none.

So I plan to stop in for lunch every chance I get until the deli’s last day of business — probably sometime around May 1, DeVincenzi said. And, barring some final-hour miracle, that will be that.

That’s the basic truth of the matter: We need to appreciate places like Bette’s and Genova while they’re here. Because once they’re gone, they’ll be gone forever.


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