The Bay Area's food world lost another of its most pioneering generation last week as we learn of the passing of Bette Kroening, owner and constant presence at Berkeley's Bette's Oceanview Diner. She died Thursday, February 16, at the age of 71, after a battle with lung cancer, as Berkeleyside reports.
The Chronicle's obit looks back at Kroening's cooking career, training under Narsai David at his upscale Kensington spot Narsai's, and then under Paul Bertolli at the Fourth Street Grill, before opening Bette's with husband Manfred Kroening in 1982. The Kroenings took up Fourth Street retail developer Denny Abrams on a challenge to open an affordably priced restaurant there, and partnering with chef Sue Conley (who would later go on to found Cowgirl Creamery), they were ahead of the 1980's curve with the neo-diner concept, predating SF's own Fog City Diner by several years.
Bette's Oceanview Diner was among the first Bay Area restaurants "to prove that California cuisine wasn’t limited to higher-end bistros like Chez Panisse and the Fourth Street Grill," as the Chronicle writes, and that "cooks could make reubens and milkshakes with the same devotion to good ingredients that others did risotto and daubes de beouf."
As a family-written obituary on Berkeleyside writes:
Bette had happy childhood memories of meals and malts at diners up and down the East Coast, and the new space gave her an idea: what Berkeley needed was a warm, welcoming neighborhood diner with all the classic trimmings— a linoleum counter, leatherette stools, plush, chrome-trimmed booths and a jukebox. But this would be a diner with a difference. Its menu of mainstays — like pancakes, eggs, scrapple, sandwiches, pies and milkshakes — would all be crafted from scratch from fresh, local ingredients in the spirit of the new style of California cooking.
The place became known for things like corned-beef hash made with local ingredients, and for its lemon-ricotta pancakes helping to give birth to many of the brunch trends that would take hold over the next several decades.
Kroening's background as a social worker led to her trying to create a better working environment in the restaurant, making sure to give dishwashers equal wages with cooks, and advocating for a higher minimum wage in Berkeley. Former partner Conley tells the Chron, "she was very much a student of human behavior and how to make work better, to make it really a profession as opposed to a job."
Kroening had been a constant presence in the kitchen over its nearly 35 years, only stepping back due to her illness in recent months. Information about a memorial service will be posted at a later time on Facebook.
The restaurant remains open, if with a heavy heart.
CBS 5's remembrance is below. Daughter Lucie Kroening, who grew up in the diner and says her parents joked that it was her "older sibling," tells the station, “The restaurant meant everything to her," and it was integral in her parents' love story. "She used to be a social worker and my father's trained as a tool and die maker and all they ever wanted was to work together. And they loved food, so they opened a restaurant."