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Anula’s Cafe, Downtown Oakland’s Home Away From Home, Closes After 13 Years

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Anula Edirisinghe, in a red apron, poses behind the counter of her restaurant Anula's Cafe.
Anula Edirisinghe is the one-woman force behind Anula's Cafe, a downtown Oakland lunch staple closing this week. (Adesh Thapliyal)

It was like a jazz funeral on the last day of regular lunch service at Anula’s, the little Sri Lankan-Jamaican lunch spot that provided a home away from home for Downtown Oakland’s beleaguered office workers for the past 13 years. A line of megafans spilled outside, the kind of line that makes passersby stop and ask, “What’s going on?” 

The atmosphere was chatty and warm—the first time the cafe felt like this since COVID drained away most of the regulars. Ken, a longtime customer who lined up early this Thursday, known among the faithful as lamb curry/Brussels sprouts day, put his affection like this: “Anula is like the Sri Lankan auntie that you never had.”

He’s referring, of course, to Anula Edirisinghe, the one-woman force behind the cafe who is retiring at the end of the week. Even as the line spilled out into Franklin St., Edirisinghe took time to speak with her customers, reminiscing about the past and asking everybody about their children, school life or work, age depending. 

Edirisinghe’s daughter, Maya Rapier, and ex-husband, Phil Rapier, showed up to join the throng. “I’ve never seen a crowd like this,” says Maya, who would know: In typical family restaurant fashion, she helped her mother run the cafe all throughout high school. 

This crowd may have been Rapier’s accidental doing—her Twitter thread celebrating her mom’s legacy went locally viral earlier in the week. ”Even if all you buy is a smoothie or a hot chai, it would mean so much. She’s given her life to her cafe,” Rapier wrote. “She loves feeding people and she loves making people happy. Plz help me make her happy this week.”

Anula Edirisinghe and her daughter Maya Rapier pose in front of Anula's Cafe; the sign in the window advertises the restaurant's offerings: "espresso, gourmet sandwiches, daily hot meal specials," and so on.
Anula Edirisinghe (right) and her daughter Maya Rapier pose for a picture in front of Anula’s Cafe. (Thalía Gochez)

Anula’s is the kind of place where people come for the company, but that’s not to say the food is lacking. Much feted is Anula’s jerk chicken, which bathes moist drumsticks in a herby sauce with a strong hit of bitter smokiness, served over a bed of rice and beans. The chicken is a Tuesday item: At Anula’s, every workday has its own menu of one vegetarian and one non-veg dish, which repeat in a cycle basically unchanged since the cafe’s beginnings. Today’s specials, brussel sprouts or lamb curry served over fragrant turmeric rice, were so popular that they sold out mid-lunch, and Edirisinghe had to turn dozens of customers away.

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“I only use good ingredients in my food, you know,” Edirisinghe says when asked what her secret sauce was, “lots of organic.” 

“She was spending good money to buy quality ingredients,” says Rapier, recounting her weekly shopping trips to the Berkeley Bowl with her mom to source fresh vegetables. “I always encouraged her to raise the price,” which is currently $13.50 for a generous combo plate, “but she just didn’t have the heart to do it.”

Anula’s Cafe opened up in 2009, after Edirisinghe found a cheap storefront through Craigslist on the bottom floor of the Financial Center Building, across from the Tribune Tower. She had no experience with the food service industry before her impulse buy: She ran a flower shop two blocks down the street for fifteen years until her friends, impressed by her home cooking, encouraged her to make it a business. 

Though Edirisinghe herself is Sri Lankan, born a little outside of the island’s capital of Colombo, she put many Jamaican staples on the menu of her new cafe: jerk chicken, patties, rice and peas.

“My mother-in-law taught me,” Edirisinghe says, referring to the mother of her ex-husband, Phil, who is Caribbean-Canadian. “I like Jamaican food—Sri Lankan food is too hard to cook!” Still, she has some Sri Lankan favorites up on the chalkboard: veggie roti, chana masala and, once a month, the elaborate preparation of jackfruit, coconut sambol and rice wrapped in a banana leaf known as lamprais. 

That menu has basically stayed the same since the cafe first opened. “She was just so stubborn about changing the menu, because she just didn’t want to disappoint her long term customers,” Rapier says. 

She always thought of the community first when she made business decisions, and not just when it came to the menus and prices. For example, Edirisinghe, for many years, would hire refugee women from the nearby International Rescue Committee offices to provide them stable employment in their new city. 

Repaying the favor, the community gave back. Business was brisk, by all accounts, until the pandemic hit. The cafe shuttered for two years, until February 2022, when Edirisinghe felt that it was safe to reopen. But without office workers she struggled to turn a profit. 

The cafe has no kitchen, so Edirisinghe leases space at a commissary kitchen a few blocks away, below the Ramada hotel, to cook in the mornings. When that kitchen’s rent spiked, she felt she had no option but to throw in the towel and take an early retirement. 

“I’m sad, but I’m looking forward to a break,” Edirisinghe says. “I want to go on a trip back to Sri Lanka with my daughter.”

Edirisinghe is keeping her catering business, and some of her faithful regulars have already commissioned her for birthday parties, office functions and formal events. They’re worried for her—ever since Edirisinghe went behind on her mortgage payments in 2018 and lost her house, her toehold on the city has weakened. 

But Edirisinghe herself isn’t planning on leaving the community she has formed around her restaurant anytime soon. “I’m Oakland,” she said to a customer who asked about her future plans. “I’m staying here only.”

Anula’s Cafe (1319 Franklin St) is throwing a farewell party on Saturday, Aug. 6, from noon–3pm.

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