Closing Time

In the final days of the year, it’s natural to look back, taking stock of the previous twelve months, preparing to move forward anew. Rather than unleashing another navel-gazing list of top ten greatest hits, I want to take a moment to remember the dearly departed. 2019 saw the untimely demise of hundreds of restaurants across the nation, fickle business that it is, but it feels particularly poignant when it hits so close to home. The bay area has lost some bright stars this round, which deserve to be properly honored and mourned.

Early in February, while we were still recovering from winter’s torrential rains, Hella Vegan Eats shocked the east bay with a controversial departure from Classic Cars West. After fighting tooth and nail to graduate from their colorful food truck to a static brick and mortar space, it was a huge blow. No more pot sticker burritos, no more mega babe burgers! The same style of ballsy, down home comfort food has resurfaced in the form of Gay4U, revived by partner Sofi Espice at Garden House in downtown Oakland as a regular pop up.

Meanwhile, chef Adina Butler took up the reins in the freshly vacated space left behind by the duo, slinging hearty sandwiches, burgers, and fried delights to compliment the casual outdoor space. Sadly, that too was not long for this world, folding seven months later under unknown circumstances. What remains is a very vegan-unfriendly menu, and many unanswered questions.

Perhaps most devastating to the dining scene at large was the closure of Sanctuary Bistro, one of the very few high-end eateries that offered an entirely plant-based experience, in addition to a completely gluten-free menu. Owners Barry and Jennifer Jones Horton promise that in time, the sanctuary will rise again in Charlotte, NC, to delight diners on the opposite coast anew. Birth announcements have yet to be released.

Longstanding greasy spoon Saturn Cafe seemed indestructible, weathering the ups and downs of Berkeley politics and pricing for over a decade, proving itself beyond the typical short lifespan of the average eatery. It, too, fell to economic pressures, serving up its last plate of scrambled tofu and pancakes in July. The original Santa Cruz location, established in 1979, still soldiers on, but NorCal denizens are left in the dark for their midnight milkshake cravings.

Eatsa launched in San Francisco back in 2015 as an innovative, tech-centric concept centered around one humble grain: quinoa. Served in cubbies reminiscent of the automat experience of yore, without any human interaction, it was slated to be the next big thing. At its height, the company had six locations across multiple states, but soon ran into difficulties. No amount of pricing incentives and recipe reconfiguration could save it. One by one, all outposts quietly turned out the lights, and didn’t return. Supposedly, in addition to the empty retail spaces, they left behind a reported $24,000 in unpaid rent.

In a world already lacking sweetness, the departure of D&H Vegan Ice Cream comes as a particularly devastating blow. Without warning or explanation, the scoop shop was suddenly wiped off the map overnight. The soy based scoops melted away faster than I had time to get in a single lick, sweetening the Lake Merrit area for just a hot minute.

The prize for shortest run goes to Collective Kitchen & Bar, however, surviving on shaky footing for only three months of operation. A spinoff from three members of Juice Bar Collective, the offerings largely reflected their fresh pressed heritage, squeezing out juices, salads, and rice bowls with apparent success. Landlords don’t care about social media reviews, though, and an irreconcilable dispute forced a premature end for the venture.

Not a restaurant per say, but the source of noodle enlightenment to many, Baia Pasta was renowned for its superlative noodles. Selling directly to consumers from its storefront in Jack London Square and restaurants for their comforting carb creations, the cost of doing business became too much for founder Renato Sardo to bear. Unwilling to sell the company at the cost of quality, the legacy of this peerless pasta ends here, while the master returns to Italy for a simpler life.

Finally, some good news to mix in and lighten all the bad; Pizza Moda, purveyors of fine pies with an eye towards seasonal ingredients and vegan alternatives, has turned off the pilot light on their pizza oven, but not for long. Celebrated brother and sister duo Peter Fikaris and Christina Stobing, responsible for The Butcher’s Son, have taken on the project, seeking to revive the fine Italian dining experience in a fully vegan format. With the promise of even greater eats on the horizon, there’s plenty to look forward to in 2020.

Which losses do you feel most acutely, at home or abroad? Restaurants come and go, but their memories (and Yelp pages) live on forever, if the community remains.

The Final Toll

Hurricane Sandy wreaked terrific havoc on safe, sleepy towns that had never before known the true meaning of natural disasters. The destruction that followed can be seen readily: a new landscape along the coast has emerged, deeply gauged by scars and burns that may never heal. Picking up the pieces is never easy, but the recovery process is already in full swing. Houses can be rebuilt, communities will return, the daily grind will inevitably resume. The path may be long and winding, but eventually, day by day, we will get there. However, so many questions still remain, despite optimistic forecasts projected by distant reporters. What about the lives that were demolished along with all of those homes, those safe havens for so many years? What about the dreams washed away with so many sticks of furniture, reduced to unsalvageable trash even worse than average pollution? Not everything can be repaired.

Losing electricity for a week, my household was among the lucky ones. Everything is back to some semblance of normalcy; I have a warm, bright home again, full of fresh food and easy access to more. There was absolutely no flooding in the basement, even with our typically permeable foundation. Most of all, I still have my family.

Suddenly, after the worst seemed to be over, we were dealt one final blow. It was a delayed reaction, but a very close friend of mine now has slipped away, another victim of Sandy not to be tallied in the body count, but in the hearts of hundreds. Health in a Hurry, my place of work and second home for over seven years, is gone. We are closed for business.

The food business is a tough place, harsh and hostile to newcomers. After surviving through some precarious times before, it was a lurking fear that our cozy cafe may still be in danger; when the hurricane winds came, they finally blew out the lights.

Health in a Hurry changed me, as a cook and as a person. Walking in there at 16, I didn’t know a single thing about real food prep; the most I could muster were tofu pups skewered and grilled over an open gas stove. The real value of those countless hours invested into thousands of meals were not numbers on a paycheck, but wisdom gleaned from my boss, mentor, and best friend, Sue. She continues to inspire me, taking this turn of fate as an opportunity for a new start, on to bigger and better things. I’m still trying to learn from her example, even if it won’t be in the kitchen from now on.

Sandy can wipe buildings off the face of the map, but she can’t even take away our memories. From the good times and the bad, I will never forget a moment of it. From the time I lost my grip and spilled miso soup all over the interior of a fully stocked fridge to the torture of rolling raw collard wraps well into the wee hours of the night, I have learned both patience and humility. Just as many times, hysterical laughter could be heard from across the tiny parking lot, as we fumbled and found humor in our silly errors. I will never, ever be unable to picture the exact moment when Sue, searching for her missing eyeglasses, curiously realized that they were in fact inside the oven, baking at full blast. I will proudly recall my very first wedding cake, the incredible stress that it created and the impossible success that resulted. I will miss dearly our Thanksgiving catering marathons with all hands on deck, dancing and thrashing about the miniscule kitchen as everyone churned out vast feasts for so many tables. The scent of sage and onions still lingers if I think back hard enough.

Health in a Hurry will always be a part of me, an indelible mark that will never wash away, no matter what sinister outside forces conspire against us. Saying goodbye to such a dear friend is the last thing I ever wanted to do, and so, I won’t. I’m still taking it with me in my heart.