The Advocate restaurant in Berkeley’s Elmwood neighborhood will close permanently on Thursday Oct. 27 after just over one year in business. Owners John Paluska and Andrew Hoffman, who also own Comal in downtown Berkeley, said they were not able to achieve the level of business necessary to make the restaurant sustainable.
“We felt a lot of confidence that we could make something that would click in this neighborhood and we weren’t able to pull that off,” Paluska told Berkeleyside.
The Advocate opened in August 2015 after over two years of planning and community outreach — and also delays caused by a lawsuit from the same group that had put a halt to a previous restaurant project at the same location, at 2635 Ashby Ave. (at College).
The restaurant, with its California-meets-Mediterranean cuisine, was designed, like Comal, by Berkeley’s Abueg-Morris Architects, cycled through three chefs in its 14 short months: inaugural chef John Griffiths left in February to be replaced by Michelin-starred Joseph Humphrey, who departed a few months later to take over the kitchen at the recently opened Limewood at the Claremont Hotel.
“It’s never helpful to have chef changes — it was certainly not our desire,” said Paluska. “It’s harder to maintain a consistent point of view.” Paluska added that he felt a confluence of bad luck and bad circumstances stood in contrast to their experience at Comal. “We’ve ben amazingly lucky to have continuity and consistency at Comal both with our chef [Matt Gandin has been there from the start] and front-of-house staff.”
In a statement the owners were planning to send to their customers, Paluska and Hoffman said the decision to shutter was difficult. “We are grateful to all of you from the Elmwood and beyond for your support since we opened in August 2015,” they wrote. “We opened with high hopes and a belief that we could thrive in our wonderful neighborhood, but unfortunately we’ve never been able to achieve the level of business to make our restaurant sustainable.” (Read the full statement.)
The pair opened high-end Mexican-Californian restaurant Comal in May 2012. It quickly established itself as a popular destination in what was then a less salubrious part of downtown Berkeley. With its Oaxaca-via-California food by Gandin, inventive tequila and mezcal cocktail menu, and appealing outdoor patio, it always appears to be busy. Before entering the restaurant business, Paluska was for many years the manager of the popular band Phish.
Paluska and Hoffman began planning the new Elmwood restaurant in the summer of 2013. They held a series of community meetings to solicit input from the neighbors before moving ahead with the project. They knew that a previous attempt to open a restaurant in the space, albeit it a bigger one, was unsuccessful following a lawsuit brought by a small group known as the Elmwood Neighborhood Association. Nevertheless, the same group lodged an appeal and then filed suit to put a halt to The Advocate project, arguing that the new upscale eatery would cause unacceptable parking and traffic problems. The suit was settled in September 2014.
Paluska said the lawsuit was water under the bridge and unlikely to have had any impact on the restaurant once it opened. Having to pull the plug was a humbling experience, he said, and he stressed that he and Hoffman own the responsibility for not making The Advocate work. However he added: “It’s a very challenging thing to run a restaurant in the Bay Area in 2016.” He cited rising labor costs and and the cost of housing, as well as heavy competition in a part of the world deluged with restaurants. “Sometimes you can feel that the walls are closing all around you,’ he said.
The statement by The Advocate’s owners concludes: “A restaurant is the sum of so many efforts. To that end, we are grateful to the many people who helped make The Advocate a reality, from our hard-working, dedicated staff that put so much love and care into every dinner service, to our fantastic landlords, to all the artisans, vendors, designers, farmers and of course to our investors. We hope that many of you can come by for a final visit before we close our doors on Oct. 27.”
The restaurant and the business are for sale. “We are hoping to find a buyer who has fresh ideas and can find the sweet spot for this great location and great neighborhood,” Paluska said.
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