A friend of mine recently joined the Berkeley City Club. I’d been inside the Julia Morgan building several times before to see plays at the Central Works Theater Company, but never stayed for a meal. I meant to try the food when the previous chef, Fabrice Marcon, launched a new menu a couple of years ago (at the start of the year, Marcon started a new gig in Montana). But then 2020 arrived. Without an outdoor dining area, the thought of Julia’s Restaurant slipped from my mind. When my friend invited me to meet her there for lunch last week, I hesitated for a moment before saying yes.
I’d always pictured an off-putting formal dining room with snooty club members sniffing at my bad posture and inappropriate attire. As I suspected, the remnants of a dress code were lingering in a cupboard at the entrance to the restaurant. I noticed a lone, white, button-down shirt, a tie and a blue blazer failing to grab anyone’s attention. Our server didn’t comment on my blue jeans, t-shirt or sneakers, so the dress code might be extinct or still sacred at dinnertime.
After our lunch, I sensed that exclusivity might have been on the founders’ early agenda, but I only caught fleeting glimpses of it. (Research paper alert for Berkeley students: Were people of color allowed to become members when it opened in 1930?) On the day I visited, the City Club was mostly hosting contented ghosts, who were milling about the many empty rooms. They could read any number of undisturbed, dusty books in the library or dance together in an unencumbered ballroom.
We arrived at the second floor dining room towards the end of the lunch service. An instrumental version of “Jeepers Creepers” was playing on the speakers. The music then segued into an ongoing, all-jazz soundtrack that could have been lifted from Bullets Over Broadway. After taking note of the tapestries and the natural light filtering in through the windows, I also noticed two separate diners, a man and a woman, eating by themselves.
Julia’s is the first restaurant I’ve been to in awhile where I thought to myself, I could eat a meal alone here and not feel self-conscious about doing so. The man, never looking up from his plate, ate with his earpods firmly affixed in place. In between spoonfuls of soup, the woman, who had the air of being a professor, studied paperwork spread out on the table.
What remains of Chef Marcon’s menu is a straightforward list of items that you’d find at any French-influenced, American country club, such as a spring salad ($23), quiche ($18), a hamburger ($19) and a grilled chicken sandwich ($19). When our food arrived, we were both surprised by the careful and expert preparation of our familiar entrées.
The spring salad can come with trout, chicken or avocado. My chicken breast was grilled and still tender. The lettuce was lightly dressed with a subtle truffle vinaigrette. I prefer a blue cheese hunk on chopped salads, but I finished every morsel on the plate, down to the shaved radish slices and the finely diced cubes of skinned cucumber. My friend enjoyed her entire hamburger. And neither of us could stop snacking on the best french fries I’ve tried this year. They weren’t oversalted or greasy, just lovely and golden, wrapped in a tanned paper cone. A nice touch of whimsy and je ne sais quoi.
The only dish we were both unenthusiastic about was the vanilla crème brûlée. Not because of the flavor, per se, but the way it was served in a shallow ramekin. It threw off the ratio, from less crème to too much brûlée.
When the school year is in session, Julia’s Restaurant must also be an ideal spot to accommodate Berkeley students when their families come to town. They serve an unambitious, more affordable menu than, say, Chez Panisse, with a similar culinary agenda. One that aims to find fresh, local ingredients that could only disappoint the fussiest member of any given family. Though I can’t imagine anyone having an overheated discussion or suffering from hurt feelings while they’re eating within the building’s soothing, cloistered walls.
Julia’s Restaurant, open for lunch Wed to Sat 12pm-2pm, dinner Tue to Sat 5pm-7:30pm, 2315 Durant Ave, Berkeley. 510.848.7800. berkeleycityclub.com/julias-restaurant