Kris had to go into work on Sunday to begin decorating his office for the big Halloween Party they would be holding the following Friday and after he left Jessica, Joanna and I took off for Berkeley and a visit to the REI there to pick up some supplies for mine and Joanna’s trip to Yosemite the next day. One of our favorite stops at this intersection (Gilman and San Pablo) is the Happy Donuts Shop. We’ve been here on our bikes and often just walking across the street from the REI parking lot.
We invariably get coffee with a maple bar or two and the counter person almost always throws in a couple of donut holes. We take any extras home and they often languish on the counter until the a day or so later when realization sets in that no one is going to eat them. We’re not big stale donut eaters, not really donut eaters at all. As good as they can be, they really rank low on the pastry/sweets matrix for the Mann family. Does any of that have to do with my high school stint at the Big Donut Drive In, that scene of so many pranks and late night donut drops? Only my shrink really knows.
Kris returned from work later in the afternoon and we set out not long after for our early reservation at Rivoli Restaurant. This has been our go-to eatery in the Bay Area for more than fifteen years and we were curious about the dining experience we’d encounter since longtime chef and co-owner, Wendy Brucker had stepped down and turned over the kitchen to a new chef de cuisine, Michael Williams, who was the sous chef at Corso, the other Berkeley restaurant owned by Wendy and her long time partner, Roscoe Skipper.
Lydia and Walter joined us, as they have almost every time we’ve eaten here and have been long time regulars, dining once or twice during each three week menu cycle. They have come to be friends with Wendy, Roscoe and the wait staff over the years and when we would go there for our annual dinner on New Year’s Eve, bake and take Walter’s famous chocolate cookies. The same could be said for Jessica and Kris, who found it a welcoming place as they began to explore their own culinary growth in the Bay Area, befriended by many of the staff.
I won’t go into the meal; it was good, perhaps as good as the many we’ve experienced before here and yet the mood was off, out of kilter and I found myself floating along on a stream of consciousness that deviated from the former joyous times we’d all experienced here. The service was crisp and efficient, but I missed the familiarity we’d experienced before, the waiters who’d known Lydia, Walter, Jessica, and Kris and would greet them as old friends. It turns out that Rivoli had hired a restaurant consultant who had turned the place inside out, installing all new tables, expensive dishes (Heath Ceramics) and cutlery, and most contentious of all, letting all of the old wait staff go as they had become “too familiar” with the clientele.
As I reflected on the evening in the days to come, two salient points dominated my thinking and I’d like to talk a bit about them. The first is what it takes to run a popular restaurant and ensure its success over the long haul. One critical ingredient is good food and to consistently serve it. But in this day and age, and at Rivoli’s price point, good food is a given. What keeps you coming back is a sense of belonging, a sense of place. Lydia and Walter found it at Rivoli and even us, infrequent visitors felt it as well. For long time customers, that place could now be gone, not to be replaced.
The second point that occurred to me is the notion of change. We all hear that change is good and I can personally attest to it, having uprooted my family to take a chance on a new job across the country from my home of a lifetime. It was a big undertaking, one fraught with uncertainty and doubt and yet, the final outcome was to find a place, Charlotte, where we could develop and thrive. But for other people and in other situations change is not so kind and doesn’t produce a positive outcome.
This more often than not regards something we hold dear, that place in space or time where a visit invokes a remembrance of fine meals, loved ones now departed, the table you called your own, the taste of a signature dish that forever defines the category for you. These spaces disappear regularly, the owner dies or retires, the family moves on, the rent doubles and in a heartbeat, the switch on your memory machine gets shut off. And now you’re left with only the old recollections and the knowledge that new ones won’t come so easily.
Don’t get me wrong. The meal at Rivoli was lovely. Filled with Imaginative combinations, nicely sized portions, with each bite flavorful and to be savored. But it wasn’t cooked by Wendy or delivered by Bill or any of the other waiters we’ve come to know. It was missing that little extra something that elevates a meal above the ordinary and likely will always be missing for us, as each time we would return we’d be comparing it to the Rivoli of old. Honestly, sometimes our memories trick us and make a place seem grander or more important in our timeline than it was. But Rivoli was our place and now we will miss it.
Happy Donuts: http://www.yelp.com/biz/happy-donuts-berkeley