“Even though I grew up with good food, there was something about the ubiquity of good food there that really struck me,” she said. Even her French university cafeteria offered composed salads instead of a build-your-own salad bar, inevitably containing canned beans and wilted greens.
The Bay Area will soon get a hint of what inspired O’Neal all those years ago. On Friday, she and Mikha Diaz will officially open Les Arceaux (1849 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley) for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Named after O’Neal’s favorite farmers’ market in Montpellier, Les Arceaux is an ode to simple French fare made with great ingredients.
The restaurant is also the highly anticipated follow-up to Two Sisters Bar & Books, the popular cocktail bar in Hayes Valley known for its cozy, Victorian atmosphere and literary bent. Diaz closed Two Sisters, where O’Neal was also the chef, earlier this year. Diaz said they simply had outgrown the space and wanted to grow professionally. And given that she, O’Neal, and most of their team already lived in Berkeley, the prospect of a shorter commute didn’t hurt.
Compared to Two Sisters, Les Arceaux is far more bright, sleek, and modern. It’s open and airy, with colorful images of produce that look like they arrived straight from Montpellier, while an enormous open kitchen with a wrap-around bar dominates the room.
With such a large kitchen, O’Neal and Diaz hope to offer job training opportunities to the formerly incarcerated and people struggling with homelessness. O’Neal never went to culinary school, instead getting her start as an intern at Millennium in Berkeley. Now, she wants to give back.
“I want to teach people culinary skills and provide apprenticeship — not just how to make a really delicious sauce, but how you cost it out and work on a team,” she said. “There is a lot you learn in a kitchen that’s really valuable.”
Les Arceaux will start out in the mornings as a cafe, serving pastries baked in-house as well as plated dishes such as whole wheat pancakes with poached pears ($12.50). Lunch will see a selection of soups, salads, and tartines, such as tuna confit, peppers, tomato jam, and egg over Acme olive bread ($14). In the evenings, the space will transition into a wine bar with share plates in a range of sizes and price points. Think along the lines of mussels poached in sour beer ($19) or fried strips of socca, the Provencal chickpea pancake, with harissa aioli ($6.50). The lengthy wine list focuses on California and France, balanced out by a couple of beers and five inventive spritzes — without a full liquor license, these spritzes are the closest Two Sisters fans will get to the bar’s wonderful cocktails. Luckily, they're plenty interesting, using ingredients such as house-made balsamic vinegar, pink peppercorn vermouth, and roasted blood orange juice.