DanVy Vu ran a food truck in the Bay Area for six years. During its run, Go Streatery had a solid following, but Vu admits now that her heart just wasn’t in it.
“I had to fake the funk,” Vu said about the experience. “I wasn’t into the food truck scene, but it was what we could afford then.”
Go Streatery was her entry into food services. While she had never cooked professionally before, Vu had prior informal experience cooking for others. Her family were Vietnamese refugees who came to the U.S. by boat and resettled in Orange County near Little Saigon. Growing up, her home served as transitional housing for relatives and other newly arrived Vietnamese immigrants. Vu said, sometimes there were up to 18 people living in her family’s four-bedroom house. Boarding was a way for her resourceful parents to help out others while making extra income too. Vu’s job during this time was to cook for everyone. She made mostly Vietnamese food, but sometimes she’d experiment with American fare, like spaghetti, but flavored with fish sauce.
Vu’s parents wanted her to get a good education that would lead to a financially stable career. At their urging, she went to UC Berkeley where she majored in sociology, and after graduating, she stayed in the Bay Area and worked at a financial advising firm, but she “wasn’t very good at it,” she said. When the market crashed, Vu decided it was time to do something different. She followed her interest in cooking and started the food truck.
Go Streatery gained fans with dishes like its oxtail and grits and lemon ricotta zeppole, an Italian-style donut inspired by her husband’s Italian background. The pastries were so popular that Vu created a spin-off stand called Girl Friday Zeppole, which she ran with a childhood friend for about two years, selling sweet and savory donuts at the Ferry Building in San Francisco.
Still, Vu had this nagging feeling that the mobile food circuit just wasn’t for her. “I couldn’t make the food that reflected what we were about,” she said. “The hardest part is schlepping things around all the time. You’re in a confined space and all these grand ideas of making elevated food out of a food truck was so difficult.” And so she and her husband Matthew Beavers decided to “focus on a bigger dream” — opening a brick and mortar. They knew from the start they’d open their restaurant in San Leandro.
Vu and Beavers have lived in San Leandro for the past 11 years. While living here, they’ve felt a growing desire amongst fellow residents for more dining options.
“I understand the San Leandro market,” said Vu. “From an outsider’s perspective, they might think we’re behind [in food culture]… but people here are spending money in Oakland and San Francisco and have elevated palates.”
After months of driving around looking for a space, the couple settled on a building that once housed Top Hatters, a 65-year-old hat shop that closed in 2012. The spot — located less than a half mile from their house — had been on the market for a long time, but when Vu decided to make an offer it was already in contract with another buyer. Undeterred, Vu wrote a heartfelt letter to the building owner explaining her family’s history in the neighborhood (her mother-in-law grew up in San Leandro, and Vu’s family now lives in this very house) and the restaurant she hoped to build in the space. The owner, who had once dreamed about opening a restaurant in the space, was convinced to give it to Vu.
Top Hatters Kitchen and Bar, according to Vu’s vision, will be a modern neighborhood restaurant that offers made-from-scratch, family-style dishes. It will have seating for 42 diners, along with some tables on a front patio.
Vu is sensitive to the fact that San Leandro is socio-economically and racially diverse, so she’s put a lot of thought into how Top Hatters Kitchen will not limit her creativity, yet reflect and serve the neighborhood too. The family-style concept, she said, will allow for a variety of plate sizes and price points, which she feels will allow for more diners to enjoy meals here.
The menu will also reflect the area’s diversity and the backgrounds of Vu and Beavers’ families.
“I hate to pigeonhole myself into one ethnic group,” said Vu about the style of food Top Hatters will offer. “There will be a Vietnamese wash, an Italian wash, because that’s who we are. But I’ve lived in the Bay Area for a long time, and we’re very diverse here. I guess it’s very California if I had to pinpoint a name to it.”
“California” means seasonal ingredients, and Vu, who’s been growing produce in her home garden to cook for her own family, said she aims to use fresh, locally grown produce when possible. “Space and time is an issue, but I’m diving into the idea of growing my own food [for Top Hatters],” she said.
Vu will be bringing back a few fan-favorites from her Go Streatery and Girl Friday days at Top Hatters, including her signature oxtail and grits dish, a salad with shattered crepes and preserved lemon dressing, as well as sweet and savory zeppole. The restaurant will have a full bar serving cocktails, beer and wine.
When it opens this fall, possibly as soon as November, Top Hatters Kitchen and Bar will start with dinner service, then eventually lunch and brunch. “We want to be a solid dinner restaurant first,” Vu said.
Vu and Beavers decided to keep the building’s original structure, but because of its odd shape, it’s taken a bit of work and time to transform the former millinery into a working restaurant. Although it will bear no resemblance to the former hat shop, the old signage out front will remain, meaning a little piece of San Leandro history will remain intact. What you’ll find inside, though, will be anything but old hat.
Top Hatters Kitchen and Bar will be at 855 MacArthur Blvd. (between Fortuna and Diehl), San Leandro