Monday, August 2, 2010
From the moment Lalime's opened 25 years ago, it shot to the top tier of Berkeley restaurants, which is really saying something considering that Berkeley is a town where people take their food as seriously as they take their politics.
Its loyal patrons come from all over the Bay Area, and its popularity has spread even farther as Cal professors on sabbatical at other colleges spread the word.
(There's a sign on the bulletin board in the faculty dining room at MIT saying, "When you're in Berkeley, be sure to eat at Lalime's." Ditto for the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico.)
I hadn't been there in a while, so when Lalime's held a 25th birthday party a couple of weeks ago I went to see if it was as good as I remembered.
Answer: No, it wasn't. It was better.
But don't take my word for it. Ask KCBS food maven Narsai David, who regularly dines there with his wife, Venus.
"We love Lalime's because of the wonderfully mellow environment and the friendly attitude of the staff," he told me. "But, of course, the most important thing is the creative presentation of the best contemporary cuisine."
But Lalime's has always had another role: as a local hangout for the folks who live in Berkeley's Westbrae neighborhood.
"There's this great big picture window, and as you walk by you can see the people dining there," said Marshall Platt, who lives down the street. "And when I dine there, I can see the people walking by. It's part of the fabric of Northwest Berkeley. Plus, it's very affordable, especially for what it is."
So how do owners Haig and Cindy Krikorian - Lalime is Cindy's maiden name - manage to juggle these dual roles?
"The answer is that we don't feel like a Top 10 restaurant, and we never have," said Cindy. "We just want to serve good food to our friends."
It all starts with local food, seasonally produced. That's a staple of California cuisine, but Haig learned this long before it became fashionable, when he was growing up in Lebanon.
"The Bay Area gives you so many food choices, it would be incredibly stupid not to take advantage of that," he said. "If the tomatoes aren't good that day, you don't serve a dish that requires tomatoes."
But the person who really set the standard was Haig's mother, Nevart. Almost up until the day she died last year at 87, she was the restaurant's official napkin folder - she didn't trust anyone else do it precisely enough - garlic peeler and produce buyer.
"She was totally in charge," said general manager Michael Hutchings as his baby daughter, Eloise, played underfoot. "She was like a second mother to me. I called her Nene, which is Armenian for 'grandmother.'"
Eloise is the latest in a long line of employees' children who have grown up at Lalime's, as have Haig and Cindy's own kids.
The extended family also includes patrons such as Chester Zinn, whose regular table, Table 18, has a silver plaque to commemorate his 100th birthday, Raider great Raymond Chester, and the physics department at Cal, who named a new scientific theory "Lalime's Theory."
"Haig has finally found a way to entertain all his friends," said Richard Mazzera, owner of Cesar's restaurant. "And he doesn't have to do the dishes!"