Mama’s Royal Café Stays True to Its Roots Under New Owners
It’s still a funky Oakland institution.
Photo by Lori Eanes
When word got out last summer that Mama’s Royal Cafe was for sale, anxiety rippled through the community of regular patrons and East Bay expat fans. Facebook posts waxed nostalgic and expressed fears about the demise of a popular breakfast spot that had earned the mantle of “institution,” having survived and thrived in place since 1974. As someone who has been eating post-keiko breakfast at Mama’s with my fellow Shintaido martial arts practitioners on Saturday mornings for many years, I was susceptible to the same wistful trepidations. But we all breathed easy when we learned that longtime owner George Marino was looking for a buyer who would continue the business as is and retain the menu, staff, and décor, quirkiness intact. Marino’s leverage came from owning the building and his ability to retire on his own timing.
After turning away some prospective buyers — who no doubt harbored dreams of bringing in something hip and upscale to fit into the increasingly valuable Temescal-Piedmont Avenue commercial landscape that houses Clove & Hoof, Teni East Kitchen, Copper Spoon, Underwood, True Burger, Home Room, and Hog’s Apothecary — Marino sold Mama’s to Soroush and Houshi Ghaderi, brothers who operate another breakfast/lunch restaurant, The Vault, on Adeline near Alcatraz. The Ghaderis shut down Mama’s for a month or so last fall to bring the building up to code. They reopened the day after Thanksgiving. The significant changes included a complete kitchen upgrade, the removal of the old diner counter and its rickety chair-back stools, the construction of a compact take-out and cashier counter with an arched pass-through window to the kitchen, and the addition of a banquette in the front room. Peerless coffee was switched out for Mr. Espresso, and the technology necessary to accept credit card payment was installed — after 43 years as a cash-only business.
Some of the vintage Bakelite radios and other tchotchkes and posters were lost in the transition, but essential physical elements remain: the decorative pagoda-like overhangs from the long-ago incarnation as a Chinese restaurant; the narrow middle room’s high-backed booths, with names and initials carved into the dark wood, and kitschy nonfunctional “personal music” speakers mounted above the faded linoleum tables; napkin art on the walls culled from the annual contest; waitress Sherry Jean Cooper’s vintage apron collection; and Sherry Jean herself, shuffling strong after 35 years on the floor, addressing customers as “honey,” “sweetie,” and “dear.”
The week of the soft reopening, I popped in to check on the changes and was relieved to find chef Rob Meyers still in the kitchen, where he’s been for 8½ years, following stints as a brilliant baker and line chef at the Westside Bakery Café and Rick & Ann’s (14 years). Nick Lyon-Wright, a musician who followed his mother into service at Mama’s, and a mainstay of our Saturday morning experience, was waiting tables. Outside, I overheard Soroush telling Houshi that they had to work on getting orders out more quickly. Indeed, it took a while for the kitchen staff to get used to the revamped layout and spanking new equipment, and Meyers told me they’d be cautiously reintroducing the daily whiteboard specials that give him a chance to exercise his creativity and augment the already expansive menu of omelets, Benedicts, scrambles, frittatas, pancakes, French toast, and such “breakfast specialties” as croque monsieur, corned beef hash, huevos rancheros, catfish and eggs, veggie Joe, and biscuits and gravy.
By February, the kitchen was in full swing, turning out Meyers’ inventive pork al pastor breakfast tacos with fresh pineapple salsa; a “Sam I Am” green eggs and ham scramble; shrimp and grits with Creole sauce, poached egg, and sweet corn-jicama salsa; a croque monsieur with braised grape tomatoes, kalamata olives, garlic, and Gruyere cheese on Acme toast; and, my favorite, creamy polenta topped with ribbons of fresh pesto, two poached eggs, and a grilled hot Italian sausage. Our Saturday group has seen other stunning specials come and go: rib-eye steak and eggs; chile relleno verde and eggs; a Oaxacan black mole benedict with green chile and smoked turkey on an English muffin; pork chili rojos breakfast tostadas; Brook cherry breakfast clafoutis; a grits bowl with applewood bacon, black-eyed peas, mixed greens, feta, chopped tomatoes, and pumpkin seeds. That grits bowl was interesting but a bit random. However, a recent jambalaya omelet with sausage, chicken, shrimp, rice, and Jack cheese, worked surprisingly well. With a spoonful of always-available house-made salsa fresca and a splash of green Tabasco, it was as satisfying as it was filling.
Rising food and labor costs mean that dishes like the above come at a steep price, and the Ghaderis have maintained Marino’s commitment to top-flight and fresh ingredients, knowing that some customers will complain about paying $12.75 for a grass-fed beef hamburger (extra for cheese, avocado, and bacon), $16.25 for a Mary’s chicken, crimini mushroom, and Jack omelet, or $21.95 for a crab cake Benedict. Typically, however, the servings are generous and accompanied by such sides as home-fried potatoes (which have gotten more consistently crispy in recent months), fresh fruit, grits, black beans, toast, and biscuits. The staff has always cheerfully accommodated our substitution requests — grilled tomato or sautéed spinach for fruit or potatoes — and when an order gets mixed up or execution isn’t perfect, the correction comes quickly. Saroush, whose focused intensity is belied by his soft eyes and welcoming smile, is often sliding through Mama’s three rooms, delivering big Fiestaware platters of food and reinforcing the hospitable vibe.
Ironically, service seems most finely tuned on the weekends, when the place is packed and noisy, and you might have to wait 20 minutes for a table. The two times I’ve been in for weekday lunch, the servers had powered down. One afternoon, Robin and I waited at least 10 minutes for someone to take our order — and there were no other customers in our room. On another visit, I watched a mimosa overflow into a giant puddle on the table across from me, and waiters went by three times before noticing. However, all was right with the food — a whole leaf Caesar salad with a fine garlicky dressing with a whisper of anchovy; a cup of thick, rich, chunky clam chowder crowded with corn, potatoes, and veggies; a grilled corned-beef Reuben on dark rye; and a straightforward cheeseburger with lettuce, tomato, and red onion on a soft sesame bun.
Mama’s, which inspired Mimi Pond’s ’70s-based graphic novel Over Easy (2014), was in the vanguard of the East Bay breakfast revolution, preceding the Homemade Café (1979), Bette’s Oceanview Diner (1982), Westside Bakery Café (1986), Rick & Ann’s (1989), and others. It still balances high-end homey cooking with ungentrified greasy-spoon (flimsy flatware) character and cross-generational, countercultural clientele in way that says long live funky Oakland. Long live Mama’s.
Mama’s Royal Cafe
American. 4012 Broadway, Oakland, 510-547-7600. Breakfast items and dishes $5.50-$21.95, sandwiches and burgers $9.75-$17.75, soups and salads $4.85-$12.50. Serves breakfast Mon.-Fri. 7 a.m.-2:30 p.m., Sat.-Sun. 8 a.m.-3 p.m.; lunch Mon.–Fri. 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. MamasRoyalCafeOakland.com, CC $–$$$