Lanesplitter, a Berkeley pizza institution since 1998, will serve its last pie Friday. But that isn’t a bad thing, co-owner Daniel Rogers told Nosh. “It’s time to let somebody else be in the space,” he said. “And it’s time to move on in our lives.” In January, Rogers says, he’ll hand the keys to Joan Ellis and Patrick Hooker, who will move their popular restaurant, Babette, from its location inside the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (BAMPFA) to the 2033 San Pablo Ave. storefront.
Lanesplitter opened its doors on May 8, 1998, Rogers told Nosh, and attracted a loyal following for its Neapolitan-style pies, action-figure display and fun topping combinations (the basil, feta, sun-dried tomato and artichoke heart combo is a perennial fave). Eventually, the restaurant expanded into four East Bay locations, but shuttered its Albany and Oakland outposts in 2018. “I moved from Berkeley up to Sonoma in 2016,” Rogers said. During the pandemic, his business partner and Lanesplitter co-founder, Vic Gumper, moved to Truckee.
As a result neither one of them have “been involved in the day-to-day operation for the restaurant for a while now,” Rogers said. “Restaurants require full time attention and love,” but that’s not something Rogers and Gumper could offer the Berkeley Lanesplitter any longer. The pair own Lanesplitter’s building, though, and since Ellis and Hooker were looking for a new location, it all came together. (Babette’s decision to move was first reported by What Now SF.)
Babette opened inside BAMPFA in 2012, and quickly gained a following for its thoughtful approach to cafe fare like soups, salads and sandwiches. Its original location was a storied one: Back in the 1970s, it was the home of the Swallow Collective, an influential collective restaurant that counted famed food critic Ruth Reichl as one of its members. When BAMPFA moved in 2016, Babette moved with it, sticking with the institution to serve hungry museum-goers from a tucked-away location above Center Street.
That location became a problem in the pandemic. After the COVID-19 crisis shut down the UC Berkeley campus, Babette was forced to shut down too. Unlike other restaurants in the area, the restaurant couldn’t offer takeout or delivery. It wasn’t until Ellis reached out directly to UC Berkeley chancellor Carol Christ that they were allowed back into their restaurant. “We don’t have a key to our own facility,” Ellis told Nosh at the time. “We have to push a button and ask to come in, and we get buzzed in by a member of security.”
But, also, Ellis told Nosh Friday, “we always wanted our own space.” Restrictions like museum hours meant Babette couldn’t be a restaurant in the traditional sense, “we could only be a cafe, really.” Ellis and Hooker started looking harder for a space after their struggles during the pandemic, eventually stumbling across the possibility that they could take over the Lanesplitter location. “When we saw the huge backyard it was a no-brainer,” Ellis said. The decision was made, and Babette’s last day of operation at the museum will be Sunday, Dec. 19.
“The museum’s leadership will be taking some time to thoughtfully consider our options for reactivating the newly vacated cafe space,” BAMPFA spokesperson A. J. Fox told Nosh in an emailed statement. “You can expect to hear more from us in early 2022 about what that will look like … It’s a bittersweet moment for BAMPFA to bid farewell to our beloved cafe, but we’re parting ways with great mutual admiration, and everyone at the museum wishes Babette the best for their new venture.”
Rogers said — and Ellis agrees — that the Babette folks will need to do a bit of renovation work before they’re ready to open, First on the list is the backyard, which Babette will brick in, creating a built-in seating area that encircles the yard’s substantial tree.
Using the extant pizza ovens as well as some induction burners, Babette’s kitchen will operate at a slightly different pace than their current cafe. In addition to the stews and baked goods Babette is known for, expect a dinner menu with pizza, wine and beer. (“We’ll be upping our beer thing,” Ellis said.) They’ll open with coffee and pastry service in the mornings, as well. Weekend brunch is also in the plans. The hope, Ellis said, is to start serving customers in early 2022. “We’re just so excited to be a neighborhood restaurant,” Ellis said.
Fans of Lanesplitter’s pies can take comfort in the fact that its Emeryville location (3645 San Pablo Ave.) will remain open. But still, it’s the end of an era for Rogers, who said “it hasn’t quite hit me yet. I’ll probably be in tears later tonight.”
But still, Rogers emphasizes, this is a good change for everyone, including the area. “It’s an excellent neighborhood,” he said of the place he’s done business for the last 23 years. “We hope the neighborhood embraces Babette the same way they embraced us.”