A Berkeley restaurant goes completely organic—and totally delicious.
Photography by Cody Pickens
Seared Liberty Farms duck breast.
Since food politics have become a national discussion, restaurants have responded, slipping into their menus the now familiar “we source local and organic products whenever possible.” But at Berkeley’s new Gather Restaurant, the omnivore’s dilemma is not confronted within budgetary boundaries; it informs the central culinary philosophy.
“We source local and organic, period,” says Ari Derfel, co-owner with Eric Fenster of Gather. “For us, it’s never been about, ‘Oh, organic food is in. Let’s capitalize on that.’ ”
The two founders began working on the Gather concept 10 years ago, carefully collecting ideas, materials, and food vendors within a 300-mile radius. They keep a thick booklet on hand, with details on every farmer who grows every green bean, tomato, and kumquat served in the restaurant.
But Derfel is quick to point out that while sustainable food is their religion, they’re not proselytizers. “If you want this information, here it is,” he says. “If you don’t, you can just have a burger and fries, and not think about it.”
The half-vegetarian Gather menu is both diverse and approachable. Herbivores finally get beyond afterthought status, while omnivorous dining companions might be just as excited by the vegetable and even—gulp—vegan creations of Executive Chef Sean Baker.
If a debate arises over the house-cured meat plate versus the vegan “charcuterie,” carnivores, just give in on this one. The sampler of five mini salads with grilled bread on the side varies depending on the day’s harvest but could include purple haze carrots sautéed with green garlic, mint, and lemon, atop cashew puree; a mound of beets and shaved fennel sprinkled with the citrus juice of a Buddha’s hand; or white beans and oyster mushrooms wrapped in a smoky grilled chicory leaf, nestled in a puree of root vegetables and horseradish.
Every dish that follows is another symphonic composition of taste and texture. The bold, chewy leaves of the kale salad are complemented by smooth celery root cubes, crunchy pine nuts, and a flutter of parmesan. The tender braised pork cheek entrée is served on a bed of fresh-milled polenta with grilled baby escarole—a nice change from other overserved greens. And the chocolate crema combines thick chocolate cream with airy whipped cream and a burst of pomegranate seeds.
The feast is a far cry from Gather’s modest beginnings in 2000. Fenster was fasting in the desert on a five-day spiritual quest, when he had an epiphany. He got home and roped Derfel into his vision, and the two men, both trained mountain guides, started leading inner-city kids and adults with cancer on backpacking trips. The camping food they made in the woods was such a hit that their charges started hiring them to cater events. They opened Back to Earth Organic Catering in Emeryville then landed in the ground floor hub of the David Brower Center, a home for environmental and social action groups.
Like the food, the decor at Gather is locally sourced. Dining tables are made from old water tanks from Marin and San Rafael, and high school bleachers from Sonoma. The banquette cushions are a row of recycled belts from the Alameda Antique Fair and San Francisco thrift shops. Pickle barrels became cabinets and wait stations; wine bottles became lamp shades.
Every detail was painstakingly chosen and acquired. And still, the restaurant’s prices are affordable, even to the nonprofit employees who share the building. With so many restaurants claiming that a fully sustainable menu is not financially viable, how are these guys doing it?
“See if we’re still in business in six months,” Derfel says with a laugh. Staying open all day is one strategy they’re working on, he says, as is Baker’s “head to tail, root to shoot” philosophy, which aims to waste neither one carrot top nor pig ear. But ultimately, Derfel and Fenster’s mission takes priority over the bottom line.
“We are happy and willing to make a little less money than other people,” Derfel says. “If we can do it right and make 10 percent profit at the end of the year, we’re deeply satisfied.”
At a Glance
WHAT MAKES IT SPECIAL: A truly organic, locally sourced menu that appeals to Berkeley students as well as their visiting parents.
THE SPACE: Tables made from recycled bleachers and light fixtures that were once vodka bottles create an edgy, fine-dining-meets-coffee-shop feel.
WHEN TO GO: An elegant dinner, or to pick up pizza or salad for lunch. Soon diners can come for brunch or linger all day with a laptop.
WHAT TO ORDER: An organic cocktail such as “Greg’s Pisco Sour,” with cucumber-infused vodka, Peruvian pisco liquor, lemon, and lime, sipped through frothy egg white and a sprinkling of hibiscus powder.
BONUS: Gather will eventually host book clubs, live music, and film festivals.CONTACT: 2200 Oxford St., Berkeley, (510) 809-0400, gatherrestaurant.com.
HOURS: Dinner daily; lunch Mon.–Fri.
PRICE: Apps $8–$14, entrées $12–$19