A crowded dining room at the Berkeley location of Saturn Café. The diner closed on July 12, 2019.
After 10 years in Berkeley, Saturn Café has closed. Photo: Saturn Café

On Friday, the Berkeley location of vegetarian diner Saturn Café closed. Its owners took to social media to announce the decision:

Saturn Cafe, Berkeley — what a wild ride it’s been. We have been lucky to call Berkeley our home for nine years. The City of Berkeley and its unique community embraced us warmly throughout our time here and we are incredibly thankful to our loyal customers. We are grateful for the amazing team members who have helped care for our Berkeley location. From the dynamic opening team, (many of whom came up from Santa Cruz), to our final closing crew. And of course, the many dedicated Santa Cruz team members who always jumped in to help out “the baby” of our Saturn Family. We are beyond lucky to have each of them as part of our journey. With that said, it has become increasingly more difficult to run a small business within the ever-evolving Bay Area. We have decided to close our Berkeley location on the heels of a staffing shortage obstacle. But this is far from the end for us; it’s just the beginning of Saturn’s bright future! Drop by our booth at Veg Fest 2020! And always keep an eye out for our pop-ups and collaborations with other passionate organizations from the area. We will continue to grow: Look out for Saturn Cafe in Southern California and of course, come visit us in Santa Cruz! Thank you, Berkeley for all the memories.

Saturn Café opened at 2175 Allston Way in downtown Berkeley on July 17, 2010. It was the second location for the popular Santa Cruz diner, which was opened in 1979 by Don Lane (a community organizer who would later become mayor of that city) and co-owned by Cary and Melissa Sundberg (who would run the business after Lane returned to politics).

In its 40 years, Saturn Café gained a following for its vegetarian-friendly menu, but when the original location first opened, it had a more hippie vibe than the retro, all-American diner feel it’s become known for these days, and the definition of a “meat-free” menu was seemingly a little less rigid as well. In a Washington Post article from 1986, reporter Phyllis C. Richman wrote that the Santa Cruz restaurant “has the marks of a flower children’s garden. It not only outlaws chemical additives, meats and cigarette smoking on the premises, but it even forswears aluminum cookware, lest a trace enter your system.” Later in the article she writes, “The sandwiches and salads lean heavily on tuna and tofu, with avocado garnishes.”

Over the years, Saturn Café has continued to fine-tune its menu, decor and ethos. The Sundbergs closed the diner in 1995 when Santa Cruz employees attempted to unionize. The spot reopened a couple months later, however, under the ownership of former employees who had unionized the kitchen. When Saturn relocated in 1999, the diner had a new space-age flare. In 2005, it became a sustainable restaurant. According to its website, this was the year Saturn dedicated itself to “sourcing locally grown organic ingredients, using paper straws, helping move our used oil into bio-diesel” and pushing “a percentage of our budget to reinvest in our community. ”

But Saturn Café’s biggest draw has always been its expansive menu of decadent vegetarian and vegan comfort foods. In that same Washington Post article from the ’80s, Richman wrote, “The main reason for going to the Saturn Cafe is a dessert called Chocolate Madness: a scoop of chocolate burnt almond ice cream, two rich fudgy things called Gramma’s Cookies, fudge sauce, chocolate mousse, whipped cream and chocolate chips, all in one bowl.” That dessert was still on the Berkeley menu before it closed (and is still available in Santa Cruz today), but with the ability to customize it for gluten-free and vegan diets.

When Saturn opened its Berkeley location, it filled a hole for the growing number of local vegetarians and vegans looking for traditional comfort foods that were completely meat-free. The last restaurant that met those criteria in Berkeley was Michael’s American Vegetarian Diner, which was in business from the ’90s to the early aughts on Telegraph Avenue in a former IHOP building (the pointy roof is a dead giveaway). In its heyday, Michael’s was a beacon for meatless eaters from near and far. It was a bit of an oddball restaurant, looking like a parody of a ’50s diner but staffed by the young children of its owner, Michael Fikaris, a meditation instructor and founder of his own religious group, the Foundation for Spiritual Freedom. What made Michael’s so popular, though, was that it served regular, old-fashioned American diner food that its customers knew were 100% meat-free.

These days, that doesn’t seem so extraordinary. Today, Berkeley is a haven for vegetarians and vegans craving foods like tacos, pizza, donuts, cinnamon rolls and fast food from a restaurant chain. The city’s current most popular veg comfort food outpost is The Butcher’s Son, an entirely vegan deli, which moved to a bigger location to accommodate demand. (The Butcher’s Son is co-owned by siblings Peter Fikaris and Christina Stobing, the children of Michael Fikaris.)

But just 10 years ago, vegans and vegetarians were harder pressed for options when dining out, especially when seeking normally meat- and/or dairy-based foods they had, in some cases, recently given up. Defying the stereotype that vegan/vegetarian food is just “healthy hippie food,” both Michael’s and Saturn Café provided indulgent, no-frills eats like burgers, nachos, cakes and ice creams in a homey and family-friendly milieu.

While both Saturn and Michael’s are gone, they paved the way for the new-school vegan and vegetarian restaurants in Berkeley today.

Saturn Café’s original location, which remains open, is at 145 Laurel St, Santa Cruz; an upcoming location in Southern California is TBA. 

Sarah Han was the editor of Nosh from 2017 to 2021. Previously, she worked as an editor at The Bold Italic, the San Francisco Chronicle and the San Francisco Bay Guardian. In 2020, Sarah won SPJ NorCal's...