When Jeff Wampler thinks about lunch, he craves fresh salads and soups, ones that are hearty and substantial, made with interesting combinations of seasonal ingredients, and ones that don’t rely on meat to satisfy. Wampler, the chef-owner of new lunch spot Garden Variety in downtown Berkeley, is hoping that after months of COVID-induced carb and heavy comfort food-binging, you’re ready to balance out your diet with some healthier eats. Garden Variety opens today at 11 a.m.
The menu at Garden Variety reveals Wampler’s attention to detail and his past as a fine-dining chef. His vision was to offer a curated selection of dishes that diners can trust he thoughtfully created.
“When there are 92 things on the menu and you pick seven to make a salad — that’s not inspiring to me,” he said, referring to make-your-own salad places that have become popular of late.
Instead, Garden Variety’s opening menu features four composed salads, two soups, two cookies, a variety of Kettle chips (for those who need a little dose of unhealthy) and a selection of bottled drinks.
The red quinoa salad comes topped with Rancho Gordo white beans, grilled Brentwood corn and a toasted cumin-lime dressing. Another salad features grilled peaches, baby romaine lettuce, toasted almonds, goat cheese and white balsamic-chive vinaigrette. The soba salad tops the nutty buckwheat noodles with snow peas, radish, cucumbers and white miso dressing. Only two of the six dishes at Garden Variety include meat — a chicken gumbo and a farro salad with roasted chicken. Prices range from $6-8 for soups; $12-$15 for salads. The menu will change monthly, and will eventually offer daily specials, too. To start, Garden Variety will get its produce from Berkeley Bowl, but Wampler said he plans to source from local farmers markets and eventually have produce delivered directly from farms in the coming days.
While Wampler cut his teeth in fine-dining (first at the Meetinghouse in San Francisco, then for two years while his wife attended Duke, at Four Square Restaurant in Durham, North Carolina — both now closed), he’s spent the bulk of his culinary career in catering. In 2004, when Wampler and his wife moved back to the Bay Area from North Carolina, he was excited about cooking, but with plans to start a family, “fine dining didn’t seem feasible,” Wampler said. So he worked for three years with large events caterer McCalls before starting his own catering company in Silicon Valley called Eclecdish, which primarily served tech companies including some big names like Google, Nest and Apple.
Things were going well for Eclecdish, but in 2014, when Wampler and his family moved to Orinda, the drive to and from the Peninsula started to take a toll. After three years of the long commute, he closed Eclecdish and started thinking of starting another business that would allow for him to be creative and cook, but still spend time with his family in the evenings. That’s when he landed on the idea of opening a lunch spot.
Garden Variety takes over the space on University Avenue last occupied by Dora’s, the pie shop that moved in August to share the space next door with its sister business, Blue’s Chocolates (both are currently closed during the shelter-in-place order). Dora’s and Blue’s were once adjoined, with both using the latter’s kitchen. Now, the opening in the wall between the two shops has been sealed, the former bright turquoise walls have been covered in a moody vegetable-themed wallpaper, and round hanging mirrors and white wainscotting give the space an updated look. Garden Variety also now has its own kitchen. Because Wampler had to bring in a stove, refrigerator and other kitchen equipment, the restaurant lost some dining space; it currently only has room for counter seating at the front, which is just as well for now while indoor eating isn’t allowed.
Fortunately, Wampler’s vision for Garden Variety had always been as a mostly takeout spot, even before the pandemic began. When Wampler first laid eyes on the space late last year, the restaurant’s small, manageable size was part of its appeal.
“I didn’t want to take on a huge space,” Wampler said. “I wanted a space that’s small enough to try out different things, and see what people respond to.”
For now, customers will place orders with a cashier at the door (they can also order in advance online). From there, they’ll be able to see Wampler in the kitchen preparing their food.
Another boon: the restaurant has access to outdoor seating in one of the nicest open-air dining areas in downtown Berkeley — the charming rose garden that several businesses, including the Butcher’s Son and Brazil Cafe, share. Garden Variety has two long counter tables and a row of stools for diners to enjoy their takeout outside. Seating in the rose garden is first come, first served and diners will be responsible for maintaining appropriate distance from others.
The pandemic slowed Garden Variety’s opening by four months, but Wampler doesn’t seem overly concerned about the timing for his new business.
“I started [Eclecdish] during the 2008 recession,” he said. “The way I treat it is by working with one customer at a time, making the best food you can.”
Garden Variety, 1966 University Ave. (at Milvia Street), Berkeley. Hours are open 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday for takeout and outdoor dining in the rose garden. Online ordering is available, but no delivery for now.