When Debbie Shahvar escorts guests to their table at Buttercup Diner, her family’s Walnut Creek restaurant, more often than not they’ll pass several people they know at other tables and stop to say hi.
“It’s a community gathering spot, which makes me very happy. We’re an important part of people’s lives,” she said.
Last year, the Shahvar family celebrated 30 years of Buttercup Diner; the Walnut Creek location has since spawned two others in Oakland, one in Vallejo and one in Concord.
Many members of Walnut Creek’s Conservative synagogue, B’nai Shalom — where the Shahvar family are members — have given the diner a nickname: “B’nai Buttercup.”
Bob Levine, a synagogue lay leader, calls the diner “an integral part of our community.” The shul hosts its monthly “lunch ’n’ learn” in a private room at Buttercup, where a dairy lunch is followed by baked goods for dessert.
“Debbie is a wonderful executive chef and is a particularly good baker,” Levine said.
But it’s not only Jews who congregate there. “On Sundays, we get a lot of people who come from church,” said Shahvar.
In a challenging climate for restaurants — largely due to the Bay Area’s cost of living and the lack of affordable places for workers to live — the fact that the family has hit the 30-year mark is noteworthy. Especially taking into account that Shahvar became an executive chef without culinary training.
“My grandmother was supposedly a legendary cook,” she said. “Unfortunately, I didn’t know her, but of course all of our holidays were defined by food. My mom worked, but she always made homemade chicken soup, for example.”
Shahvar wanted to be a journalist; cooking was something she enjoyed as a hobby. “I was searching for the perfect chocolate chip cookie,” she said. “I’d make it over and over again, until I got the perfect one. I was always curious about recipes, but the reason I started developing my own was because a lot of them didn’t work very well. I’d be disappointed and would try to make them work for me.”
Originally from Virginia, Shahvar came to California to attend college at Cal Poly Pomona. She waited tables at a restaurant called Smuggler’s Inn to put herself through school, and there she met David Shahvar, a regional manager of the restaurant group. “He was Israeli, he knew I was Jewish, and the rest is history,” she said.
When they moved to the Bay Area, they thought “rather than work really hard for someone else, we figured we’d work hard for ourselves,” she said. The couple bought an existing place in Walnut Creek called Buttercup Pantry, changed the name to Buttercup Diner and opened in 1988.
They had already started their family at the time and wanted to create their own version of a family-style restaurant — a place where most everything would be made in-house and “where families could come, where parents could have fresh fish, steaks or prime rib, but kids would feel comfortable, too.”
It’s a concept they’ve stuck to, though “we’re constantly updating it, keeping it relevant,” said Shahvar.
Asked for some customer favorites, she singles out the buttermilk biscuits and a product of her own creation called the “Cinnascuit,” a biscuit dipped in cinnamon sugar and topped with cream cheese frosting. While in the diner world, many rely on pre-made items, like frozen mozzarella sticks, at Buttercup they make their own batter for frying and serve them with house-made marinara sauce.
There are a few Jewish touches on the menu, like New York pastrami on rye with a dill pickle and, at the Walnut Creek location, matzah ball soup on Fridays.
Throughout the years, Shahvar has come up with all of the recipes and trained the chefs to make sure the dishes are up to her high standards.
Now she has help. Daughter Jessica attended culinary school so she could help her mother with recipe testing. In fact, all three Shahvar children work for the family business, even though the parents tried to steer them in different directions. David’s title is still president, though in recent years he has been stepping back.
“We saw how much heart and soul our parents invested into the restaurant, and felt from a young age really proud that it was part of our family legacy,” said Jonathan Shahvar, the eldest of the three, who manages one of the Oakland locations and also works on marketing and partnerships. Ben, the middle sibling, is a board member of the California Restaurant Association and is interested in the intersection between business and politics.
“There’s something both gratifying and exciting about working for yourself, for a business you own, that we just didn’t feel when working for other people,” Jonathan said. “We all love being part of this community that our parents started, hopefully continuing the tradition for the next generation of Bay Area families.”