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’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.