La Crepe a Moi
1854 Euclid Ave. (near Hearst Avenue), Berkeley
There is something hypnotizing about watching Rebecca or Dj Dahmani create your crepe at La Crepe a Moi. A quick ladle of brown-flecked batter meets the hot griddle, a fluid swirl of the wrist with a little wooden spreader produces a perfectly smooth circle. Suddenly, you are hit by the enticing aromas of sizzling butter and nutty buckwheat. A long spatula allows a deft flip of the crepe exposing its toasty side, then a shower of cheese, perhaps an egg or some ham and the tasty package is folded into a long cone and scooped onto your plate. With your first bite, the delicate shattering of the crepe gives way to a warm, sensuous cascade of melted cheese. Vive la France!
The couple met in 2000, when Rebecca, a Francophile from Sonoma County, was working in Paris. Dj, who is French-Algerian, had been honing his cooking skills for a long time. At the age of 17, his first job in Paris was making crepes at La Villette, a large, lively park filled with museums, theaters and gardens. Over the next 16 years, he worked in Parisian restaurants as a pastry chef, pizza chef and as a sous chef in an acclaimed Moroccan restaurant.
In 2006, after they married and had a child, the Dahmanis moved to Sonoma County with dreams of the future. Dj thought his years of experience would easily land him a job in fine dining.
But at the height of the subprime mortgage crisis, it was challenging to find a position. His extensive resume scared off potential employers who judged him “over-qualified.” Eventually, he trimmed his resume and accepted a position as a busser in a Michelin-starred, French restaurant in Sebastopol. “They made very good food,” said Dj, “but when customers asked questions about the French wines and I knew the answers, instead of coming to me, they would just look it up in a book.”
The couple moved to Berkeley in 2008 so that their son could attend the French bilingual school, Ecole Bilingue. After both working at Berkeley’s respected restaurant Eccolo, only to see it close, they decided to be their own bosses and launched La Crepe a Moi on the festival (and eventually farmers market) circuit, making crowd-pleasing crepes under a big blue and white tent.
Wherever they went, their sweet and savory filled crepes were a huge success, attracting long lines of eager customers who recognized their authentic taste. In France, there is a distinction between sweet and savory crepes. “Crepe” refers to those made with wheat flour, which typically hold Nutella, bananas, jam, chestnut spread or just a sprinkling of sugar. Savory crepes, called “galettes,” are made from hearty buckwheat flour and usually filled with some combination of cheese, ham, mushrooms, spinach, ratatouille, onions, tomatoes, sausage, tuna, turkey, ground beef or a fried egg.
The traditional recipe for French buckwheat crepes includes a little white flour to make the batter easier to handle. The Dahmanis are committed to making French crepes using only traditional ingredients. But they are also committed to accommodating their clientele. After many customers requested their crepes be 100% gluten-free — because buckwheat, which actually is a seed and not a grain, is a perfect gluten-free ingredient — they experimented, adjusting the balance of the other ingredients (milk, water, canola oil, eggs, salt). They now use only 100% organic buckwheat flour in their savory crepes.
The Dahmanis’ dream had always been to have their own restaurant.
After three or four frustrating years of looking for the perfect location, the couple was elated to finally find it in Berkeley’s Northside neighborhood, on Euclid near Hearst, a spot where hundreds of students would certainly swarm daily for reasonably priced and delicious French food.
Their timing could not possibly have been worse!
After an extensive renovation of the space, La Crepe a Moi’s grand opening was set for the middle of March 2020. The week before, the Dahmanis spent all their money to buy three large refrigerators, a dishwasher, chairs and additional equipment to meet the high demand they anticipated. They were sure that as soon as they opened, they would earn it all back.
But on March 16, the shelter-in-place order was announced. At that point, they still needed one more inspection before they could officially open. The city of Berkeley stopped all inspections. And their back-up plan, to continue setting up their tents at their seven different farmers markets, faced massive roadblocks. Some closed completely, some reopened but only allowed the sale of pre-cooked food. Rebecca’s marketing strategy, to give out flyers and discounts to all their loyal customers at the farmers markets, never happened. Eventually, several farmers markets did allow them to return.
Of course, everyone was dealing with this harsh new reality, and as Berkeleyside reported, the Northside of Cal campus was particularly hard hit, but the situation was especially difficult for Dj and Rebecca since they had not officially opened and no one knew La Crepe a Moi yet, so just switching to takeout was not a simple solution.
To add to that, they faced a bureaucratic version of Chutes and Ladders, with different officials telling them different things, or most often not even responding to their calls and messages.
“Communication with city officials was bad,” said Rebecca, who was handling the administrative side of the business. “No one wanted to take any responsibility.”
While they were trying to contact city officials and figuring out how to switch to takeout service, they also had their two children, 6 and 15, at home, adding to the stress.
The Dahmanis kept up a daily barrage of messages to the city of Berkeley, the health department, the fire department, the chamber of commerce, begging to please let them open.
“Finally,” said Rebecca, “the man from the health department was very kind to us — he signed the paper and said, ‘You can open if you want to. I allow you.’”
But the fire department still wouldn’t give them an OK to open. “We kept arguing with the fire inspector,” said Dj, “and finally he said, ‘I want to meet you over there.’ He came to me directly and said, ‘I’m very sorry.’ And he just said verbally, ‘You can open.’ But he didn’t sign anything.”
After three months of zero income in 2020, La Crepe a Moi finally opened officially at the end of May. Despite their struggles to get inspections, permits, government loans and unemployment benefits, the Dahmanis encountered kind souls along the way. Their landlord, who could have demanded the rent starting in May, only charged them starting in September.
Then, thankfully, some of their most lucrative farmers markets returned, which is why the restaurant is now closed on weekends, so that they can work at the Orinda, Moraga and Bayfair markets, where with their employees they make 400 crepes in two days. In the restaurant, they are currently only making 400 crepes per month, which is not even enough to pay the rent.
On their stretch of Euclid Avenue, there are several restaurants serving Indian food, Mexican food, pizza and hamburgers and all are struggling, waiting for school to start again, bringing back the horde of students they all need.
“It is kind of depressing when no one comes in for two hours, but I still love it,” said Rebecca. “I’ve given so much to other bosses; I’ve mopped their floors and cleaned their toilets and now I’m doing it for myself. It just feels right. I’m not ready to give it up.”
Despite the setbacks, the Dahmanis remain hopeful. “Customers who do come in beg us to stay open,” said Rebecca.
In a perfectly timed moment, a couple enters and starts chatting with Dj in French. Jean-Marie Volland and Nathalie Elisabeth, a marine biologist who works at Berkeley Lab and a research microbiologist who works at Cal. They recently discovered La Crepe a Moi and are delighted by the authentic tastes they miss. Volland usually orders the “complet,” a typical French combo of ham, egg and Swiss cheese. And Elisabeth is thrilled to see the creme de marrons, a chestnut spread she remembers from her childhood. They admit that they just had Mexican food for lunch, but had to stop by for a Nutella crepe for dessert.
Dj and Rebecca Dahmani are trying to hold on until the fall, or whenever the influx of Cal students return.
“Right now, we’re only at 10% of what we could be doing here,” said Rebecca. “The hard thing is that I still want to celebrate that we opened this place, but I don’t know how yet. Changing our expectations of what was going to happen has been the hardest part. Our business was in a slow process of growth, and finally we were in a place where [we thought] we could finally expand the menu, adding espresso, Belgian waffles and salads.”
Those additions, along with plans to feature weekly Algerian nights and Moroccan nights with chef friends from around the world will have to wait for now. “We even planned to have a paella chef and close the street for the opening party!” Rebecca said. “So many ideas, but it just doesn’t feel right to celebrate yet.”
La Crepe a Moi is open from 10:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m., Tuesday through Friday (online ordering is available). La Crepe a Moi can also be found at the Bayfair Farmers Market (15555 E 14th St., San Leandro) from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., Saturdays; at the Orinda Farmers Market (14-24 Orinda Way, Orinda) from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., Saturdays; and at the Moraga Farmers Market (Moraga Way at Moraga Road, Moraga) from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., Sundays.