It's been three decades since Bette's Oceanview Diner first colonized a small piece of West Berkeley's Fourth Street commercial corridor. Owner Bette Kroening is many things; dead isn't one of them. "I love it when people ask me if Bette is a real person, or if she's alive," she grinned. "I think that means we've become an institution."
Over the eleven years that the Express has kept online archives, Bette's has garnered numerous Best Of awards — Best Diner, Best Breakfast/Brunch, etc. — but never its own review. Maybe a review seemed superfluous; at some point, a restaurant this beloved can sidestep a few official hurdles. Besides, tearing into the near-sacrosanct Bette's would be like lobbing spitballs at a battleship.
Bette's Oceanview serves up breakfast and lunch to 11,000 people per month, in a space that seats 45. It's one of those picturesque dives-that-aren't-dives where famous people (a mix of real celebrities and "Berkeley famous") like to slum it. It got the Guy Fieri treatment on Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives. Bette's was even featured in a Tide commercial, earning many thousands in royalties for Bette and her photogenically diverse crew — "We had one Hispanic waiter, one Asian waitress, a black cook ... those Tide people just loved us," said Bette.
Unless you go super-early, wait times can range from twenty minutes to two hours. New customers love to kvetch, but most people know this is a necessary hurdle. Ultimately your vinyl booth, your four-top table, your seat at the counter, are not gifts; you've got to earn them.
Helping ease the waitlist pain is Bette's Austrian husband Manfred Kroening, a constant presence on the weekend door. Bespectacled, fastidious, and dressed in black, Manfred knows how to make you feel like both a nuisance and a dear friend. He can be brash and unaccommodating to complainers, but he rewards the patient with reassuring coos and bons mots. It's a beautiful and effective shtick; no one wants to be on Manfred's bad side. He seated my party after nearly an hour and a half on a Saturday morning.
"Aren't you soooo glad you waited? Doesn't that look co-zy? Look at that table. It was made for you! You are very lucky people," Manfred purred in his clear Germanic diction.
He's right; the table was quite handsome. Bette helped design the space in the early Eighties, taking parquet-and-chrome diner memories from her Jersey childhood and hipping them up with space-age lighting, vaulted ceilings, and framed black and white prints of Miles Davis and Muhammed Ali. It's a studied look, but it avoids feeling self-conscious or contrived.
Bette's does not offer a menu that shifts daily, weekly, or even seasonally. I compared my menu to one from Bette's early days, and found roughly 75 percent of the same items. Kroening was a fervent disciple of Julia Child technique, particularly her fondness for exactitude and consistency. She impressed these values on chef Darryl Kimball, who started working at Bette's when he was 19; he's now 47 (Bette said Kimball is her son, who "just happens to be a big black guy"). Same recipes, same chef, and a drive for consistency: Odds are the eggs you had two decades ago wouldn't be too different two weeks ago.
Bette's California Breakfast is a simple meal, poached eggs and ham in a lemon-herb butter sauce, served on toast with crisp, lightly herbed home fries and grilled tomatoes. The huevos rancheros also hit the mark, sunny-side-up eggs on flour tortillas, served with a mild house salsa, a melted cheese blend, and deeply smoky black beans.
The eggy pancake soufflé, a staple since the beginning, is barely sweet and light as a late-morning fog. It starts on the flattop, then spends some time in the oven, so budget in a few extra minutes to your meal. Little pieces of seasonal fruit — cranberry and pear in mine — are layered in midway through the cook. I skipped syrup, not wanting to gum up the labyrinth of air pockets and caves.
The scrapple is also a Bette's mainstay, a mix of pork hocks and butt, seasoned with sage and cayenne and bonded into a fried cornmeal rectangle. It's an understated side, with less aggressive porky notes than expected.
Bette's breakfast often gets the star treatment, but don't sleep on the lunch menu. Cod filets receive a light pan fry in clarified butter, then are served on a toasted open-faced baguette with a confetti burst of greens and house-made tartar sauce. A warm goat cheese and roasted red pepper sandwich, gooey and funk-laden, was another departure from standard-issue diner grub.
Rotating daily specials are where Bette's really flexes its Berkeley muscles. In that arena, I tried items ranging from the not bad (African squash soup, a mild, wintery mix of root vegetables in broth) to the truly inspired (cream and butter-based veggie hash with roasted butternut squash, celery root, potatoes, and sautéed leeks and shitakes).
But despite some Bay Area flourishes, Bette is more preoccupied with technique than ingredient sourcing. Though she'd prefer organic meat, diner price points make it cost-prohibitive to shop from the fancy ranch. The produce, too, is a mixed bag, though Bette and Manfred now grow many items on their five-acre farm near Sebastopol. This year they raised tomatoes, kale, chard, "hella" cucumbers, fruit from 120 trees, and 400 sugar pumpkins for their signature pumpkin pancakes.
Even in the off-season, the Kroenings now spend three or four days a week on the farm; one senses it's the slow train to retirement. These days Manfred (who doubles as Bette's all-purpose handyman) gets fatigued from just a couple days working the door. Half of Bette's staff has been there more than ten years, and many old-schoolers are in the twenty-year club. But while you might feel concerned about the old diner's future, its energy remains strong and spirited. No need to fret just yet.
But I'll admit I'm a little bummed that there won't be a thirtieth birthday party. "We had big, crazy parties for our first, third, fifth, seventh, and tenth birthdays," Bette said. "I'm over it."