I didn’t go to the University of California at Berkeley—or Cal, as native Northern Californians call it—and therefore I never spent my formative college years sucking down beers at Henry’s, the 90-year-old hotel pub and restaurant on Durant Avenue. I did that across the country at an 85-year-old establishment called the Old Stone Jug. Same-same, except the Jug didn’t serve food. I’ve always felt like, at a college bar, really, why bother?
Henry’s does, though; it always has, in various uninspired forms, from “Hangover Specials” to house-made burgers to ahi tuna paninis. That said, according to a friend of mine who went to Cal and drunk-met her now-husband there 20 years ago at 2 a.m., “people never actually ate there.”
They tailgated there; they watched the big game there. Since it was considered the slightest step up from other college dives, they actually took their parents there. Back in 1990, dozens of diners were even held hostage there. And, always, people flirted there. “To me, it was where older men went to meet younger women, and younger women went to meet older men,” as one 2002 alum so eloquently phrased it to me.
But now, enter the latest incarnation of Henry’s from culinary cult favorite Chris Kronner, of Oakland’s Kronnerburger fame. He’s brought in buns and bread from Tartine Bakery and a pedigreed team that includes general manager Howie Correa, from Chez Panisse, of all places. It’s perhaps the only college-town pub in America attempting to lure students with oil-cured fennel salads and coal-roasted lamb neck. Leave it to Berkeley.
One hazard of running a restaurant in a university neighborhood, however? Summer. On an early evening in late May, the dining room was half empty, so I couldn’t tell if students were digging it. But as soon as I stepped inside, I certainly was.
Inside the old Durant Hotel, recently remodeled and hip-ified by the Graduate Hotel chain, Henry’s still felt historical, almost hallowed. As a San Franciscan who’s spent much of the last year eating in shiny new spots, I appreciate its old bones.The day’s last light streams in at dusk; the honey-hued, wood-paneled space soars with 22-foot ceilings; top-shelf whiskeys line the classic bar, and the walls are lined with booths. Deep, leather, olive-colored booths roomy enough for a group, but still cozy for two. Across the way during one visit was a family of five, all of them sporting Cal sweatshirts. College! I felt nostalgic.
My friend and I cuddled in and surveyed the menu: chicken wings, burgers, and fries, but then halibut tartare, Parisian gnocchi, and “Sugar Snap Peas and Brooks Cherries with frisee.” It was like senior year: still in school, but insisting upon sophistication.
I had trouble deciding what to order. Because this was Kronner, I really wanted a burger. But I thought maybe I should take the more challenging route and go for the lamb neck with mint and spring vegetables.
The servers were of no help: surly, terse, emanating a kind of annoyed-to-be-here energy. “Can you tell me a bit about the oil-cured fennel?” I asked.
“It’s cured fennel,” one employee replied.
We wondered — aloud, and admittedly, annoyingly — if it would be too much bread (even Tartine bread) to get the marinated feta with za’atar and grilled country bread and the ’nduja toast with ricotta and pickles. “It’s a personal choice,” non-advised another server.
When we inquired about a couple other items, she caved. “Okay, I don’t really know. I haven’t had anything here.” She paused. “I’m studying family medicine.” (Great. But we’d also love your educated opinion on the $34 New York Strip.)
If Henry’s was just your average college bar, no problem — but Henry’s is aspiring to be more. She may not have gotten that memo.
Kronner made a name for himself in San Francisco in the mid-2000s as the chef at the Mission’s beloved Slow Club; he was dubbed a Rising Star by the Chronicle in 2007 at the age of 24. When he left in 2012 to launch a burger pop-up at Bruno’s, his fans followed. Three years later, Kronnerburger opened in Oakland to crazy lines and rabid reviews.
Recently, though, it closed after a fire. Instead of reopening, Kronner decided to focus solely on Henry’s. He’s supported by his former executive chef at Kronnerburger, Justin Hoffman, and Jeffrey Hayden, whom he recruited from Del Popolo.
Their aim is to give the Cal community, greater Berkeley, and hotel guests food and drink befitting both an iconic institution and a true Northern California neighborhood restaurant.
It’s a lofty goal and a far cry from operating a burger place, even a Kronnerburger place. As much as I love the idea of elevating off-campus cuisine, Henry’s seems to be struggling in its first semester.
The issues are clearest in the service department. Undoubtedly, the cards are stacked against them. Securing experienced restaurant staff is difficult everywhere in the Bay Area these days, but hiring in Berkeley is especially tricky, due to its seasonality as a university town, less big-city bustle, and, maybe most importantly, because the minimum wage is almost two bucks higher across the Bay Bridge. (At least for now. San Francisco’s $14 minimum wage will spike to $15 in July, and in October, Berkeley’s will too.)
It’d be easier to give Henry’s unpolished service a pass if the food was an A. But I found it, on the whole, average; I wished it weren’t trying so hard to be mature.
For instance, the “snacks” section of the menu sounds refined, but wasn’t. A pile of squishy fish cubes doused in creme fraiche and adorned, for some reason, with slices of kiwi may be called local halibut tartare, but in texture and taste, it’s more reminiscent of a chunky, slightly fishy yogurt. Accompanied by feathery wisps of Wasa-like crackers that cracked with every scoop, it’s a fail. And that “Sugar Snap Peas and Brooks Cherries with frisee” is false advertising. Per the wording, I was expecting a bounty of crisp peas and sweet cherries sidelined by a handful of frisee. Instead, I got an unruly tangle in an insipid pepita dressing, hiding a few mushy peas and halved flavorless fruit.
As for the entrees, I went for the lamb neck on one visit. It was a massive, bone-in hunk, smoked, then slow-roasted, and teetering over a mound of peppery-sweet labneh in an amorphous puddle of garlic-chile sauce. It came with a butter knife. After sawing without success, I requested something sharper. The meat was oily, more tough than tender, and shrouded in slices of sauteed snap peas and shredded carrots that looked like they were straight out of a Dole bag. Not exactly the spritely “spring vegetables” I’d envisioned. (I was later told the lamb neck is no longer on the menu, perhaps for good reason.)
The Parisian gnocchi had the fresh English peas I’d been hoping for, but the gnocchi — in a Meyer lemon-miso vinaigrette — tasted like underseasoned cotton balls.
Finally, on my third visit, I ordered what I should have had on my first.
“Do people always ask you, ‘What’s a CheeseBoy?’” we asked our server, after asking “What’s a CheeseBoy?” ourselves.
“Yes,” he replied, almost cracking a smile. “At least five times a night.”
At the risk of sounding very When Harry Met Sally, I’ll explain the CheeseBoy below so the poor server doesn’t have to ever again:
The CheeseBoy, a holdover from Kronner’s pop-up days, is a burger — although, oddly, the menu doesn’t explicitly say so. It comes swathed with Henry’s “special” Thousand Island-esque sauce, American cheese, and tomato jam. Then there’s the Henry’s burger, which is basically the same thing, sans tomato jam — plus, you can customize it with cheddar or blue cheese for an extra two bucks, or with bone marrow for an extra $5. Both burgers come on a sweet-potato bun from Tartine Bakery. And neither of Kronner’s burgers at Henry’s are the same as his Kronnerburger burgers.
But both burgers are the best things at Henry’s. Well, other than the chicken wings, which are spicy and crackling-crisp and come with a fermented Fresno chile sauce so good we ditched the vegan French onion dip that our plate of house-made potato chips came with. Each 4-ounce patty comes squashed with pickles and its respective accoutrements on a bouncy, soft bun. Oh, the tomato jam could be sweeter, and Henry’s special sauce isn’t all that special. But they are burgers both a wide-eyed freshman and a discerning professor would love.
I hope that with a little more effort, Kronner and his team will rise to the occasion and meet their potential. But ultimately, despite the restaurant’s adult ambitions — and even under Kronner’s instruction — the new-and-improved Henry’s remains what college pubs most everywhere are: sophomoric.