I was in L.A. this April for work and stayed the weekend to visit my boy, Robert, who’s a junior at UCLA. On Saturday my L.A. friend Andreas and I picked up Robert and we embarked on a hilarious if fruitless hunt across town looking for a stainless sauté pan for Robert, ending up lost in a parallel universe of Koreatown wholesale restaurant supply stores. (If you need a jug with five gallons of salted shrimp or supplies for a tiki bar, I know just the place, though I doubt I could find it again.)
After we dropped Robert off, Andreas and I thought we’d walk over to the Hammer Museum and find out what was up with Lulu, the new cafe Alice Waters and her daughter, Fanny Singer, have helped open at the museum.
I live in Berkeley and for the past 25 years, we’ve loved to visit the tapas bar César, next to Chez Panisse. When Andreas’ daughter Ana was small and they lived in Berkeley, too, we spent many sunny afternoons amusing Ana at César, sipping wine and sampling treats from their kitchen. We’d often see Alice herself entertaining friends at a nearby table.
Like most Berkeleyans, we worship Chez Panisse and deeply admire the work Alice Waters has done to champion local ingredients and produce brilliant food, as well as her focus on food literacy and access for children and all parts of society. We mildly envy those who can afford to be lunch regulars or visit downstairs more than once a decade. César always felt like the perfect sibling to Chez (as insiders call it): affordable, inspired, and a place you can drop in regularly or on a whim and feel welcome and special.
Lulu has replaced a previous cafe in the Hammer museum’s atrium. Not much in the atrium area itself has changed, but they’ve added attractive furniture in a dining area (closed on a Saturday afternoon) and installed some pretty hand-printed fabric over the bar. Fresh plantings in containers include the usual mildly confused assortment of “native” CA plants: manzanitas, strawberry trees, and so on.
We thought we’d grab a glass of wine and a snack to share. There was a small bar menu for afternoons (Lulu isn’t open for dinner yet). To our surprise, there wasn’t a glass of wine that cost less than $12, with most ranging in the upper teens. So we ordered the cheapest wine on the menu, a sparkling Italian white, and an eggplant sandwich to share.
The bartender appeared to be manning the cafe alone. He was pleasant if distracted. We eventually gathered our order and sat in the atrium, oddly empty for a weekend afternoon, but perhaps the more pleasant for that. I started to sip my wine and noticed quite a bit of grime under the rim of the glass: when’s the last time I experienced that? I returned it to the bar and it was cheerfully replaced.
The eggplant sandwich was fine. The ingredients tasted fresh, and we can’t fault LA for not having Berkeley’s bread, but there was just no spark to it: a bit dry and feeling more expensive by the bite.
So we sat and chatted and ate our snack and sipped the perfectly lovely sparkling wine and tried to ignore the ersatz Django Reinhardt on the sound system. I’d looked forward to Lulu as a treat and instead it was underwhelming.
Andreas said, “You know, this is what they’re going to do to César.” (Chez is kicking César out of its space after twenty-something years; they own the lease and want to take it over for their own purposes.) “No wine under $12, uninspired food, not-quite-authentic music. They named this place after Lulu Peyraud, but that just makes it worse.”
I became increasingly depressed.
We finished our snacks and started to leave, after peering into the shuttered dining room. I stopped to use the restroom. The Rolling Stones replaced the soppy guitar from the atrium. Let’s pretend it was “Satisfaction.” I hadn’t been so cheered by the Stones in a long time.
Roy West is a writer who has lived in Berkeley with his wife (also a writer) for most of his adult life. Their child, Robert, was advised early that it might be wiser to tell new acquaintances that he was raised by wolves in the forest rather than by writers in Berkeley.