Temescal’s beloved Mama’s Royal Café has reopened with new owners

An Oakland institution has been sold. What can faithful Mama’s fans expect now that it’s reopened?

Mama’s Royal Café. Photo: Joe Hall/Flickr

East Bay fans of longtime diner Mama’s Royal Café in Temescal may have been surprised to find their favorite breakfast spot closed for the last few weeks. Brown paper has covered the windows of the Oakland institution since Monday, Oct. 16. Signs on the windows explained that the closure was due to a kitchen remodel, but what the signs didn’t say is that even bigger changes were happening behind the scenes.

Mama’s Royal Café has changed hands.

Starting on Monday, Nov. 20, the 43-year-old Mama’s Royal is open again, under the helm of new owners, brothers Soroush and Houshi Ghaderi.

This might not be a shock to those who’ve been following the news about the restaurant since last summer, when owner George Marino announced that he would be retiring and that he had put the restaurant up for sale. Marino had been an owner since 1975, a year after the diner first opened. In July 2017, the East Bay Express reported that Marino listed Mama’s Royal Café for an asking price of  $395,000.

The decor at Mama’s Royal Café has mostly remained the same under its new ownership, including this sign. Photo: Sarah Han

Escrow has not yet closed, but the brothers have decided to soft open for business this week, “to give the staff a chance to get acclimated to the new setup,” said Soroush Ghaderi. The restaurant will be closed on Thanksgiving, but will have its official grand opening on Friday, Nov. 24.

The Ghaderi family are longtime fixtures on the local restaurant scene. Houshi Ghaderi started as a barista at Caffe Mediterraneum in Berkeley in 1974, and he has been the owner of another longtime Berkeley breakfast spot — The Vault on Adeline Street  — since 1997. Soroush Ghaderi had been manager at The Vault, but will work full-time managing at Mama’s Royal.

Generations of families who grew up in the East Bay have fond memories of mornings at Mama’s. It’s been a popular breakfast and brunch spot for decades, known for its tried-and-true breakfast classics, like pancakes, omelettes, scrambles, and of course, coffee, as well as offering meat substitutes, like tofu and veggie sausage patties. Mama’s has used better quality and locally sourced ingredients for years, putting it way ahead of the curve, even in the Bay Area.

But what Mama’s is known for to many, is being a place where artists, musicians and eccentrics from the East Bay’s diverse underground scene have always been welcome, as customers and as employees. Mama’s earliest days are captured by illustrator Mimi Pond, who has written two semi-autobiographical graphic novels about her time as a waitress at the café in the ’70s, “Over Easy” and most recently, “The Customer is Always Wrong.”

Even if you’re not familiar with Mama’s long history in the scene, you got a sense for its eclectic vibe just from walking inside. Vintage aprons, retro radios and colorful plastic teacups have decorated the diner, as well as work by local artists — results of its annual napkin art contest that it’s held for more than 30 years.

Works from local artists who participated in Mama’s Royal Cafe’s annual Napkin Art Contest remain in the restaurant. Photo: Sarah Han

The Ghaderis are familiar with Mama’s loyal customers and history and have decided to keep the menu, much of the vintage decor and furniture, including the red-and-black checkerboard floors, a red banquette in the front room and the “avocado table” that Janet Young hand-painted almost 40 years ago. The Ghaderis will also keep the napkin art contest going under their watch, with former owner George Marino coming back in the spring to judge contests. Soon, Sherry Jean’s vintage holiday apron collection will once again line the walls of Mama’s for the holiday season.

“Mama’s is a part of Oakland,” said Soroush Ghaderi, when asked why he decided to buy the restaurant. “A lot of older businesses are going under; we’re losing a lot of traditional eating places.”

Another thing Mama’s fans can rest assured about — most of the old staff will remain. Soroush Ghaderi said that 90% of Mama’s workers have decided to remain on staff. All of the café cooks have decided to stay.

Most of the changes at Mama’s are in the kitchen, some to do with health and safety, others to improve workflow. Photo: Sarah Han

However, there have been changes and updates to the restaurant itself, which Ghaderi said were made “to modernize the restaurant and better serve customers.” A lot of the changes are in the kitchen that customers will never see, including a new stove, sink and other cooking equipment, more cold storage and a better workflow for the prep cooks.

What longtime customers will notice immediately is reconfiguration of the front counter. The formica-topped counter and the rotating stools that once ran down the side of the restaurant are no longer there. Instead, a new granite-topped counter sits at the back. Behind this, a new pass-through window to the kitchen allows for easy access for to-go orders.

The new front counter at Mama’s, with a pass-through window to the kitchen. Photo: Sarah Han

Ghaderi said many of the upgrades were to bring the restaurant up to current code with the Health Department, but also to create a more efficient workspace in the back of the house. Mama’s had been open for so long that it had been able to avoid having to make these upgrades over the years, but the sale of the restaurant required the changes be made by the new owners.

Although the menu will remain the same, there will be new weekly specials and the restaurant will be serving a new coffee. For years, Mama’s has served Oakland-based Peerless coffee, but it will now serve coffee from another Oakland-based vendor, Mr. Espresso.

One of the biggest upgrades that will be a game-changer for both customers and Mama’s staff is the integration of a point-of-sale system, meaning that for the first time ever, Mama’s will take credit cards. Ghaderi said he recognizes that it may take a moment for staff, especially those who’ve never worked with a computerized point of sale system, to get used to this change.

So, Mama’s Royal has stepped into a new era. But for now, fans can breathe a sigh of relief that for the most part, their beloved café hasn’t changed too drastically, especially considering its under new ownership.

A booth at Mama’s Royal Café. Photo: Sarah Han

“Everything George had going on, we’re going to continue,” Ghaderi said.

He pointed to a booth in the middle dining area, where tall wood booths line a wall. People have etched their initials and names into the wood over the years. What would be defacement to some are fond memories to others. Ghaderi said a man came in to Mama’s Royal recently and pointed out his name engraved many years ago: “It’s still here.”

Mama’s Royal Café is at 4012 Broadway (at 40th St.), in Oakland. It soft opens on Monday, Nov. 20 (it will be closed on Thanksgiving). The grand opening is on Friday, Nov. 24. 

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Sarah Han is Senior Editor, Nosh of Berkeleyside and Oaklandside. Email: sarah@berkeleyside.com.