At the World’s Only Ohlone Restaurant, Even the Trees Will Sing in Chochenyo

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Vincent Medina and Louis Trevino address a group of visitors at a preview event for their restaurant Cafe Ohlone, in the outdoor courtyard of the Hearst Museum.
“We’re calling it a love song to Ohlone culture,” Vincent Medina (center left) told guests at a preview event for the new Cafe Ohlone, located at UC Berkeley's Hearst Museum of Anthropology. (Hearst Museum of Anthropolgy)

For the better part of the pandemic, Vincent Medina and Louis Trevino didn’t even think about reopening Cafe Ohlone. The world’s only Ohlone restaurant never did outdoor dining. It only started offering a tiny number of take-home meal kits many months after takeout had become the new normal—and just for one Sunday a month.

Instead, Medina and Trevino found an even higher calling: While the restaurant hibernated, they huddled close within their own community and dedicated themselves to hosting weekly language classes over Zoom, teaching young children and 90-year-old elders how to speak Chochenyo and Rumsen Ohlone.

Now, all that cultural work is paying dividends for the restaurant, too. When Cafe Ohlone opens next month at its new location at UC Berkeley’s Hearst Museum of Anthropology, even the trees will speak and sing in Chochenyo—trees hooked up to a state-of-the-art sound system playing recordings of those same Chochenyo students, to be specific. 

The singing trees are just one of the showpieces in Cafe Ohlone’s new outdoor dining room, which is finally gearing up to open after the restaurant lost its original, back-of-a-bookstore Berkeley location fairly early on during shelter in place. According to Medina, every aspect of the new restaurant is meant to evoke “a beautiful reality that looks like an Ohlone village when you walk in.” 

A sampler plate of Ohlone food includes a small dish of acorn soup, fried sea lettuce and a skewer of venison backstrap.
A sampling of Cafe Ohlone's food given out at an April 23 preview event. Small bites included fried sea lettuce, roasted fiddlehead ferns, venison backstrap and cold black oak acorn soup for dipping. (Luke Tsai)

“We’re calling it a love song to Ohlone culture,” Medina told guests at an April preview event held at the restaurant, “because every element of the space has been designed to be specific to our beautiful Ohlone culture—to our language, to our plants, to our foods, to our values, to our aesthetics.” 

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Even after Cafe Ohlone lost its home during the early months of the pandemic, Medina and Trevino were always insistent that the restaurant would return bigger and better than ever. But the two felt conflicted at first when the Hearst Museum offered them the opportunity to reopen. After all, the museum’s relationship with the Ohlones had been deeply fraught: Alfred Kroeber, the museum’s longtime director, was the one who was largely responsible for the Ohlones losing their federal recognition when his Handbook of the Indians of California declared them to be “culturally extinct” in 1925. Subsequently, the museum itself looted the Ohlone shellmounds and took possession of many of their sacred objects and ancestral remains.   

Still, Medina and Trevino decided to take the museum’s offer to host Cafe Ohlone as a first step toward righting some of those past wrongs. “In the past, the university has not been on our side,” Medina says. “But no one wants to stay stuck in a place of frustration. This is something that can go in a really beautiful direction, especially when it’s paired with Ohlone people having a permanent presence here.”

Vincent Medina holds a wooden post with the name of an Ohlone community member inscribed on it.
Meyer Sound speakers will be attached to wooden posts next to each singing tree in the main dining area at cafe Ohlone. Each post will have the name of the Ohlone community whose voice recording is attached to that tree. (Hearst Museum of Anthrolopogy)

The design of the space itself is meant to make Cafe Ohlone feel like a portal to a “whole world reimagined,” as Medina puts it—a place that reflects an Ohlone worldview down to the last detail. When guests first enter the open-air restaurant, they’ll cross through a redwood-framed “shadow box” of sorts, with plants native to the Ohlone lands illuminated onto a screen. Walking down a winding path, they’ll see two 5,000-pound granite boulders that will serve as the seats for one dining area. At the center of the restaurant, handmade tables and chairs made of reclaimed redwood will form several socially distanced “dining pods.” 

On the wall along one side of the dining room, there will be a building-sized mural by the native artist Jean LaMarr that will depict the great-grandparents of today’s Ohlones looking down on the restaurant, with chipped glass on top made to look like stars illuminating the night sky. At the very back of the restaurant, next to a newly built shellmound, there will be one final, elevated dining area overlooking the entire restaurant—“one communal table for our elders to sit and take it all in,” Medina explains.  

Meanwhile, the central area of the restaurant is where the singing trees will live. The idea came about through a collaboration with Meyer Sound, a Berkeley-based company known for its groundbreaking restaurant sound systems. At the new Cafe Ohlone, the Meyer Sound–donated sound system will be set up so that the trees scattered throughout the outdoor dining room—valley oak, hazel, manzanita and sycamore—will have speakers attached that will fill the space with the living Chochenyo language. Each speaker will feature the recorded voice of a member of the Ohlone community—a student in Medina and Trevino’s ongoing Chochenyo classes, in fact. So, as guests sit down to enjoy their meal, the trees will also converse and share gossip with one another in Chochenyo. “One tree will tell a joke, and another will start laughing,” Medina says. 

A Hearst Museum staff member passes out cups of rosehip tea.
A Hearst Museum staff member passes out cups of lightly sweetened rosehip tea. (Hearst Museum of Anthropology)

And yes, the trees will even sing. Medina explains that he and Trevino have translated some of the 1960s pop songs that their grandparents played at home. For instance, they’ve recorded a Chochenyo version of the old love song “Angel Baby,” but they’ve changed it so that the song is now addressed to “holše noono,” which means “beautiful language”—a love song to Chochenyo itself. The song starts with a single tree—a single elder from the community—singing by itself until the others join in one by one. It ends with a ten-year-old girl named Amaya Ruano—a star pupil of those Chochenyo language classes—singing a solo to represent the passing of the torch to the next generation.

As for the food itself, one important change is that Medina and Trevino will train members of the Cal Dining staff to prepare most of the food that will be served at the original restaurant. Another is that the menu will have a little bit more of a modern feel. In addition to the most traditional, precolonial Ohlone food preparations, the new Cafe Ohlone will also serve rancheria dishes that became popular within the community during the late 1800s—things like rabbit mole, venison chile colorado and California’s native Olympia oysters, served both raw and smoked. Medina says he also plans to introduce some Ohlone-ized pasta dishes like the ones his great-great-great-grandfather—a Sicilian who took asylum at Mission San Jose and fell in love with an Ohlone woman—would have introduced to the community. So, Medina is playing around with handmade pasta dishes that incorporate native edible flowers like violet and nasturtium or a dandelion green pesto. “All these things are part of the Ohlone tradition,” he says.

Medina estimates that the construction and design work on the restaurant is currently about 60% complete, though major components like the mural and the sound system still need to be installed. If all goes well, Cafe Ohlone will start serving a series of meals for members of the Ohlone community later this month. By June, Medina says, the restaurant should be ready for its grand opening. 

Cafe Ohlone is slated to open in June at the Hearst Museum of Anthropology, at 102 Anthropology and Art Practice Building on Bancroft Way at College Ave. in Berkeley.

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