Bette’s Oceanview Diner, the Berkeley institution founded by Bette and Manfred Kroening, has permanently closed its doors after nearly four decades in business. The restaurant was well known for its excellent pancakes, cool jukebox and history of fair labor practices for workers, including its vocal support of Berkeley’s $15 minimum wage.
Bette’s opened at 1807 Fourth St. in April 1982, which means that “it would have been open 40 years in April,” Bette and Manfred’s daughter, Lucie, told Nosh. When it opened, Berkeley’s Fourth Street scene was mainly dominated by the Fourth Street Grill, a detail that caught the attention of Denny Abrams, the man widely credited with the creation of Berkeley’s Fourth Street commercial district.
“Fourth Street Grill was so popular that nobody could get in,” Abrams told Nosh. “I realized that the area needed a place where you have a relationship with the cooks, the waiters. Everybody loves a diner.”
Bette Kroening was Fourth Street Grill’s lunchtime kitchen manager, and a neighbor of Abrams’s. “I told her about my diner idea and she loved it,” Abrams said. His design company, Abrams/Millikan & Kent, worked with the couple, sourcing diner-specific original formica and chrome, and built out the spot. Sue Conley, a colleague of Bette’s at Fourth Street Grill, joined as a partner. (Conley would later found Cowgirl Creamery, the nationally known cheese company.)
The trio moved in, and created “an incredible, beautiful ambiance,” Abrams said. “It’s a small task, building and developing a restaurant,” he said. “The real heroes are Manfred and Bette. They ran it for 40 years. How can you expect any more?”
That expectation, that he keep the business going, had been harder and harder on Manfred in the last five years. Bette died in February 2017, and that’s when Manfred first considered closing the business. “I’d lost my partner, my pal, my wife,” he told Nosh, and coming back to the restaurant every day was almost too much to bear. “It’s not Manfred’s diner, it’s Bette’s diner,” he said.
Abrams encouraged Manfred to keep the restaurant going, both confirm to Nosh. “He said that we drew so many people to Fourth Street that we had to continue,” Manfred said. “Bette’s is a great symbol of the success of Fourth Street,” Abrams said.
But even on Fourth Street, an area now packed with popular restaurants, Bette’s was unique. Sure, it had a menu of diner staples like pancakes and eggs, sandwiches and shakes, but unlike the standard short-order spot, each dish was made from scratch, and with fresh and local ingredients. Bette had set a standard for excellence that carried on even after she was gone, carefully cooking eggs in a pan (as opposed to the flat top grill you’ll see at most diner-style restaurants), for example.
“The food is unusually great,” Abrams said. “I can’t think of a better diner. I spend a lot of time in New York and there are no diners that are better than Bette’s.”
The business chugged on, but “my dad has worked really hard for the last five years,” Lucie said, often at the restaurant from open to close. When the pandemic shut businesses down in March 2020, Bette’s stayed dark for three months, “but people kept pushing us to open again,” Manfred said. So Bette’s opened back up, operating a brisk takeout business and serving diners on the sidewalk and in a parklet Abrams built in an effort to support the business.
The restaurant’s latest lease was set to expire this summer. Even if the pandemic hadn’t happened, “I’d always planned to retire,” Manfred said, and the end of the lease seemed a good time to make that break. “I’d hoped someone would come in and buy the business, so I could still go there and watch them keep it going. I had all of these fantasies,” he said.
In recent months, “the business became harder and harder to run,” Manfred said. The roughest part was finding staff to work the diner’s long hours. “First we shortened our hours, then shortened our days, but we still had no one.” Manfred, still a vigorous age 67, said he was working most of the restaurant’s shifts, and “I can’t do that anymore.”
“I’d be on the floor all day, then running to Restaurant Depot and standing in line for two hours because we were out of something and nobody could deliver,” Manfred said. “It’s one thing when you’re young, all that running around is cool and fun. But not now.”
A big part of the staffing problem was the stress faced by all restaurant workers. Rapidly shifting regulations, and the expectation that restaurant staff enforce those rules, took a toll. “We had people who had worked here three, four years just walking off the job due to stress,” Manfred said. Enforcing mask regulations became a daily chore, Manfred said, and “when we had to start checking vaccination proof and ID? That might have been the last straw,” Manfred said. “So many [diners] got so angry — ‘I left it at home.’”
“It was constant tension with the customers,” Manfred said. “It’s no fun to run a business like that.”
“Like everybody, I was hoping that something might change,” Manfred said, mentioning those glorious days last summer when freshly vaccinated people were allowed to dine out without masks, and it seemed like, for a moment, the pandemic might be behind us.
“It was the same vibrant, energized, cool place,” Manfred said wistfully. “That was terrific. We were uplifted. But that lasted only a few weeks.”
At a certain point earlier this month, Manfred said that it hit home that “this has been going on for two years,” and “I don’t see it getting any better.” Financially, the place wasn’t in desperate straits, but with all the changes wrought by the pandemic, “It was not anymore my diner,” he said.
Manfred says that he had considered announcing a closure a month or two in advance, but “things tend to deteriorate that way.” He let staff know the business was closed for good Monday, and he will not be reopening Bette’s doors.
“I hope that soon, there will be a new generation of young people who will take over the space and make it something cool again,” Manfred said. “Maybe they can scrape off the ‘Bette’s’ and just call it Oceanview Diner. Would anyone even know the difference?”
When asked if it was fair to say that he was actively looking for a way to reopen the restaurant soon, Abrams paused for less than a second. “Of course, why wouldn’t I?” he asked. “It’s the greatest. Don’t you think it is?”