Joan Ellis and Patrick Hooker ran their cafe, Babette, for nearly 10 years at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, following the museum through a move and withstanding the pandemic. Now, with their lease with the museum ended, the couple is branching out on their own: Babette is reopening this summer with a San Pablo Avenue storefront. “We tried to make it us, but it’s the museum, it really had that feel to it,” Ellis says of running the cafe inside the Berkeley Art Museum. “We always felt like we were sort of unseen at the museum, that our food wasn’t reaching a broad swath.” With this location, they hope to forge a new identity for the restaurant, serving their style of food from morning pastries and coffee, to dinner.
After a search for potential locations, Babette takes over the former Lanesplitter Pizza spot at 2033 San Pablo Avenue, which comes equipped with its own outdoor space. Ellis and Hooker worked to renovate the spot, transforming both indoors and out with a new brick patio, heating lamps, and string lights. Those who discovered Babette in its museum days will be pleased to hear many of the menu favorites will make it to the new spot. Bread and pastries will continue to be made in-house, along with the popular pistachio cake; there will also be a soup of the day, while the salads, a customer favorite, will appear on the dinner menu. Thanks to the pizza ovens left behind by the Lanesplitter, Ellis says they will have five pizzas on the menu, alongside a few rotating entrees, such as yogurt-marinated chicken thighs in a Georgian plum sauce, served alongside saffron rice with eggplant, sour cherries, and scallions.
Babette is still in its soft opening phase with limited hours as they look to hire more staff, but they have ambitious plans for the space. During the week, Ellis shares that they plan to have “casual coffee” in the mornings from Wednesday to Friday, serving up those in-house made pastries, as well as coffee and tea; they will also offer a dinner menu through the weekend. New to Babette will be the addition of a brunch in late June, which Ellis says will feature new and old favorites, including rice bowls, a bacon, egg, and cheese on house-made brioche, and a Mediterranean-style bagel platter, featuring house-smoked fish, she says. The restaurant currently serves a selection of natural wines, like Olivia Brion, along with six local beers on tap, but plan to add a liquor license in the fall for a cocktail menu.
Ellis and Hooker have gone through many career changes in food, from owning a wholesale bakery, to becoming private chefs, to running a museum cafe, and now, finally, they have a place to make their own. Ellis says they still love cooking, despite the ups and downs. “It really taught us how to do what we do, and taught us that we really love it,” Ellis says. “And after all these years, I’m kind of blown away that I still want to do this. We’re not young people, but we are still really passionate about what we do, and I’m super grateful about that.”