Homemade Café owner-chef Collin Doran started as a busser and worked almost every position at the restaurant before taking over the café in 2011. Photo: Cirrus Wood

For 39 years, Berkeley’s Homemade Café, on the corner of Sacramento and Dwight, has been a neighborhood fixture, offering “diner classics done right” for breakfast and lunch. Fans come for the omelets, homefries, pancakes and sandwiches like BLTs — classic American diner food. But for the café’s new pop-up dinner series, owner-chef Collin Doran is trying something new, and looking further afield for inspiration.

“We’re kind of going from Spain to Portugal, back to Spain then to France,” said Doran, offering a narrative prelude at a recent pop-up dinner. Savory courses that night included gazpacho, followed by chicken liver mousse with peach mostarda, then clams with chorizo in a saffron broth, and finally, pork belly over lentils.

“Then dessert is…,” Doran trailed off, laughing, and gestured vaguely in the direction of the nearby intersection. The ideas behind the bourbon-butterscotch pudding with candied bacon, cocoa nibs and espresso-caramel sauce, were of much more local origin, but still fitting with the dinner’s theme: “Some of My Favorite Things.” (Doran does not shy from advertising a personal love of pork products. On his right forearm, the word “bacon” is tattooed in a seriffed, typewritten font.)

Chicken liver mousse with Acme bread, pickled onions and peach mostarda at Homemade Café’s “A Few of My Favorite Things” pop-up dinner in July. Photo: Cirrus Wood

The evening’s menu, as with all the café’s pop-up dinners, has more to do with Doran’s personal taste than with training or Iberian heritage. As a surname, Doran is neither Spanish nor Portuguese. “It’s not even Irish,” he said. The family changed the name from Droginiski, “when they realized the Russian-Jewish name wouldn’t get them jobs in the LA electrician’s union,” he said.

Doran, who grew up in Berkeley, was a longtime staff member at Homemade Café. He started as a busser, working in almost every position at the restaurant, before taking over as owner in 2011.

“My goal was to keep the soul the same,” said Doran. “I said when I took the place over that I’m not going to make any changes, but I am going to make additions.”

This March, he started making those additions. He began a series of monthly prix-fixe pop-up dinners, each taking place the last Friday of the month. Patrons looking for standard diner food — “the two eggs, bacon and toast crowd,” as Doran put it — can still get the classics any day of the week, 7 a.m. to 2 p.m., Monday through Friday and 8 a.m. to 3 p.m., Saturday and Sunday. But during the monthly themed dinners, anything goes.

Clams with chorizo in a saffron broth. Note the no-frills flatware and tablecloth of brown butcher paper. Photo: Cirrus Wood

Given the number of East Bay pop-ups that regularly occur in high-end bars or at post-industrial warehouses, it’s refreshing to attend one in a place without pretension. The juxtaposition of no-frills stainless steel flatware with chicken liver mousse, the lighting fixtures crafted from repurposed mugs and carafes, spoons swinging from chandeliers, the brown butcher paper tablecloths (where servers with sharpies wrote ‘wine’ next to the place settings of patrons who ordered the Madeira) — it all feels very approachable, even if the $85 prix fixe menu and $24 wine pairing are significantly more expensive than the café’s usual fare.

“When we started this place we wanted to offer three things,” said Norm Berzon, who with Janet Hinze, was one of the original owners and co-founders of Homemade Café. “Quality product, we wanted to be affordable and we wanted it to be a working-class place. A place that working class folk could come to and a place that treated its employees really well.”

According to Berzon, Doran has kept that going. “That’s what we did and that’s essentially what he’s done.” The pop-up dinners may not be standard diner food, but are very much in keeping with the café’s creative spirit, and ideas of keeping up with the times and with traditions.

“It has certainly kept me invigorated,” said Doran.

Crispy pork belly over lentils and greens. Photo: Cirrus Wood

Each month brings a fresh challenge of crafting both new dishes and new experiences. Homemade Café’s next dinner — ‘A Late Summer Night’s Dream’ — happens 6 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. Aug. 24. The featured dishes have whimsical names referencing characters from Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” like Titania’s Tidbit (sweet corn soup with fried basil and heirloom tomato jam crostini), Hippolyta’s Hungry (butcher’s steak with salsa verde, bacon-corn, cheddar mashed potatoes and fried green tomatoes), and Bottom’s Up (semolina and olive oil cake served with mascarpone cheese, strawberries and fig-balsamic reduction). It’s befitting that a play about transformation in an enchanted wood informs the menu at a reimagined American diner, even if just for a night.

Homemade Café’s pop-up dinners are scheduled the last Friday of the month, with seatings at 6 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. Dinner is $85, including tax and gratuity; optional wine pairing can be added for $24. A vegetarian option is available by advanced request. Call or email to make reservations: (510) 845-1940, collindoran@yahoo.com. 

Cirrus Wood is a freelance writer and photographer living in downtown Berkeley. There are few things he enjoys as much as playing around with the alphabet.