Berkeley architects Abueg Morris designed Comal to be "textural and warm, and not afraid to show the patina of age". Photo: Tracey Taylor

On Friday, John Paluska will throw open the heavy steel doors to his ambitious new restaurant, Comal, which he hopes will become a magnet for local residents and a cultural incubator. “I see it as a big tent that I hope will become the heart of the community,” he said last week as he stood in the expansive, airy space at 2020 Shattuck Avenue, overseeing a plethora of pre-launch preparations.

Comal will be cooking up Oaxaca-inspired Mexican food — masa-based dishes such as Tetelas, memelas, and tlayudas, whole grilled fish, chickens and fresh vegetables –– much of it cooked on an Italian wood-burning range and two “comals” — large round griddles which take center stage in the restaurant’s open kitchen and, says Paluska, also serve to evoke the “hearth as gathering place” ambiance he is seeking to create there.

Chef Matt Gandin, formerly of Delfina in San Francisco, says he wants to explore the complexities of a cuisine that he feels is “waiting to be discovered”.

Bar consultant and "spiritist" Scott Baird, center, is focusing on cocktails that harmonize with food. Photo: Tracey Taylor

Other than taking the usual risks associated with opening a new restaurant, probably Paluska’s biggest gamble is betting that downtown Berkeley is going to rise up to meet his expectations. He admits that when he starting drafting the business plan for Comal, friends expressed skepticism about choosing Berkeley. But Paluska did his research and concluded it was “a no-brainer”.

“There was Measure R, the PBid and the Downtown Plan,” he says, referring to the recent measures that are already leading to changes in Berkeley’s core. He cites the plans to reopen the UC Theater on University, the Acheson Commons project and the new Berkeley Art Museum/Pacific Film Archive as other developments he hopes will fuel a continuing renaissance in downtown. “Downtown Berkeley has a tremendous amount of untapped potential,” he says.

The two comals, from which the restaurant takes its name, will be used to blacken and finish masa-based Mexican dishes. Photo: Tracey Taylor

Paluska has called on an impressive roster of local designers and artisans to craft the sleek, 140-seat eatery which is in the space formerly occupied by two stores: Paper Heaven and Another Change of Hobbit.

West Berkeley based Abueg Morris were the principal designers, David Trachtenberg created the Cor-Ten steel façades, lighting is by Alice Prussin at Illuminosa, Lawrence Grown of Metro Lighting and Lee Miltier of Photosynthesis on Bancroft Way. The landscaping in the showpiece back patio is by Robert Trachtenberg, the tables are by Heritage Salvage, while Richmond based Ferrous Studios are responsible for all the steel elements, be it the table and stool bases or the gigantic trusses for the terrace canopy. “They have their fingerprints all over this place,” says Paluska.

The restaurant's large, heated outdoor patio has its own bar with beer and wine on tap. Photo: Tracey Taylor

Last but not least, Berkeley based Meyer Sound has created a highly sophisticated music and acoustic system — their first custom-design for a restaurant — which promises to produce low levels of reverberation and ensure customers enjoy their conversations as much as the music. Paluska’s investment in state-of-the-art sound is perhaps not surprising given that for many years he was the manager of the hugely popular band, Phish.

“The overall feel is earthy,” says Marites Abueg who, with her husband Keith Morris, orchestrated the look and feel of the restaurant with their company Abueg Morris, fresh from completing the second Nopalita restaurant in San Francisco. “John wanted it to be like a ‘third place’, a living room in downtown Berkeley — which is exciting to us as we live in downtown and think that kind of place is missing,” she says.

The result is textural and warm and not afraid to show the patina of age. Ceiling joists are exposed as are showers of dark scratches in the wood floors, the consequence of ripping out decades-old carpet tiles.

Bar stools were designed by Ferrous Studios with seats branded by sculptor John Bisbee. Photo: Tracey Taylor

As for the fare on the plate, Paluska says Gandin likes to cook as if Mexico was another Californian state — mixing local, seasonal ingredients into regional Mexican dishes. That may translate, says Gandin, into grilled artichokes served with epazote butter, or a ceviche of local King Salmon. “It’s a journey of discovery,” he says.

That’s not to say sourcing authentic Mexican ingredients isn’t a priority. “The bar staff have been returning from research trips to Mexico with duffle bags full of chilies that are usually grown and reserved for local families,” Gandin says.

Scott Baird is in charge of the restaurant’s two, generously proportioned, bars — one at the front, one outside on the back terrace. (Baird and his partner Josh Harris are from Bon Vivants and they are the cocktail consultants who developed the drinks menu.) Baird says he’s concocting a Tequila education with a curated repertoire, including a homemade artisanal offering, and a program of sangritas. There will be ten beers and two Sonoma wines on taps. “The emphasis will be delicious not precious,” he says. “And cocktails will be designed to pair well with food. I have experience cooking and it’s important to me that the drinks harmonize with the food.”

A curated selection of tequilas, used for seasonal cocktails, will be on offer as will a program of sangritas. Photo: Tracey Taylor

Paluska, who says he greatly admires the “uncompromising values” of local restaurants such as Doňa Tomas, Gather, Ipukku and Revival, says he sees Comal as a “second-wave colonist”. “I am hoping all the colorful people of Berkeley will come here and come as they are — we’re polished but relaxed.”

And his response to the skeptics who urged him to consider Oakland or San Francisco rather than Berkeley for his foodie venture? “I believe you have be the change you want to see,” he says.

Comal, at 2020 Shattuck Avenue, opens on Friday May 4 and will be open every night for dinner, serving from 5:30 pm to 11:00 pm.

View a photo gallery of the restaurant.

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Tracey Taylor is co-founder of Berkeleyside and co-founder and editorial director of Cityside, the nonprofit parent to Berkeleyside and The Oaklandside. Before launching Berkeleyside, Tracey wrote for...