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Food Review: The Advocate in Berkeley

The Advocate is Berkeley’s new classic restaurant.


By Andria Lo

It barely took half an hour for The Advocate’s dining room to fill up on a recent Sunday, and lanky John Griffiths—the kitchen’s chef and conductor—paced his cooks to an ever-increasing tempo.

With more than 100 seats, The Advocate is a shade too big to be just a neighborhood spot, but the menu and decor have an understated appeal that turns nearby residents into regulars. The Berkeley restaurant also turns out some of the best food and drinks in the whole city. It just doesn’t flaunt it.  

On that Sunday—watching from a counter seat at the exhibition kitchen—I spied thin sheets of dough being placed upon a grate inches above the wood-fired grill, aiming for that sweet spot where flatbreads cook and crisp without getting scorched. (More than one doesn’t make the cut.) The toppings aren’t cooked; they’re set at room temperature and arranged saladlike over the grilled crust.

By Andria Lo

As the grill blazed on, a nimble pantry chef turned out chilled appetizers, including Griffiths’ winter-hued salad of rough-torn chicory and shaved rounds of glistening persimmons. Then came the desserts: Cream, honey, and crème fraîche were whipped à la minute to complement roasted pears and shards of sweet-and-spicy phyllo. All of the desserts are presented with flair, from seasonal fruit with crunchy almond meringue to a rich chocolate cake with a touch of pomegranate.

By Andria Lo

More substantial dishes are prepared at the stove, where a pair of cooks were in constant motion. Pans turned out moist chicken, darkly seared tuna, and tender roasted octopus laced with a smoky sweet pepper relish. The house-made pappardelle—simmered in a brothy lamb ragout infused with green olives and served piping hot in a bowl with shaved Pecorino—is a must-get dish.

The Advocate is the brainchild of Andrew Hoffman and John Paluska—owners of Berkeley’s popular Comal—who named this spot after an 1800s Berkeley newspaper. Like that periodical, this restaurant reflects the neighborhoods it serves.

The dining room is unassuming. With varnished walnut tables and red-orange chairs, it almost evokes a diner. Depending on where you sit, The Advocate is hip (at the bar), casual (in the dining room), or just plain fun (at the kitchen counter).

Chef Griffiths hails from the Midwest and earned his cooking chops on the East Coast, and his boundary-crossing style has evolved from modern American to one that’s lighter and informed by the Bay Area’s bounty. The sourcing is impressive, from the lettuces (the Berkeley farmers market) to the organic beef (Mindful Meats).

Classic flavor-forward dishes—where rich and light somehow make peace—exemplify the cuisine. Griffiths’ buttery chicken liver pâté is whipped, slathered on grilled bread, and dressed with pickled currants. The tuna conserva brings a crock of gently poached fish—tasting as sweet as crab—blended with creamy soft-boiled eggs and spiked with capers and chile. And chickpea and clam fritters arrive stacked like Lincoln Logs, delicately crusted and rich with aioli. It’s a clever presentation.

By Andria Lo

The bar, which runs the length of the dining room, is almost a kitchen unto itself. Lead barman Matthew Campbell can take his time to create intricate cocktails. He shakes up the classics using seasonal ingredients and distinctive aromatics, such as elderflower. And there’s plenty of prep going on behind the scenes. For his Ashby Swizzle, Campbell infuses toasted pistachios into a liqueur, and uses rum, gin, grapefruit, and ginger to trick the palate into tasting pineapple and coconut. It tantalizes like a tiki drink, without being a fruit bomb.

By Andria Lo

Local craftspeople created The Advocate’s open design, which uses everyday elements to striking effect, such as handblown teardrop lamps that dangle from the rafters. The long bar’s back wall displays a fluid iron sculpture fashioned from fused nails. Another wall is covered by two Berkeley landscapes—blowups of vintage postcards.

This art is part of a hidden ultra-high-tech acoustic system that absorbs and subtly redirects noise, allowing for relaxed conversation and lending crisp clarity to the background music. It also epitomizes The Advocate’s uncompromising yet unpretentious approach.

This approach extends to the front-of-the-house staff, which choose their own uniforms—you might even spot a busboy wearing an Eraserhead T-shirt. A 20 percent service charge is added to each party’s check, the money shared among the staff, including the cooks. It’s a policy that addresses a serious wage gap between the floor and kitchen staffs while fostering a team spirit. A very Berkeley idea indeed.

Contact: 2635 Ashby Ave., Berkeley, (510) 370-2200, theadvocateberkeley.com. Dinner Tues.–Sun., brunch Sat.–Sun.

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