The Clock Is Still Ticking

Wanda’s Restaurant finds a home for baking in one of the Bay Area’s last rustic enclaves

Chef Clara Yun has to call me back. Someone’s just arrived to fix the dishwasher, and her brioche buns are due out of the oven any minute. When I pick up the phone a few minutes later, the background sounds of kitchen clatter have died down. Yun opened Wanda’s, her new restaurant in Crockett, two months ago. It was still a work in progress the last time I was in town to try the sandwiches at Lucia’s just down the street. Where workmen once carried tools and lumber, the interior now fully embodies Yun’s aesthetic vision.

The hardwood floors are a burnished golden brown. Exposed brickwork speaks to the building’s industrial past. The space used to be a bakery until it closed down in 1973. A line of rectangular windows lets in the afternoon light along Second Avenue. Antique tables and chairs allow for leisurely luncheons or romantic tête-à-têtes. On a high counter leading to the white-walled kitchen on the second floor, Yun displays an array of exquisite pastries. But, neither the strawberry tart—layered with almond paste—nor the custard-filled danish appears on the menu. The chef and owner of Wanda’s says she likes to keep her customers guessing.

“The thing is, I’m doing all this by myself,” Yun says. She has two sous chefs to help with the meals, but she’s the one making the sourdough croissants every Friday, Saturday and Sunday. “You want to change things up. Let’s keep things more exciting.” That’s why she doesn’t offer the same cinnamon rolls every day—even if customers will drive half an hour to eat them.

Yun’s approach to baking developed in response to desserts that incorporated too much sugar. She wanted to create things that were well-balanced, imperfect; rustic baked goods that appeal to everyone. When I stopped by, the countertop displayed the tart, scones, muffins and danishes bursting with red, blue and purple summer berries. “I use a lot of seasonal fruit in my desserts,” she says. Chocolate isn’t high on her list of favorite ingredients, but she does include chocolate chip cookies in her repertoire, as well as giant rounds of sourdough bread.

Last December, Yun left her partnership at Oakland’s Plenty, after several years. “I had to go out there and do my own thing,” she says. But the right property didn’t present itself in Oakland. Yun, currently an Emeryville resident, had driven through Crockett in the past, but hadn’t considered opening a business there. Then, her architect connected her with her current landlord. After the original bakery closed, in 1973, the space was abandoned for decades. Her landlord had refurbished it and knew he wanted to open a restaurant. Yun knew it was a gamble to sign a lease, but she also did her homework.

After visiting a couple of times, she thought, “This town doesn’t have any food.” Yun was clearly attracted to the challenge of reviving a former boom town. But she also wanted to be a part of the community, and is now in the process of moving there. “There was a time when little mom-and-pop places did really well here,” she says. “When the big malls started to move in, one by one, they disappeared.”

Yun’s culinary career includes stints in San Francisco and Oregon. More often than not she found kitchen cultures to be egocentric, driven by an ethos of “mine, mine, mine.” She doesn’t want to run her business with that intention. She sounds awestruck by the welcome she’s received in Crockett. “People here are super nice,” she says. Recently, she left two doors open and nothing was stolen. “Where do you find a town like that?”

She also loves the fact that the town clock is still ticking. “It’s a quirky little place that’s rebuilding,” Yun says. The C&H Sugar factory opened there in 1906. The decor, combined with Yun’s menu, summons up Crockett’s past while modernizing it with an unfussy elegance. On a designated list of East Bay places to linger, Wanda’s dining room sits serenely at the very top.    

Wanda’s Restaurant, open Sunday, Wednesday–Thursday, 8am to 7pm; and Friday–Saturday 8am to 8pm. 601 Second Ave., Crockett. 510.722.3198. wandasrestaurant.com

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