August 11, 2022
Madeline Wells, SFGate – From the cozy red vinyl booths and checkered black-and-white linoleum floor to the friendly server topping off your steaming mug of coffee, Berkeley’s Oceanview Diner is a place that harkens back to another era.
One could almost be fooled into thinking the retro-looking institution dates back to the 1950s, but it actually opened in 1982. And earlier this year, the Fourth Street neighborhood nearly lost it for good.
Originally known as Bette’s Oceanview Diner, the restaurant’s 40 long years came crashing down in January. One day, an hour before closing time, owner Manfred Kroening (the husband of co-founder Bette Kroening, who died in 2017) surprised his staff with the news that he was closing the restaurant, effective immediately.
But the diner’s long history didn’t end there. A few employees quickly banded together, and with a big loan from landlord Denny Abrams, they took over the business and Bette’s lived to see another day.
“I didn’t want something else coming here,” said business manager and co-owner William Bishop. “I have been used to it being Bette’s for so long, since I was a kid, and I didn’t want to come down the street to see a steakhouse or something else go in here. … It was mainly to save the jobs of the people that were working here, but also to save something that’s a staple of the community.”
In March, Bette’s reopened as the newly minted Oceanview Diner, with ownership shared between seven employees. One has since departed, but six still run the restaurant: William Bishop, Darryl Kimble, Rima Ransom, Alice Worland, Kristen Luna and Camille Grogan.
The name may have changed, and Bette herself may no longer be with us, but not much else has changed about the diner.
“We didn’t really want to change anything because people are so used to coming here and getting the same food for 40-some-odd years,” Bishop said. “So it was best when we chose the ownership team to select the people that are already running the place. Especially Darryl [Kimble], who has been here since almost the beginning. If it wasn’t for him, we couldn’t have the consistency of food.”
The food, from huevos rancheros to fluffy apple brandy souffle pancakes, has barely changed since 1982. Kimble, a chef at Bette’s since he was 19 years old, vouches for it.
“Just our daily specials and our weekend specials change, but everything else probably stayed the same,” said Kimble of his 38 years at the restaurant.
It helps that the food concept has aged well: traditional American diner food, but made with quality ingredients in the spirit of the slow food movement.
“[It’s] good, simple food prepared carefully,” Bette Kroening told the Oakland Tribune in a 1990 interview. “We don’t create things that have never been tried. When you order a BLT here, you’ll get a BLT that tastes better than any you have ever had because we use wonderful bread, perfect produce, bacon cooked to order and homemade mayonnaise.”
Slow food is also literal here. Brunch at the Oceanview Diner on a weekend morning comes with a substantial wait. On Saturdays and Sundays, determined diners often congregate outside the Fourth Street institution, waiting for a table for upwards of an hour. And if you order the popular souffle pancake, expect to wait even longer (its careful preparation includes a stint in the oven).
There’s a legend at the diner that when it first opened, the words “Good Food. Fast, Friendly Service” were painted on the front window. Upon realizing her thoughtful cooking techniques were leading to long wait times, Bette simply had the “fast” scraped off the window.
No shortcuts here: You’ll wait, but it’ll be worth it.
Back when Bette’s first opened, the Berkeley Fourth Street shopping district was in its infancy. Denny Abrams, the developer credited with transforming the once-industrial area, built his first restaurant there in 1979. Called the Fourth Street Grill, it was a roaring success.
Former Chez Panisse chef Mark Miller made a national name for the grill — the New York Times gave it a shout-out, and James Beard even reviewed it. It became so popular that locals had to wait two weeks to nab a reservation.
“When I went to the other side of the street, and started developing that, I thought I wanted a restaurant that would always serve the neighborhood,” Abrams explained. “And we’d never be subject to being overcrowded and turned into a regional restaurant, but remain a neighborhood restaurant.”
The idea to build a diner was born, and Fourth Street Grill’s lunchtime kitchen manager, Bette Kroening, was the chef for the task. She and her husband, Manfred, along with Sue Conley (who left a few years later to found Cowgirl Creamery), opened Bette’s Oceanview Diner in April 1982.
While the name “oceanview” evokes a waterfront restaurant, Bette’s was actually never on the water. Instead, it’s a tribute to the historic name of the West Berkeley neighborhood: the unincorporated town of Ocean View. Until the early 1900s, this area did in fact have a view of the water, before the shoreline was filled in to build the I-80 freeway.
From its inception, Bette’s proved it was exactly what the neighborhood needed.
“The day it opened, it was a smash,” Abrams recalled. “… These people were all into excellence. You know, that’s my generation. A thread that runs through our generation of people of the ’60s is that when they did something, they did it really well.”
Those who worked with Bette remember her fondly, a former social worker who truly cared about her employees and vocally advocated for Berkeley’s $15 minimum wage.
“I got hired by her. And she was a really, really nice woman,” recalled Ransom, a chef at the diner for 14 years who is now a co-owner. “Both Bette and Manfred treated their employees really well. They made them feel like they mattered.”
It feels in line with Bette’s spirit that the diner is now entirely worker-owned. While the original plan with the ownership change was to transform the restaurant into an official worker cooperative, that plan has stalled for now.
“When we tried to put together the board of directors and all the things that are necessary to have an actual co-op, we couldn’t find enough people who had enough time outside of their work schedule to do that,” Bishop said.
Still, the diner is worker-owned, and Bishop said that employees are happy with the new model. They added new medical benefits and also took the salary the owners were making and split it evenly amongst the entire staff, leading to raises for everyone.
They also instituted a few modern updates: a new POS system (no more handwritten tickets), making their food available on DoorDash (pick-up only) and adding a catering service for office parties.
“A lot of our regular customers have commented to me that the staff seems a lot happier, the service is a little bit better, and that’s because it’s not quite so hectic,” Bishop said.
While much has stayed the same at the Oceanview Diner, one thing besides the name has changed: no more jukebox. Previous owner Manfred took the historic artifact with him in the move.
But to keep the atmosphere of the restaurant the same, the team of new owners hired the same woman who used to change out the records in the jukebox to create playlists for them. That woman is Christine Hanson, a former employee of Bette’s who went on to become a record buyer at Rasputin Music. She’s retired now, besides this gig.
“Even though we don’t have a jukebox and people can’t walk up and throw a quarter there, we still have the same feel,” Bishop said. “It’s the same music because the same woman put it together for us.”
The essence of the Oceanview Diner is made up of characters like Hanson: all the neighbors, employees and regulars who hung around long enough to become part of the diner’s DNA. Everyone has a story of a favorite regular, from the Golden Gate Fields racehorse owner who came in twice a day to a customer infatuated with the diner’s deviled eggs.
Bette herself told Eater in a 2013 interview that at least 10 couples have come out of the restaurant (and we’re willing to bet that number is even bigger by now).
“I came in with one child at 4 years old who is now 19 and going to college, and I have twin boys who are in high school,” Ransom said. “We have a few families that have literally grown up in the diner.”
Restaurant workers staying in one place for a long time is pretty uncommon, so the league of Oceanview Diner employees with 10, 20 or even over 30 years under their belts is telling of how special it is.
“I gave myself only five years, but this is a good place to work,” said Kimble, the restaurant’s longest running member. “So I stayed. Because Bette was a really good person to work for.”
Bishop echoed that sentiment.
“I only ever planned on staying here for a year,” he said. “And then I liked it so much I wanted to stay. … The people that work here are really, really awesome and nice people.”
Oceanview Diner, 1807 Fourth St., Berkeley. Open Monday through Friday, 9 a.m.-2 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, 7 a.m.-3 p.m.