Aunt Mary’s Cafe
4640 Telegraph Ave. (near 48th Street), Oakland
8:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m., last day of business is Nov. 6
For 14 years, Aunt Mary’s Cafe has served hungry East Bay diners a quirky menu of Southern-meets-Sountwestern food, in a uniquely welcoming Temescal space. That ends on Nov. 6, owner Ngan-Ha “Nu” Ho said, when the business will shutter for good. “We’ve been doing this without a profit since the pandemic began,” Ho said. “I just want to get out before I collapse.”
Aunt Mary’s opened in Sept. 2008 inside a cozy spot at 4307 Telegraph Ave., with a menu “completely created, with all its uniqueness, by my husband Jack Stewart,” Ho said. “I came in at sort of the last minute,” Ho said, “but the entire vision was Jack’s.” That includes the restaurant name, a homage to Stewart’s own aunt Mary, whose cooking inspired many of the restaurant’s dishes.
The spot — known mainly for breakfast and brunch, though it served dinner on-and-off for a number of years — served up comforting dishes like pain perdue, a made-to-order French toast-style dish laden with whiskey custard that requires a 30-minute lead time. (Labor intensive, yes, but a hit with multitudes, including diner aficionado Guy Fieri.) Almost immediately, Aunt Mary’s faced long lines and intimidating waits for its weekend brunch service, but unlike so many wildly popular restaurants of that era, “they did it without any attitude,” Elazar Sontag, the restaurant editor at Bon Appetit magazine, told Nosh.
Sontag grew up near the restaurant, which moved up the street to 4640 Telegraph in 2014. “Oh no!” Sontag said when I told him about the impending closure. “This is a real loss to the neighborhood,” as it’s “always been treated as a home for a lot of Oaklanders.”
It’s always confusing when a beloved and popular restaurant closes, but the combined challenges of staffing, inflation and the pandemic prompted Ho to make the decision to shutter now. “Things were doing OK until the COVID hit,” Ho said, but when the pandemic began, Stewart “had to semi-retire,” as he was particularly vulnerable to the virus. That meant “I was running the restaurant by myself,” Ho said.
That was fine for a time, but as the crisis continued — and Stewart went from semi to fully retired — “It was wearing me down,” Ho said. Profits remained so narrow that “I couldn’t afford a general manager and pull back,” which meant that she was working at the restaurant every day.
“I realized I should get out now, when I could still afford to give the staff as much as I can,” she said. “We have had such a hard time the last two years.”
Aunt Mary’s sous chef Josh Hollander has only been at the restaurant for a year and a half, but said that it’s one of the best places he’s worked in his 23-year career. “I’ve never still had so much respect for an owner,” he said. “Nu is great to work for, and makes everyone feel comfortable. Everyone here is like a family. It’s just a special place.”
Sontag, who as a teen interviewed Ho for his cookbook, “Flavors of Oakland,” also had praise for Ho and the environment Stewart and she created. Ho, who immigrated to the United States from Vietnam toward the end of the Vietnam War, “came here in an incredibly complicated, high-stakes way,” an experience that seems to have shaped the welcoming vibe at Aunt Mary’s, Sontag said.
“It wasn’t leaning on cool factor,” Sontag said of the restaurant. “I remember that when I was growing up, there were all these amazing diners and cafes in Oakland,” but even then, Aunt Mary’s stood out. Going there “felt like a warm, loving embrace,” he said, in a way “that felt really intentional, but it didn’t feel like any sort of ulterior motive or ‘a thing,’ it was just how they were.”
All that said, both Sontag and Hollander seemed all too aware of why it also makes sense for Ho to close now. “When she was telling me she was closing, I understood,” Hollander said. “Her husband is retired, and she wants to actually have time to be with him — which she doesn’t right now.”
“I’m happy for her, but I’m sad for all of us,” Hollander said.
Ho said that after the restaurant’s last day of business, on Sunday Nov. 6, she’s going to take some time to rest, but she is already planning her next move. “My friends tell me, just take a breath. Don’t do anything. Just take some time to think about it,” she said, but she’s already thinking about finding work where “I can feel helpful, and” — here she laughed for a minute — “have some regular days off.”
Another project she’s considering is an Aunt Mary’s cookbook, a project she hopes to work on with Hollander and with her husband. “Jack and I want to leave behind something, not just disappear into thin air,” she said.
She’s also lined up another business to take over the Aunt Mary’s lease, but declined to name names on the record as the final agreement is still in the works. The new restaurant is “something to look forward to,” she said of the next tenant at 4640 Telegraph. “It’s a place people will really love.”
But right now, Ho is living in the moment, and is looking forward to spending this last week with her business. “I will miss the regulars,” she said, “and the community we created.”
She’ll also miss her colleagues, some of whom have been there for over a decade. “I will miss the sense of partnership with the staff,” Ho said. “When I think about it, I think I will miss that the most.”
Aunt Mary’s Cafe will be open from 8:30-2:30 every day through Nov. 6, 2022. Merchandise, including Aunt Mary’s t-shirts, are available for purchase at the restaurant, as well.
Featured image: The exterior of Aunt Mary’s Cafe in Temescal as seen on October 29, 2022. Credit: Kelly Sullivan