Berkeley’s iconic Bette’s Oceanview Diner has closed permanently
Bette’s Oceanview Diner, the Berkeley institution founded by Bette and Manfred Kroening, has closed for good after nearly four decades in business. The restaurant was well known for its great pancakes, cool jukebox, and history of fair labor practices for workers, including its vocal support for Berkeley’s $15 minimum wage.
Bette’s opened at 1807 Fourth St. in April 1982, which means “it would have been open 40 years in April,” Lucie, Bette and Manfred’s daughter, told Nosh. When it first opened, Berkeley’s Fourth Street scene was mostly dominated by the Fourth Street Grill, a detail that caught the eye of Denny Abrams, the man widely credited with creating Berkeley’s Fourth Street shopping district.
“Fourth Street Grill was so popular no one could get in,” Abrams told Nosh. “I realized that the neighborhood needed a place where you have a relationship with the cooks, the waiters. Everyone loves a dinner party.
Bette Kroening was the midday kitchen manager of the Fourth Street Grill and a neighbor of Abrams. “I told her about my dinner idea and she loved it,” Abrams said. His design firm, Abrams/Millikan & Kent, worked with the couple, sourcing original formica and chrome specific to the restaurant, and built the place. Sue Conley, a colleague of Bette’s at the Fourth Street Grill, joined as an associate. (Conley would later found Cowgirl Creamery, the nationally acclaimed cheese company.)
The trio moved in and created “an amazing, beautiful vibe,” 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 more? »
This expectation, that he would keep the business going, had been increasingly difficult for Manfred over the past five years. Bette passed away in February 2017, and it was then that Manfred first considered closing the business. “I had lost my partner, my mate, my wife,” he told Nosh, and coming back to the restaurant every day was almost too much to bear. “It’s not Manfred’s restaurant, it’s Bette’s restaurant,” he said.
Abrams encouraged Manfred to keep the restaurant going, both confirm to Nosh. “He said we got so many people on Fourth Street that we had to keep going,” Manfred said. “Bette’s is a great symbol of Fourth Street’s success,” Abrams said.
But even on Fourth Street, a neighborhood now filled with popular restaurants, Bette’s was unique. Sure, there was a menu of staples like pancakes and eggs, sandwiches and shakes, but unlike the standard place for short orders, every dish was made from scratch and with ingredients fresh and local. Bette had set a standard of excellence that continued even after she left, carefully cooking the eggs in a pan (as opposed to the flat grill you’ll see in most restaurant-style restaurants), for example.
“The food is exceptionally good,” Abrams said. “I can’t think of a better restaurant. I spend a lot of time in New York and there is no better restaurant than Bette’s.
The business continued, but “my father has worked very hard for the last five years,” said Lucie, often at the restaurant from opening to closing. When the pandemic shut down businesses in March 2020, Bette remained in the dark for three months, “but people kept pushing us to reopen,” Manfred said. So Bette reopened, operating a vibrant take-out business and serving diners on the sidewalk and in a park Abrams built to support the business.
The restaurant’s last lease was due to expire this summer. Even though the pandemic hadn’t happened, “I always planned to retire,” Manfred said, and the end of the lease seemed like a good time to take that break. “I had hoped that someone would come and buy the business, so I could still go there and watch them go on. I had all these fantasies,” he said.
In recent months, “the business has become increasingly difficult to manage,” Manfred said. The hardest part was finding staff to work the restaurant’s long hours. “First we shortened our hours, then our days, but we still had no one.” Manfred, still 67, said he worked most of the shifts at the restaurant and “I can’t do that anymore.”
“I would be on the floor all day and then run to Restaurant Depot and stand in line for two hours because we ran out of something and nobody could deliver,” Manfred said. “It’s one thing when you’re young, all running is cool and fun. But not now.”
A big part of the staffing problem was the stress faced by all restaurant workers. Rapidly changing regulations and the expectation of restaurant staff enforcing those rules have had adverse consequences. “We had people who had worked here for three or four years and were leaving work because of stress,” Manfred said. Enforcing mask regulations became a daily chore, Manfred said, and “when did we have to start checking proof of vaccination and identity? It could have been the last straw,” Manfred said. “So much [diners] got so angry – ‘I left it at home.’”
“It was a constant tension with customers,” Manfred said. “It’s no fun running a business like that.”
“Like everyone else, I was hoping something might change,” Manfred said, mentioning those glorious days last summer when freshly vaccinated people were allowed to dine without masks, and it seemed like, for a moment, the pandemic may be behind us.
“It was the same vibrant, high-energy, cool place,” Manfred said wistfully. ” It was great. We have been edified. But that only lasted a few weeks.
At some point earlier this month, Manfred said he understood that “it’s been going on for two years” and “I don’t see it getting better”. Financially, the place wasn’t in dire straits, but with all the changes caused by the pandemic, “it wasn’t my restaurant anymore,” he said.
Manfred says he had considered announcing a closure a month or two in advance, but “things tend to go downhill that way.” He let the staff know that the business was closed for a good Monday and that he will not be opening Bette’s doors again.
“Hopefully soon there will be a new generation of young people taking over space and making it something cool again,” Manfred said. “Maybe they can scratch the ‘Bette’s’ and just call it Oceanview Diner. Would anyone even know the difference?
When asked if it was fair to say 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 biggest. You don’t think that’s it?