A woman and a man, both in their 80s, sitting at a restaurant table by a window, eat chicken
Poulet’s founder, Marilyn Rinzler, and her friend John Harris, who was there for its creation, share one last chicken meal at the restaurant on Wednesday. It’s closing Friday, July 14. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight

Marilyn Rinzler loves chickens. 

Wooden and ceramic ones live on the shelves of Poulet, the North Berkeley restaurant she founded in 1979. Poulet means chicken in French. And poultry are painted on the delicatessen’s mugs, potholders and windows, and most importantly, on its menu, which patrons say has “the best chicken in town.”

Much to the dismay of Poulet’s trove of loyal customers, the long-loved Shattuck Avenue deli is closing its doors Friday after 44 years serving healthy, made-from-scratch meals in the thick of Berkeley’s most famous dining district. (The current owners say they’re closing due to family needs, declining to elaborate further.)

A yellow wall full of chicken memorabilia.
The deli is filled with chicken references and paraphernalia from mugs, potholders, and windows, to ceramics and posters of chickens. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight

If Rinzler was told over four decades ago that Poulet would last as long as it did, she said she wouldn’t have believed it. “If I knew that I was going to be in business that long, I would have put more thought into how to really do it,” she said. 

Rinzler grew up in a Viennese family with a mother who made simple, healthy food from scratch. She lived in Europe as a teenager and felt more connected to European cooking than the canned food and convenience craze that took over America in the mid-to-late 1900s.

A working mother of two who was a graduate student in social work at UC Berkeley, she never considered herself much of a cook, but didn’t want to rely on what she felt was a lack of healthy take-out options. 

The idea for Poulet was relatively spontaneous. Standing in her Berkeley kitchen over a broiling chicken, a thought occurred to her to start a take-out restaurant where you could buy a good roast chicken. 

“I don’t know where it had come from, it’s not like I had ever thought about it,” Rinzler said.

In today’s world, where you can get a good roast chicken anywhere from a hip neighborhood spot to your local Safeway, it’s hard to believe that in the East Bay of the late 1970s, you couldn’t find such a thing.

Poulet opened in the heart of ’70s Berkeley’s vibrant food scene

A two-story corner building with a restaurant on the first floor.
Poulet, a groundbreaking roast chicken take-out spot in North Shattuck, was created in 1979 by Marilyn Rinzler, a working mother of two in need of easy access to healthy food. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight

Rinzler found Poulet’s chef during a trip to see Julia Child speak. 

She carpooled with her friend L. John Harris, who worked at the Cheese Board and Chez Panisse in the ’70s, and his friend, Bruce Aidells, a passionate amateur cook, now known as the “sausage” or “meat king,” whose wieners and chicken meatballs are distributed nationwide. She noticed that Aidells knew a lot about cooking, so she asked him to be her chef. Without much hesitation, Aidells left his career as a biochemist and joined her. 

Poulet’s recipes were primarily a result of what Rinzler described as Aidells’ “creative force.”  The lemon garlic chicken, a fan favorite, was served the first day Poulet opened its doors, and is still on the menu today. 

“It was an overnight process,” Aidells said. “We’d have these big tubs of chickens in a marinade that was only ever used once.” He said the key ingredient to a delicious chicken is rosemary.

Poulet opened at the intersection of Shattuck and Virginia, in the heart of the neighborhood that was just starting to be known as “The Gourmet Ghetto,” a stretch of road where an experimental movement of higher-end, European-inspired food was attracting national attention. Poulet’s neighbors, at the time of its launch, included Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse, The Cheese Board Collective and the French-style charcuterie restaurant Pig-By-The-Tail.

While welcoming the cutting-edge culinary culture, Poulet diverged in style and concept from some of its fancier neighbors. 

“Marilyn didn’t have big ambitions to be a chef or to be at the top of the culinary hierarchy,” Harris said. “She just wanted good, home-cooked roast chicken. …It was a place to hang out and have very good food but without a lot of pretense and without the sort of the snobbery that sometimes comes with high-end cooking.”

Close-up portrait of a woman in her 80s with white hair and dark glasses.
“I hated my commute, and I hated cooking, so I hired myself a chef,” said Marilyn Rinzler, Poulet’s founder. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight

Rinzler said she didn’t view eating good, healthy food as a movement or a statement, but rather just common sense. 

“All I wanted to do was offer real food,” she said. “It didn’t come from any political or social commitment, it was just being honest.” 

Rinzler never intended Poulet to be more than a take-out restaurant. But after a successful year-and-a-half in service, the restaurant expanded to include the dining room that now occupies the corner of Shattuck and Virginia. Hoping to create a French cafe-style environment, she put up outdoor tables, only to have buttoned-up Berkeleyans call the police. 

Nonetheless, Poulet quickly became a community hang-out space. Rinzler remembers a woman who would run French classes in the dining room, and two others who came everyday for almost 20 years just to have a cup of tea and talk. 

“If I wanted some social life I would just go out in the dining room and sit with people, I made a lot of friends,” Rinzler said. “I care about all those people.” 

Patrons ‘stricken’ by closure

A man behind a counter talks with a customer.
Jesse Savell, who owns the restaurant with his brother Casey, attends to a customer during lunch on Tuesday, July 12. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight

Jesse Savell, who bought Poulet from Rinzler with his brother Casey in 2018, said he cherishes the natural community evoked by the home-cooked food and the cozy, farmhouse-style dining room. 

Before they bought the business, Jesse had worked first as its bookkeeper and then as its manager, and his brother was a chef.

“The hard work, it came with such love and admiration for the people we were feeding, they’re like an extended family,” Savell said. “It keeps you going, it drives you.”

After the announcement of Poulet’s closure earlier this week, customers flocked to the restaurant for a final meal. 

Sharon Solkowitz, who’s been a frequent Poulet patron since it opened, said she was “stricken” when she received an email from Jesse late Saturday night announcing the closure. 

“Memories of the last 43 years flashed before me,” Solkowitz said. “This place is one-of-a-kind.” 

For decades, Solkowitz walked past Poulet on her way home from work and would stop for a home-cooked meal “without the fuss of a restaurant.” More recently, she said Jesse brought her favorite chicken noodle soup to her doorstep during the COVID-19 lockdown. 

“This saved me so many times,” she said. 

Another customer, Ed Iskander, also passed Poulet for years when he was a teenager, but unlike Solkowitz, he never had the chance to stop. After reading about Poulet’s end, he decided to eat there every night before they closed to make up for what he felt was lost time. 

“I have fantasies of what it would have been like had I been a regular patron here,” Iskander said, sitting over a spread of tomato bisque and chicken paprikash. “It would have opened my horizons — it would have been another dimension, another angle of life for me, but I missed that opportunity for decades.”

Savell said he’ll miss the food — in particular, the classic chicken salad and the french potato salad — and the community that developed along with it. 

“We’ve been overwhelmed with appreciation and gratitude,” Savell said. “We feel it, and we reflect it back to them.”  

On Wednesday, Harris and Rinzler shared their last meal at Poulet, sharing none other than Rinzler’s favorite meal — chicken.

A small white dog gently grabs a piece of bread offered by its owner.
Rinzler offers a piece of chicken and bread to her dog. “It’s a tradition! Her dogs get to eat what’s left,” Harris said. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight