Over the course of the pandemic, Dov Sims and his staff at Cali Alley in Berkeley “have been through all the motions, from popular to scared.”
After losing hundreds of thousands of dollars during the shutdown last spring, Sims’ restaurant, serving “confirmed nostalgic American favorites,” saw a surge in popularity following the murder of George Floyd and subsequent racial justice protests.
But the renewed appreciation for Cali Alley, one of three Black-owned restaurants in Berkeley, also sparked a backlash, including creepy phone calls, and disturbing behavior from some passersby. There was also something awkward about the infusion of new customers, even those with the best of intentions. “The hardest part was accepting why it happened. George Floyd had to be killed for people to start appreciating us,” Sims says, adding, “I’ve been Black-owned for 20 years.”
Other Black-owned restaurants in the Bay Area have been on a similar roller-coaster ride over the past year. But this week, Black-owned restaurants are trying to drum up publicity and support on their own terms.
Black Restaurant Week Bay Area, running through Sunday, puts a spotlight on more than three dozen restaurants, food sellers, and caterers throughout the region. In the local version of a national campaign, participating restaurants offer a diversity of cuisines, from Caribbean to West African, barbecue to vegan. Many are offering specials and hosting events to mark the occasion. “There are so many Black-owned restaurants and businesses that have amazing food,” says Eva Morris, head chef of Voodoo Love in San Francisco. “And not everyone’s doing the same thing.”
Despite the outpouring of support some Black-owned restaurants saw over the past year, these businesses still face systemic disadvantages, particularly when it comes to accessing credit and business loans. Studies from the New York Fed and UC Santa Cruz found that 41 percent of Black-owned businesses permanently closed between February and April 2020, compared with 17 percent of white-owned businesses.
Black Restaurant Week can help the businesses lucky enough to have made it through: the national organization, founded in Houston, reports its 2020 campaigns generated an average of 34 percent increase in sales for participating businesses.
Below, we highlight a few Black-owned restaurants to check out. A full list of participating restaurants and food businesses can be found at blackrestaurantweeks.com/bay-area-directory.
Voodoo Love, 1710 Mission St., San Francisco
After moving several times since its founding in 2019, Voodoo Love has finally settled down in a happy symbiosis at Brick & Mortar Music Hall, on the border between SoMa and the Mission. Founder and head chef Eva Morris combines her mother’s and grandmother’s New Orleans’-style cajun recipes with a “very fun California fusion” sensibility. That means “fewer meat products in our food, less butter, more olive oil,” Morris says. Menu items, like the “soulritto” and the “vegan pineapple fo yo soul bowl” reflect this Californication of Creole classics. Morris advises diners to check the restaurant’s Instagram to find out about daily specials. Voodoo Love will be open for dinner through the end of Black Restaurant Week, but starting Sept. 1, the restaurant will no longer be open for dine-in during evening hours as Brick & Mortar begins hosting events again. The restaurant will be open for brunch and lunch, as well as takeout dinner orders.
Cali Alley, 1012 Grayson St., Berkeley
Cali Alley was born of Dov Sims’ commercial kitchen for California Rose Catering, a business he’s operated since 2001, just a few months before the pandemic. The “curated artisan food window” opens onto an alley with ample outdoor seating in a quiet part of Southwest Berkeley, not far from San Pablo Park. Cali Alley offers several ground brisket burgers, including the Alejandro, with pickled veggies, seared pork belly, and a fried egg, as well as the Pastralley, with fried shallots, peperoncini, and, you guessed it, pastrami. Vegans fear not: the restaurant also offers a Beyond burger. Cali Alley is offering specials for Black Restaurant Week, including a burger and a slice of cheesecake made by Sims’ mom for $20. “We’re family,” Sims says of his staff. “We keep it real close.”
Eko Kitchen, 130 Townsend St., San Francisco
The first-ever Nigerian restaurant in San Francisco is no longer, technically, a restaurant. But Eko Kitchen, founded in 2019, by Simileoluwa “Simi” Adebajo, a former financial analyst at Twitch, is still open for business in other forms. Earlier this month, Adebajo announced on Twitter that Eko Kitchen would be permanently closing its restaurant for indoor dining. The business will continue its catering services, cooking classes, private dining and events, and a limited selection of takeout food options, including vodka crust Naija meat pies and Obe Ata Din Din sauce. The change comes after a destructive fire in the restaurant’s South Beach kitchen, and struggles with fundraising. Just this week, Adebajo tweeted, “The truth is that I didn’t want to close @ekokitchensf. The truth is that much like many other black founders in America, I never found an investor to help us scale,” adding, “If you know any investors looking to help a Nigerian American girl scale a Nigerian food brand for a global audience, lmk.” Adebajo says she’s hoping to close out Black Restaurant Week with an event at Eko Kitchen where she’ll be serving suya and playing Afrobeats.
Hella Nuts, 3645 Martin Luther King Jr. Way, Oakland
Located near MacArthur BART station, Hella Nuts serves up vegan “hood delicacies,” that reflect the diverse cultures of the Bay Area, from Korean barbecue to banana splits — all made from locally grown nuts and plants. Be advised, the late-night spot, open 6 p.m. to midnight Friday through Tuesday, is very popular. Instead of taking reservations, the restaurant works as a “pre-order eatery,” meaning customers have to order online in advance, the earlier the better, says chef Kami Quiñones. Ordering opens daily at 5 a.m., and goes until the restaurant is sold out. Once you’ve put in your order, show up at the time you’ve requested and enjoy Hella Nuts’ outdoor parklet. And if you’re early, Eli’s Mile High Club is right next door. Hella Nuts also offers cooking classes, and sells its retail products online and at select Bay Area grocery stores.