Oliveto—1986–2021—An appreciation by L. John Harris
It’s Never Over Till It’s Over: Oliveto Restaurant and Café closed its doors for good on New Year’s Eve, 2021 after 35 years in business in Rockridge. But for me it’s just the beginning of a new chapter in a very long relationship with the restaurant, and with its talented and loveable owners, Bob and Maggie Klein. The history is deep. I knew Bob in high school in Los Angeles and became closer in college—he at SF State, me at Cal—where we shared an interest in good food (and lots of it), and in Maggie. I got to know and admire the charming, intelligent and lovely Maggie (She was Margaret then) after attending a dinner party at her house in 1969—she was a brilliant home cook—and then worked with her at The Swallow café in the Berkeley Art Museum in the early 70s. When the engaging Bob Klein met the enticing Margaret Blyth at an artists’ commune I was living in at that time, it was total kismet for Bob, and somewhat later, for Maggie, too. They were the first couple in my circle to get married.
Then, when I needed a talented writer and cook to author a book on olives and olive oil for Aris Books in 1982, Maggie, who was working then as an editor at Cal for Agricultural Sciences Publications, was the perfect choice. Her lovely line drawings were an added bonus in a cookbook that triggered a national breakthrough for Aris. (There were publication parties at the chic Dean & Deluca in New York City and in the East Bay at the iconic Narsai’s Restaurant.) A small Berkeley cookbook publisher had arrived, so to speak, and so had Maggie as a nationally recognized expert on “The Feast of the Olive.” Oliveto was inevitable by 1986 and the rest is history, restaurant history.
Usually a short remembrance like this starts or ends with an obligatory “RIP.” Something has ended—most often a person’s life—and we pray to the gods and goddesses for the departed to rest in peace. But the story of Oliveto, and its beloved and indefatigable owners, will not rest when this chapter comes to a close (though a vacation or two would be well deserved by Bob and Maggie). Bob, in fact, will be able to focus exclusively on his growing Community Grains business, an impressive Oliveto spin-off that is helping to shake up the American grain industry. And Maggie can get back to her garden and chickens, and those dinner parties that wowed me back in the day. Maybe she will even write an Oliveto cookbook. Hint hint! (Wish Aris was still around for that one!)
I am totally bummed that I will no longer be able sit at an Oliveto table with the Kleins, nosh on Cal/Ital delectables, and schmooze about our lives and work. But I’m totally delighted that there will be new stories to tell and more time now to tell them—even, perhaps, at a table in the restaurant that will replace Oliveto at Market Hall (wheels are turning). It won’t be the same restaurant, but then we never step into the same river twice. The creative spirit of Oliveto and the Kleins, like that proverbial river, flows on.
—L. John Harris
Author of the forthcoming “My Little Plague Journal”