Comal owners plan new Berkeley restaurant

The owners of Comal in downtown Berkeley hope to bring the same type of relaxed neighborhood restaurant to the Elmwood neighborhood.

Paluska, Hoffman, Gandin
Andrew Hoffman and John Paluksa (l to r), seen here with Comal Executive Chef Matt Gandin, are hoping to open a new restaurant in Berkeley’s Elmwood neighborhood. Photo: Postcard PR

The owners of Comal in downtown Berkeley are hoping to open a second restaurant in Berkeley, this time in the Elmwood neighborhood.

John Paluska and Andrew Hoffman have their sights on the 3,400-square-foot vacant space in the old Wright’s Garage building at 2635 Ashby Ave. (The renovated retail space is to the left of Dream Fluff Donuts).

The plan is to serve Northern Californian cuisine, and the restaurant will offer craft cocktails, a full bar, and be open for lunch and dinner, said Paluska. The atmosphere, energy and design will likely not be far-removed from Comal. “The space has some of the raw attributes we liked at Comal,” he said.

However, Paluska stressed that the project is in the very early stages of development.

The space at 2635 Ashby Ave. in Berkeley’s Elmwood neighborhood where the Comal owners want to open a second restaurant.

The partners have to apply for a change-of-use permit for the space, and would need to be granted an exception to the Elmwood quota system that exists to ensure a balance in the types of businesses that operate there. Paluska and Hoffman are currently spending time talking to neighbors, neighborhood associations and local merchants — and will hold an open meeting with the community (details below) — to be fully conversant with local sensitivities.

“We are trying to be proactive. We don’t want to focus on the micro-details of the restaurant until we have reached out fully to the community,” he said. “There are complex dynamics in this neighborhood, like many others, and we are aware of many of the issues, including parking. We are hearing from as many people as we can so that their views inform our application.”

The pair opened Comal at 2020 Shattuck Ave. in May 2012. It was the first restaurant for Paluska, who formerly was the manager of the popular band Phish. Hoffman partnered with Paluska on Comal and is general manager at the Mexican-inspired restaurant, which has proved hugely popular. He will assume the same role at the new restaurant, which has yet to be named. Comal is seen to have revived a formerly lackluster part of downtown Berkeley, and was described by the San Francisco Chronicle‘s restaurant critic, Michael Bauer, as the restaurant he would have opened had he become a restaurateur.

Paluska said the eventual appointment of a chef would determine the menu at the new restaurant, but that they are looking to emulate places such as Nopa and Zuni in San Francisco in providing a local gathering place that serves classic Northern Californian dishes.

“We want to be a great neighborhood restaurant in what we see as a really special neighborhood,” he said. “We want it to be a place that is really loved by its constituents, and that is complementary to existing businesses in the area. We are respectful of why the quota system exists.”

Comal interior. Photo- Postcard PR
The pair behind Comal hope a new restaurant in the Elmwood would have a similar atmosphere and design to their original spot, and that it would become a favorite neighborhood gathering place. Photo: Postcard PR

For their application to succeed, the city needs to see a strong show of community support. Paluska said that they have already heard from many locals who support the idea.

In 2007, a group called the Elmwood Neighborhood Association filed a lawsuit against commercial realtor John Gordon and Berkeley after the Council had given its approval for a 5,000-square-foot restaurant in the old Wright’s Garage building. The lawsuit was settled in February 2008 and Gordon let his restaurant use permit lapse. The neighborhood group contended that the city had not put the project through the proper environmental review before issuing a permit, and that the restaurant-bar would bring undue traffic and noise to the neighborhood.

Paluska and Hoffman are holding an open house to talk to the local community about their plans for the new restaurant. It will be at 2635 Ashby Ave. on Monday, July 1, at 7 p.m. The pair will present their preliminary plans — including proposed opening hours, which are expected to be standard commercial operating hours of 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. — and answer questions about the project.

Nosh Talk: Comal chef Matt Gandin (11.14.12)
Bauer waxes lyrical about Comal: A magnificent package (07.16.13)
Comal: New restaurant takes a bet on downtown Berkeley (04.30.12)

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Tracey Taylor is co-founder of Berkeleyside and co-founder and editorial director of Cityside. Email: