Dick Randall interviewed in 2004 by his daughter, Marta Randall
In the early 1950s, my dad saw a man laying linoleum in a rickety building near the Southern Pacific station at the foot of University Avenue in Berkeley, and stopped to lend a hand. The building was an old one, dating perhaps from the turn of the century or before, and at one point in its life had possibly housed a piano store -- on a foggy night you could make out the word "Piano" on the building front. The building (long since torn down) was catty-corner from Spenger's Restaurant [old man Spenger, according to my dad, had made his bundle bootlegging during Prohibition].
The man laying the linoleum was named Ed Brown, and he said he was planning to open a restaurant. Ed was the son of a well-to-do business man from Marin County; while at the university, Ed and about a dozen other guys rented a house and Ed cooked for them, and charged them for it. He was a self-made cook, but had stumbled across a copy of a famous French cook book, perhaps one of the earliest translated into English and originally written, Dad thinks, in the 1850s or perhaps even the 1750s although he can’t remember either the title or the name of the author. Ed simplified some of the recipes and created others.
As Ed and Dad and some others laid linoleum they talked about the proto-restaurant. Ed said he didn't know what to call it, and one of the men said that if it served food the way it was being put together (a little help from here, a little help from there), Ed should call the place the "...pot luck", ellipses and all, and so he did.
Dad was a G.I. Bill student at U.C. Berkeley at the time, with a family, and was always looking for extra jobs. Ed hired him to make salads, and my mother came to work as his waitress and, later, as head waitress.
Ed made all his kitchen employees read the French cookbook, but the dishes they made were developed by Ed. Dad describes them as pseudo-French, pseudo-German, pseudo-Italian -- they sound rather like the beginnings of California's nouvelle cuisine in that they were European but with a very Berkeley twist. Ed invented the names of the dishes he served.
The Pot Luck hired students and other Berkeley denizens. Dad remembers a French anthropology student named Pierre, who worked in the kitchen and was the bane of a tiny Scandinavian waitress named Inga. Pierre would wait until Inga had her hands full of dishes, then corner her against the wall, murmuring (insert French accent) "Ah, Inga, you are a beautiful woman". The little woman would shake like a leaf, and Dad would go across the kitchen and pull Pierre away. The last adventure Dad learned about Pierre took place in a Mexican village, where the local chief went gunning for the Frenchman who had deflowered the chief's daughter.
A married couple came to work on the wait staff, he from France and she from Belgium. One evening Jean Renoir came in for a meal and the waiter recognized him and went wild, telling the kitchen staff, "It is him! I am sure! It his him!" Approaching the table with the next course, he said in French, "Excuse me, sir, but you look very much like Jean Renoir," to which Renoir replied, "Renoir, c'est moi" and sent the waiter into paroxysms of joy.
A woman named Ginny, a big, muscular lady, made cheesecake, but most of the desserts were prepared by Bill Glazier. Bill owned a small used bookstore on Shattuck Avenue for a time (I worked for him after school my senior year in high school) and had been friends with Jaime deAngulo, a Basque who came to California at the turn of the century and fell in love with the native peoples, transcribing many of their stories and songs, and preserving many of their languages. (Years later, I found a cache of ancient records in a KPFA closet; old steel-and-wax recordings of deAngulo reading the stories and singing the songs. Bob B. taught me how to transcribe them to tape, cleaning up the sound, and I broadcast a number of them during the children's hour that I programmed. DeAngulo's books are now back in print.) Bill G. was not a Pot Luck employee, Dad remembers, but made his pastries in the kitchen and then sold them to Ed Brown. The last Dad heard, Bill had moved to Shasta and had a bookstore there, specializing in locating rare books. I remember that his Shattuck Avenue bookstore had an extensive and lovingly cared for cookbook section.
Al Stanley worked as a cook at the restaurant. Al was a big man, constantly smoking, who came out of one of the Las Vegas gambling halls, liked Berkeley, and decided to stay. Al used to turn out food for Democratic fund-raises: sandwiches, Dad remembers, of great delectability.
Another couple from the Pot Luck days were Dave and Grace [both Dad and I have blocked on their last name]. She had been a high school teacher in the southern San Joaquin valley; he was Scottish and had worked as a farm labor organizer until the McCarthyites drove him from it. Dave worked at the restaurant; he was older than the others. They retired to Trinidad, which proved too tame, and moved on to Mexico City. Grace died there and Dave had her body cremated and shipped to her original home in the Midwest for burial; he moved to Guadalajara and Dad lost touch with him.
Ed Brown's wife was a social worker for Contra Costa county; they had two kids, a boy and a girl. She had about a dozen "old guys" as clients, and once a month she'd help them cash their checks, buy their food and clothes and pay their bills, and she would give them half of what cash remained; the other half she gave them mid-way through the month, so that they couldn't drink it all up at once. The marriage with Ed didn't last.
Ed drove a beat-up old panel truck, so rickety that he had to keep tightening the bolts on it to keep it from falling apart. He and Dad would take the truck up to the Napa Valley, where Ed bought wines from a couple of the vineyards. One in particular let them park the truck overnight, and the next day they brought the wines back down to Berkeley. Ed bought in gallon jars and, at the restaurant, recorked the wines into tenths and fifths for sale to the customers. At the time California wines were almost unknown outside of Northern California, Dad thinks, and Ed was one of the first restauranteurs to sell them along side French wines. Ed also had an old printing press (hand-set type), and in addition to printing menus and wine lists, would print individual labels for the wine bottles for customers who wanted vanity labels.
Ed was a lousy businessman. Dad remembers that he would get the kitchen rolling, then go across the street to Spenger's bar and drink until mid-way through the evening, when he would come back to the restaurant, empty the till, and disappear until the next day. When my mother was head waitress, she would clean out much of the till just before Ed came by, paying the staff what they were owed and putting the rest back in the register.
Dad thinks that Ed eventually sold the Pot Luck to Narsai David, who had been a waiter at the restaurant. Dad thought that he wasn't much of a cook, but was pretty good at compiling recipes. Narsai David sold it to Hank Rubin. Either David or Rubin moved it from University Avenue to San Pablo Avenue, but that was long after my dad had stopped working there. Narsai, of course, went on to open Narsai's in Kensington (remember that wonderful room made from the inside of a great wine vat?)
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