Great China, which left Kittredge Street after a fire and has built out a new, redesigned space in the old Looney’s SmokeHouse BBQ space on Bancroft Way, hopes to open this weekend. Photo: Tracey Taylor
Great China, which left Kittredge Street after a fire and has built out a new, redesigned space in the old Looney’s SmokeHouse BBQ space on Bancroft Way, hopes to open this weekend. Photo: Tracey Taylor

Great China, the popular downtown Berkeley restaurant that was shuttered by a fire in January 2012, will soon reopen in a smart, newly designed location with 50% more space. The core culinary offering remains the same, but there are some additions to the menu, including more desserts, and, the owners say, customers will see improved service.

“We’re really excited to get back to serving our loyal Berkeley customers again,” said Tai Yu, who, with his brother James Yu and father Ching Yu, own and run Great China.

The Yus hope they will be able to throw open the doors at 2190 Bancroft Way (at Oxford) on Friday or Saturday this week (the restaurant used to be a 2115 Kittredge, now home to Arabica). After nearly two years of planning and construction work, all that remains are final city inspections. 

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Lobster in ginger scallion sauce. Photo: Great China

The new restaurant has taken over the spot previously occupied by Looney’s SmokeHouse BBQ. The property is owned by the Yu family and, according to Tai Yu, they had been eying it for some time. A plan in 2010 to move Great China there came to nothing. But when Looney’s went out of business, “the opportunity fell into our laps,” he said.

Then came the 2-alarm fire at Kittredge Street, which started in the kitchen and spread through the hood and flue of the cooking range, destroying the restaurant’s well-regarded stock of wine among other things.

Although distressing, Tai Yu says the blaze was a motivating factor.

“It was a blessing in disguise as it gave us a swift kick — it got us into gear,” he said.

Tai Yu designed the new 150-table space working with Walnut Creek-based Harriman Kinyon Architects. The look is clean, contemporary and simple, he said, with an emphasis on recycled materials. The exterior redwood siding is culled from old olive brining barrels and the bar top is crafted from reclaimed walnut.

The traumatic experience of the fire affected some of the design decisions. “We chose to use concrete because it has a strong, permanent feel and is fire resistant,” Tai Yu said. The long dining tables are from Wooden Duck in Berkeley and lighting is “punchy” rather than romantic, in keeping with Great China’s no-nonsense, family-style food.

Chung King crispy chicken. Photo: Great China

The menu, which centers on Northern Chinese cuisine with the occasional Cantonese dish thrown in, will be comfortingly familiar to longstanding customers, according to James Yu who oversees the cooking.

But there are some new additions, including a tofu dish with shrimp and mushroom sauce, and some braised dishes including beef shank cooked for four hours and served with star anise, soy sauce and ginger.

“We’re not trying to reinvent the wheel, and we are not about gimmicks or frills,” James Yu said, adding that the pared-down restaurant design reflected the approach to the menu. “It’s high quality using simple materials. We have a local take on Chinese food using great ingredients sourced locally and showcased in our dishes.”

Berkeley’s Country Cheese Coffee Market, a local tea importer, has helped the restaurant devise a new tea program.

Those with a sweet tooth will appreciate the expansion of the dessert menu. The signature Eight Treasures Rice Pudding is still there, joined by ice cream with fried puff rice topping, a tofu flower pastry, and a Buddha’s Hand Cheesecake made with Cowgirl Creamery fromage blanc and an almond cookie crust.

James Yu said he expects the menu to be available on the restaurant’s website within the next day or so. Reservations (only for parties of six or more) can be made online too. An alcohol license for the new Great China has yet to be approved, but, once it is, expect a refocused wine list and a range of housemade, simple cocktails.

The larger space has allowed the owners to hire more chefs, said James Yu. “And the service level is going to be better,” he said. “We didn’t have the room before.”

Great China is at 2190 Bancroft Way (at Oxford), Berkeley, 94704. Tel: 510.843.7996.

Fire at Berkeley’s Great China restaurant on Kittredge Street (01.25.12)

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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...