At Gather restaurant in Berkeley, owner Eric Fenster is operating under the assumption that busy indoor scenes like this one won't be back for a long time. (Photo/Twitter-@GatherBerkeley)
At Gather restaurant in Berkeley, owner Eric Fenster is operating under the assumption that busy indoor scenes like this one won't be back for a long time. (Photo/Twitter-@GatherBerkeley)

After pandemic pause, Berkeley’s Gather restaurant returns with new plans

Food coverage is supported by a generous donation from Susan and Moses Libitzky.

On Dec. 15, 2019, Eric Fenster addressed a crowd of investors and friends of Gather, the downtown Berkeley restaurant he co-founded 10 years ago, and shared some of the milestones achieved thus far: over 1 million meals served, more than $100,000 donated through its “Cocktails for Change” program, tons of landfill waste diverted through the restaurant’s composting program.

Fenster then asked those assembled to envision a greenhouse-like structure built on Gather’s outdoor patio, where film screenings and events with farmers and speakers could take place.

That optimistic look into the future took place just a few short months before the pandemic forced the restaurant to close.

In September, after being shut down for six months, “Gather 2.0” opened for takeout and socially distanced outdoor seating for about 75.

With all the talk about essential workers and essential services that came with the pandemic, Fenster wanted Gather’s new incarnation to be much more of an essential service as opposed to a special occasion restaurant. That means the full-service restaurant of pre-Covid times probably won’t come back as it was.

Fenster is originally from New City, New York, and recalled how he “potchked” in the kitchen with his grandmother Esther. He was raised Reform and says family gatherings around food played a pivotal role in the path he chose. After studying ecology and conservation biology at the University of Madison–Wisconsin, he worked at the Teva Learning Center teaching Jewish environmental education. The executive director at the time was Adam Berman, founder of Berkeley’s Urban Adamah.

Fenster’s first job in Berkeley was at the Edible Schoolyard, the educational program founded by Alice Waters, and then he went on to found an outdoor adventure company and farm-to-table catering company, Back to Earth, before opening Gather.

Eric Fenster of Gather (Photo/Courtesy Fenster)
Eric Fenster of Gather (Photo/Courtesy Fenster)

When he and his then-partner did a crowdsourcing campaign before their opening over a decade ago, Gather was among the first restaurants to raise funds that way, and now Fenster is going back to the community to do it again. He has just launched a Kickstarter campaign to help fund the new events space.

Fenster is still visualizing the greenhouse-type structure on the patio, but now it won’t have walls. He had applied for permits before the pandemic, but because the approval process can take a long time in Berkeley, it gave him time to make the necessary design changes.

“Now it will be an open-air canopy with radiant heating for winter and have an indoor-outdoor feel,” he said. “We’ll be able to have Covid-friendly outdoor movie nights in the middle of winter, workshops and talks and probably some ticketed events.” The new addition was approved in August; Fenster hopes it will be operational by December.

He envisions a market taking up some of the space, so that when diners come to eat, they can add grocery items to their order and leave with eggs, milk, produce or a treat, like cookie dough.

The market also will offer customers an opportunity to donate a box of organically grown produce to someone who can’t afford it. The $65 price tag for a box of produce will also cover another box for a person in need.

Another change at the restaurant is its more fast-casual style. Outdoor diners order entirely from their smartphones, rather than giving their orders to a server, and the food is delivered to the table. Diners are asked to do their own busing to keep the staff safe. And there is a new chef, Jessica Whitemore, who came most recently from Bluestem Brasserie in the city.

So what’s on the menu at Gather 2.0?

Offerings have expanded for pizzas and burgers, some of the more popular dishes before. Also new are gluten-free pizza crust, falafel, and Portobello burgers that can be had either on lettuce or gluten-free buns. Salad offerings also have expanded.

“The No. 1 thing is that we’ve reduced our prices by around 25 percent on numerous items. The idea is accessible, healthy comfort food,” Fenster said.

“Gather as a concept was never truly intended to be a special-occasion restaurant. In the name and intention, it was meant to be a place to get together, break bread and share stories,” Fenster said. In Gather 2.0, he hopes to bring it closer to that original vision.

A version of this story first appeared on Berkeleyside NOSH. It is reprinted with permission.

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."