Lalime's on Gilman Street in Berkeley. Photo: Sarah Han
Lalime’s on Gilman Street in Berkeley: the restaurant is closing for good after serving the community for 35 years. Photo: Sarah Han

On Thursday, restaurateurs Haig Krikorian and Cindy Lalime Krikorian announced the permanent closure of Lalime’s Restaurant in the Westbrae neighborhood of Berkeley. The couple said the combination of the shelter-in-place order’s indefinite moratorium on dine-in service and a desire to retire convinced them that now is the time to shutter their 35-year-old restaurant.

“COVID-19 has made the decision for us, Lalime’s is retiring. We would have liked to bid you adieu in person, but the masks and the gloves are in the way.” — Haig Krikorian

“COVID-19 has made the decision for us, Lalime’s is retiring. We would have liked to bid you adieu in person, but the masks and the gloves are in the way,” Haig wrote in a touching issue of the restaurant’s newsletter, where the Krikorians first made their plans public.

Although Lalime’s officially closed last week, it had stopped service when the shelter-in-place order was declared March 16. Take-out service, Haig said, “is just not who we are.”

Lalime’s Restaurant opened in Berkeley in 1985. For the past 35 years it’s been a culinary institution, known for its locally sourced, California-inspired Mediterranean cuisine.

The Krikorians, with Haig as executive chef, first operated out of a small space on Solano Avenue, before moving, in 1988, to the cozy but light-filled storefront at 1329 Gilman St. The restaurant’s name is a hat-tip to Cindy’s side of the family. As she explains in the postscript of the restaurant’s goodbye newsletter, “Our Lalime family were all girls (six) and we wanted the name to live on (luckily there are still a few cousins in Maine and other states and in French Canada carrying on the name). My father Ronald Lalime was proud of this.”

For locals, Lalime’s was a classic spot to celebrate birthdays, anniversaries and accomplishments. For those coming from outside of Berkeley, the restaurant was a destination where, if you managed to snag a reservation, you knew you’d be able to find parking thanks to its unconventional residential location.

But for Haig and Cindy, Lalime’s was first and foremost a community.

“We’ve just been a hangout for 35 years,” Haig said by phone. The couple befriended many of their customers and celebrated many major life events at the restaurant. “We’ve seen their kids born, and their grandkids born. It’s a really a special thing to cross three generations,” Cindy said.

Cindy Lalime Krikorian and Haig Krikorian with son Aram and daughter Elaine, circa 1986, in front of Lalime’s Café, then on Solano Avenue. Photo: Courtesy of Haig Krikorian

When Lalime’s opened in the 1980s it stood out because few restaurants were offering the type of food it did, using a diversity of high-quality ingredients. Haig showcased his training in classical French cuisine using lesser-known ingredients from faraway places. But it was the relationships he forged with local purveyors that made Lalime’s special.

Over the years, Haig’s menus increasingly celebrated organic, fresh and sustainable ingredients grown within 100 miles of the restaurant, an ethos that ended up defining Lalime’s. In the restaurant’s earliest days, Haig sourced baby greens from Michael Norton of now-defunct Kona Kai Farms, Liberty ducks from Jim Reichardt of Sonoma County Poultry and seafood from Paul Johnson of Monterey Fish Market. Haig even sourced from local foragers, showcasing Meyer lemons and mushrooms picked just blocks away from the restaurant.

Lalime’s was the Krikorians’ first and last Berkeley restaurant, but they had founded many others in between. Under the K2 Restaurant Group umbrella, they opened Jimmy Beans, Sea Salt, Fonda and T-Rex Barbecue in Berkeley, all of which enjoyed times of explosive popularity before closing or changing ownership.

While their other restaurants have come and gone, Lalime’s remained steady, which Cindy Krikorian credits to their openness to change. “We were always reinventing ourselves,” she said. “You had to always keep up with things or invent new things, but you can never stay the same.”

Just prior to closing, the Krikorians were starting the next phase of Lalime’s, one focused on vegetarian, vegan and Middle Eastern food. The Krikorians hoped to draw a younger crowd in addition to their dedicated regulars, who tended to be older people, according to Cindy.

“It wasn’t quite as busy as it had been in the past,” Cindy said of Lalime’s clientele.

For 35 years, Lalime’s offered seasonal, sustainable and organic fare; just before it closed, it had shifted its focus to a vegetarian/vegan Middle Eastern menu, with the hopes of finding a younger audience. Photo: Lalime’s Restaurant

In recent years, some said the restaurant was a bit stuck in the past. On Lalime’s 25th anniversary, Jesse Hirsch characterized the restaurant in the East Bay Express as “distinctly aged” with “little anchoring it in the here-and-now.” Four years later, in 2015, Michael Bauer wrote in the San Francisco Chronicle that the restaurant was from a “different era” and gently suggested it undergo “a few tweaks and a little more care” to prepare for its future. Despite his criticism, Bauer concluded, “Lalime’s long run will — or should — continue.”

Whether the Krikorians have been successful at keeping up with the times or not, Cindy said they have “never stopped caring about what kind of food we served.”

And their passion for hospitality made the decision to close Lalime’s difficult.

“The love of making food and presenting it to others is the hardest part not to be able to do,” Haig said.

“We had this place in the community for our neighbors,” said Cindy. “I really miss everybody, but you know that’s what happens when you decide to stop.”

The couple also worries for their former staff. Cindy said the 23 employees are barely making ends meet on unemployment, and she hopes to find a way to raise money for them by selling items from the restaurant.

Chefs Frances Wilson and Haig Krikorian at Lalime’s in 1990. Photo: Courtesy of Haig Kirkorian

Looking ahead, Haig and Cindy are leaving the industry, but food will continue to loom large in their lives.

These days, Haig is staying busy making sourdough bread at home and sharing it with friends and family. “I’m a skier so I want to become a ski bum,” he said of more long-term plans.

Cindy is happy to continue to work with plants and produce and teach people how to garden at her job at Annie’s Annuals and Perennials, a plant nursery in Richmond.

“I think it’s really important,” she said of home gardens. “People should connect more to growing because then they will care for the earth more and change the environment politics that come with it,” she said.

The couple, who live in Albany, also looks forward to experiencing whatever comes next for the space that housed Lalime’s for so many years.

“Somebody new will probably take it over,” Cindy said, “and it will fill the same role of being a community spot.”

“And we’ll go eat there!” added Haig.

“And we’ll go eat there!” Cindy repeated with a joyful laugh. “There’s a time for everything to finish and a time for new people.”

An earlier version of this story misidentified Frances Wilson in the caption and did not say when the photo was taken.

Amalya Dubrovsky

Freelancer Amalya Dubrovsky grew up in Berkeley and studies at UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. She is a lifelong fan of the East Bay food scene and loves to write about it for Nosh. Follow her...