Oakland’s Bay Wolf restaurant closing after 40 years

Bay Wolf opened three years after Chez Panisse, and both have well-earned reputations for consistently putting fresh, delicious, seasonal food on the plates of a loyal clientele for more than four decades.

Bay Wolf deck
Bay Wolf, housed in a Craftsman building with a covered deck on Piedmont Avenue, will close after 40 years at the end of August. Photo: Bay Wolf

Bay Wolf, a destination restaurant in the East Bay for four decades, will close its doors for good on Sunday Aug. 30.

“It’s time,” said co-owner Michael Wild on Wednesday. “This was my life. It was everything, but when you’ve run a restaurant for 40 years, it’s time,” he said.

Wild, 75, opened the warm, wood-paneled restaurant in a Craftsman house on Piedmont Avenue with partners Michael Phelps, and Larry Goldman, also 75, on Sept. 21, 1975, three years after Chez Panisse opened in Berkeley. Like Alice Waters’ celebrated, and similarly styled, restaurant, Bay Wolf was known from the start for its locally sourced, seasonal menu.

“We did that together,” said Wild. “Focusing on local food was a given, given where we live.” The restaurateurs always aimed to source their food from within 100 miles, apart from the few times, “in the dead of winter,” when they’ve had to venture a little further.

Michael Wild, co-owner of Bay Wolf, shopping for produce in May 2014. Photo: Bay Wolf
Michael Wild, co-owner of Bay Wolf, shopping for produce at Berkeley’s Monterey Market in March 2014. Photo: Bay Wolf

Bay Wolf has also always been close to its purveyors, fostering relationships with the people who supply their ingredients, be it meat, fish or produce.

While commonplace now, farm-to-table dining was seen as an innovation in the 1970s, even in the Bay Area. As Wild puts it: “It’s a venerable tradition all over the world expect in some parts of the States.”

Waters herself was quick to sing the praises of the Bay Wolf pair today as they move into the last six weeks of service.

“In this world where restaurants don’t last very long, to have one that lasted 40 years is impressive. I truly want to thank Michael and Larry for running a great restaurant for so many years and for bringing our community together around hospitality, good food, and real ingredients!” the Chez Panisse owner said.

As far as the Chronicle’s food critic, Michael Bauer, is concerned, Wild and Goldman did for Oakland what Chez Panisse did for Berkeley — put the city on the culinary map. Writing about the restaurant’s imminent closure, Bauer praised Wild — who was never trained as a chef and taught literature for 10 years at SF State before opening the restaurant — for his creativity and talent in and out of the kitchen. Bauer singled out the restaurant’s signature duck dishes (Bay Wolf has its ducks specially reared by Jim Reichardt at Liberty Ducks in Sonoma), and said its Caesar salad is “still one of the best in the Bay Area.”

Spring gnocchi with fresh peas and favs
Spring gnocchi with fresh peas and fava beans — a seasonal dish on the menu at Bay Wolf, which is closing on Aug. 30, 2015. Photo: Bay Wolf

Wild says they have sold the restaurant and the building, though he wasn’t at liberty to talk about what’s planned next for the space.

“We’ve sold everything and it’s with a heavy heart,” he said, “mostly because of the staff.”

Taking care of the restaurant’s employees has been a priority from day one, Wild said, and they will all be looked after now.

He said he was particularly gratified that when staff were told about the decision to close, many said they considered their time there to be “the best jobs in the world.”

The tenure of several key members of the team is testament to the type of work environment created by Wild and Goldman.

Chef Louis Le Gassic joined BayWolf as a line cook in 1997, rose to chef after two years, and has been there ever since. While in the front of house, John Doyle has been tending to customers for more than 32 years.

Looking back to the heady early days, Wild says he remembers the initial primary goal was simply “to survive.”  But their guiding principles were always clear, he said: “to make meaningfully good food, to create a good-looking environment, and to provide good service.”

As for what Wild is going to do now, he says he plans to travel more, something he and his wife have been enjoying for years, but will be much easier now that their kids are grown up and the business is behind them.

“We may spend time living in different places,” he said.

Before then, it will be “full steam ahead” on Piedmont Avenue. The phone has been ringing off the hook since news broke of the closure, Wild said — no doubt loyal customers and others eager to savor one last dinner there before the restaurant is shuttered.

The last week of service, running up to Sunday Aug. 30, will be a week-long celebration of 40 years, with a special menu, said Wild.

A plate of duck confit over Spring vegetable ragout
A plate of duck confit over a spring vegetable ragout at Bay Wolf: duck is a speciality at the Piedmont Avenue restaurant. Photo: Bay Wolf

Bay Wolf is at 3853 Piedmont Ave, Oakland. Tel: (510) 655-6004. Connect with Bay Wolf on Facebook and on Twitter.

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Tracey Taylor is co-founder of Berkeleyside and co-founder and editorial director of Cityside. Email: tracey@citysidejournalism.org.