Restaurant Olivia

Please note that the fantastic Restaurant Olivia closed in 2007.

If you live in the San Francisco Bay Area, or will be visiting, do not fail to pay a call on chef Nathan Peterson’s new restaurant Olivia, in America’s culinary epicenter, Berkeley, California.

I had the pleasure of two meals at Olivia, over the fourth of July weekend, a few weeks after it opened. The intimate 26 seat restaurant, with a wood burning fireplace and a zinc bar, offers the romantic ambiance of a fine small restaurant in rural France or Italy…

The food too is inspired by Europe, particularly the Mediterranean including Italy, France, Spain and even north Africa—but employing, in the Berkeley tradition, many organic, locally raised products. The menu is organized in the manner of a small European restaurant as well—offering a mere handful of appetizers (at $7 each), main courses ($19) and desserts ($6) which change daily based on what’s best from the market. Sometimes it’s deceptively simple, like a brilliant lamb shank that had been cooked slowly, probably all day. Other dishes are deliciously complex, like the cornmeal pancake with trout, bacon, arugula and Meyer lemon crème—one appetizer that seems a constant on the otherwise changing menu. Desserts tend to feature amazingly fresh fruit and intensely flavored house-made ice creams. The daily menus are posted on the restaurant website…In fact, I find myself checking the menu online once a week or so, just for the mouth-watering descriptions of what’s currently on offer.

I have to confess, unlike most of my travel tips, Olivia is not a little gem we happened to stumble across—Nathan is a friend of long standing. I have eaten Nathan’s cooking for twenty years—at the always excellent Bay Wolf in Oakland, where he was chef for many years; in his own home, where he effortlessly prepares fabulous feasts; and even in my own kitchen in Amsterdam! His cooking is superb—a brilliant combination of well-chosen ingredients, experience, and a talent for simple innovation. I’ve learned a lot about cooking just by watching him prepare a meal at home—and yet he can still dazzle me with something as simple a prosciutto and melon—a dish that is a staple of my own repertoire—with a couple of his personal and subtle twists.


A further note: Michael Logan and I, through The Doyle/Logan Company, designed the logo, cards, menu and website for Olivia. Otherwise, the charming restaurant itself was entirely designed by the multi-talented Nathan and his partner, David Holcombe, with the help of their friends.—Clay Doyle