Henry's CheeseBoy on a Tartine sweet potato bun with herbed fries (Wendy Goodfriend)
With Chris Kronner’s exciting small plates and irresistible burgers, plus Tartine bread and cocktails from an industry star, Berkeley’s venerable pub is now a major destination beyond tailgates and happy hour.
Kevin Durant might be the biggest ‘Durant’ celebrity around the Bay Area these days. However, in Berkeley, it’s all about a different Durant at the moment — Henry Durant. Yes, that’s right — the visionary higher education pioneer of the 19th century, who founded the University of California, is back in the spotlight. He lives on with Durant Street and the Hotel Durant located on his namesake thoroughfare right by the now-named UC Berkeley campus, along with the 90-year old watering hole attached to the hotel, Henry’s. Despite being in the land of Chez Panisse and all things artisanal and organic, Henry’s really has always just been a pub. It wasn’t a place for anything ‘craft’ and you certainly couldn’t call it a ‘gastropub’ when it came to food quality.
Luckily for Bay Area diners and Golden Bear students, staff and fans alike, things have dramatically changed at Henry’s. Oski couldn’t be happier this spring.
Chris Kronner (KronnerBurger) has arrived. Along with his immense cooking talent combined with a slick design revamp, the sweeping changes make Henry’s far more than just a destination for tailgating before heading to nearby Memorial Stadium or for students to be treated to dinner by parents if all of the Chez Panisse and Corso reservations are taken. Henry’s is striving to be both an accessible, casual spot for the local community but also has enough going for it that the entire Bay Area will take notice.
Of course, by mentioning Kronner’s name with a restaurant, the immediate question posed by his many avid followers will be, “Is there a KronnerBurger?” Well, there is indeed a burger by Kronner. It’s just not the KronnerBurger like at his (temporarily closed due to a fire) restaurant on Piedmont Ave. in Oakland.
The main difference between the burgers is the amount of dry-aged beef incorporated into the patty. The KronnerBurger is 100% dry-aged beef, while the Henry’s Burger ($14) has just 20% and then 80% fresh ground beef. In both cases, the meat comes from top quality, grass-fed, pasture-raised Cream Co. Holstein cattle butchered between the ages of 7 and 12 years old.
The other difference answers the big question of how can you improve the already close to perfect original KronnerBurger? Answer: bring in Chad Robertson, a good friend of Kronner’s and the baking virtuoso from Tartine. Yes, it’s truly a burger dream duo now where Tartine bakes the buns for this Kronner-designed burger. Tartine is also baking the other breads served at Henry’s. At KronnerBurger, the potato pain de mie buns are custom-baked by the also excellent and Oakland-based, Starter Bakery. This is no slight at all on those buns but Tartine’s slightly denser sweet potato buns are a perfect, sturdy partner for the gloriously juicy four-ounce burgers at Henry’s. You’ll almost want to eat the buns by themselves.
The Henry’s Burger is a simpler affair with pickles, roasted onions, lettuce and a thousand island-like Henry’s sauce. Guests can customize the burger with bacon, cheddar or blue cheese. Or, you can opt for the messier CheeseBoy ($15) that adds roasted tomato (sort of like ketchup in flavor but has a jammy consistency) and white American cheese, while subtracting the lettuce. Both burgers come with crisp medium-thick fries that are coated in a forest green fines herbs powder. Those fries are also available on their own with cheddar mayo for dipping ($7).
Let’s get one thing clear that has been incorrectly stated by many people in advance of Henry’s opening — Tartine is not a partner in the restaurant. You will not find the croissants or morning buns or chocolate soufflé cake or loaves of bread for sale at Henry’s. Kronner has been a friend of Robertson and his wife (and Tartine co-owner) Elizabeth Prueitt since 2001. To jog your San Francisco dining memory back in time a little bit, remember Bar Tartine (owned by Robertson and Prueitt) before Nick Balla and Cortney Burns were its trailblazing chefs and they steered the restaurants towards Central Europe and pickling and fermentation became the main theme? You got it — Kronner was the chef.
Kronner hails from North Carolina originally and came to San Francisco for cooking school. Almost as if it was fate, Kronner lived above Tartine and paid Robertson $200 a month (!!) to live there. Kronner’s first professional cooking gigs took him to some of the marquee early and mid 2000s restaurants like Town Hall and the (now closed) Slow Club, with the latter being where he was elevated to the main chef role and he started to gain citywide attention for his work. Then it was on to Serpentine in the Dogpatch, followed by Bar Tartine and finally KronnerBurger’s highly successful pop-up at Bruno’s nightclub in the Mission. That pop-up led to his permanent solo debut with Oakland’s Kronnerburger in 2015.
Once diners get over how skilled Kronner is at making burgers go from great to outrageous, they’ll realize what a well-rounded force he is at creating anything from grilled pork skewers with finger limes and a sweet chili sauce ($8) to roasted maitake mushrooms with mushroom caramel ($14). You’ll see signs of that at KronnerBurger like with a stellar fried chicken banh mi or bold takes on salads like the East Bay’s definitive wedge salad. It’s at Henry’s, though, where he’s really starting to show his range and some greater ambition that is rewarding for his many fans to watch.
Kronner is assisted at Henry’s by co-executive chefs Justin Huffman (coming to Henry’s from KronnerBurger) and Jeffrey Hayden, who is best known to San Francisco diners as the opening chef at Del Popolo’s permanent location, responsible for everything non-pizza there. At Del Popolo, he crafted concise, bright salads and smaller fish and meat compositions that easily rivaled the world-class pizzas. In many ways, he’s doing the same thing with Huffman to elevate an impressive supporting cast in the shadow of the signature crowd-pleasing star, but just swapping pizza for burgers.
Most tables and hungry bar patrons will start with some Marin Miyagi oysters joined by a peppercorn mignonette, a spicy-acidic combination that Kronner loves and solves the dilemma of whether to add either horseradish or mignonette, or combine both ($18 for a half dozen). The oysters are just one of a dozen ‘snacks’ that range from spicy hot wings with a housemade Fresno chile hot sauce ($12) to roast bone marrow ($16) to a delicate yellowtail crudo accented by peanut, sesame, cayenne pepper and a radish vinaigrette ($15).
Tartine’s renowned thick-sliced country loaf appears in different forms for the ‘snacks,’ whether it’s just as a bread plate with cultured butter ($5); to sop up the absinthe butter broth for steamed mussels ($14); or, most impressively, arriving charred, slathered with charred-onion honey and ready to be covered by a profoundly smooth, fresh feta cheese from a specific maker in Ohio that possesses none of the watery, crumbly blandness usually associated with feta ($11).
The wild card of the ‘snacks’ is lamb leg ($15). Yes, lamb leg is a snack here, where thin rosy slices are given a light dusting of Middle Eastern spices and fanned across a narrow small plate, garnished by a carrot shreds salad and peppercorn labneh.
Next on the menu is the ‘produce’ section and that’s where Henry’s really starts channeling a tiny bit of classic Chez Panisse-Berkeley cuisine with lovely salads and vegetable plates. A basic Henry’s red lettuce salad ($9) comes with a charred citrus vinaigrette and tempura-like crispy flowering broccoli partner with rice wine vinaigrette ($12). The group’s knockout dish is a smoked carrot salad ($13) with as much umami as the burger’s dry-aged beef. Each bite contrasts with crunch from raw carrots, puffed grains and spiced nuts, then a sweet jolt from golden raisins and blood orange segments. Chrysanthemum greens serve as the base and it’s all tied together by a light soy-based miso dressing.
Kronner continues the vegan dressings and condiments theme in a sharply charred Arrowhead cabbage dish ($13), joined by cinnamon and sugar-dusted seeds, kumquats and a vegan aioli made from. This type of cabbage is almost meaty in flavor and has the strength of tender little gem lettuce spears. It’s entirely unlike the pale cabbage leaves associated with cole slaw.
Finally, there are the two burgers under the ‘burgers’ section and a handful of ‘mains.’ For that latter category, diners will be tempted by roasted chicken (again from Cream Co.) with miso jus and a panzanella salad using Tartine bread ($29), or a Mediterranean-evoking swordfish with smoked tomato tonnato, fried leeks, capers and onions ($26). On cooler evenings, keep an eye on coal-roasted lamb neck with spring vegetables and mint ($25) or gnocchi with white cheddar mornay ($14) and the option to add dry-aged beef sugo ($5). Henry’s still has a little bit of the pub feel on the ‘mains,’ as well, with a pork sausage plate ($16).
By this point, diners will wonder if there really is a distinct cuisine or theme to Henry’s menu? It’s kind of a gastropub but also has some intense and creative dishes that lean heavily towards vegetables, deft spicing and even a little bit of funk. This is what Kronner is so great at. Like with his burgers, he cooks appealing food that a wide audience will enjoy. It’s sophisticated enough for discerning professors but also relatable for an unadventurous freshman at the neighboring dorm. His style of cooking fills a much-needed friendly, midscale restaurant with edginess niche in Berkeley. Plus, it might not be ideal for diners on a student’s budget but the prices are much lower than their equivalents across the Bay Bridge. There, the ‘mains’ would no doubt find their way over $30. So, why not splurge on dessert?
Even as kitchens seem to be focusing on sundaes or altogether ignoring desserts, Henry’s quartet of sweet options invites sticking around for a closing bite. A moist olive oil cake ($8) pops when an oversized bite combines the centerpiece cake with fresh blood oranges, pistachios and whipped cream ($8). Other options include a honey pie ($7); a spring powerhouse combination of strawberry sherbet, rhubarb, hibiscus and rose streusel ($7); and a chocolate-peanut butter semifreddo to satisfy the many chocolate-only dessert fans in the audience ($8).
Kronner’s wife Ashley Hildreth and Luke Foss led the redesign for the 100-seat space, split between 60 spots in the Tavern Room and 40 in the Durant Dining Room. The redwood-topped bar anchors the Tavern Room portion with plenty of dark wood furnishing, candles and vintage brass accents like you would expect from an old-fashioned tavern. Take note of the mirrors above the bar that actually hide televisions. Those TVs only appear for showing important sporting events. It’s a nifty touch that more restaurants should do where fans won’t miss key Warriors or Giants games but also makes the bar have a true old-timey atmosphere instead of falling into the ubiquitous sports bar territory.
The main Durant Room dining area is beautifully spacious with sunlight streaming on the curved, tufted black leather steakhouse booths at the windows and their marble tables. The livened up area has the glamorous feel and appearance of a mid-century estate’s posh conservatory. It sure doesn’t look like your typical pregame watering hole.
Recently, the Hotel Durant was taken over by Graduate Hotels, a burgeoning brand that has an interesting strategy of taking over fading university town hotels and transforming them into boutique accommodations with a throwback collegiate-scholarly theme. The Durant is their first location in California and we’ll see if Palo Alto is next on the horizon. After all, they give Cal’s rival a shout out with the Stanford decorated urinal in the men’s restroom à la the Cal one at Palo Alto’s Epiphany Hotel. It seems like the Pac 12 rivalry is much more than just about winning the Axe these days.
While Kronner and Tartine are the household names for Bay Area readers and the general manager, Howie Correa, is a Chez Panisse alum, there are also two key Los Angeles restaurant industry celebrities involved with Henry’s. Both also do have important ties to the Bay Area worth noting. Bill Chait is arguably the most prolific restaurateur in that city (Bestia, Otium, Republique and many more) and is an investor in Henry’s. He’s also a proud UC Berkeley alum. Meanwhile, the cocktails are designed by Julian Cox, the bar star of Los Angeles who masterminded too many highly regarded cocktail menus and has won too many awards to count at this point. The Bon Vivants (Trick Dog) are the closest thing we have to him in the Bay Area. That being said, he’s even closer to the Bay Area now as the designer of Tartine Manufactory’s newly launched cocktail program.
Cox’s cocktails are exciting without being too fussy. The most elaborate drink probably is the ‘Thornburg Village Special’ ($12) tying together manzanilla sherry, blueberries, white honey, lime, absinthe and an amaro-like liqueur, China China. The ‘Western Sour’ ($12) is a whiskey sour variation with falernum and grapefruit liqueur. Meanwhile, the spirit-forward ‘Speakerboxx’ ($12) pairs the unlikely duo of scotch and Sauternes with Peychaud’s bitters. On the lighter side, ‘English Spring’ elegantly screams “garden party sipper” with a Kir Royale-leaning combination of gin, Champagne, crème de Cassis and raspberry cordial ($11).
Roughly a dozen glasses of wine are available, mixing labels from Europe, Sonoma favorites (Luuma, Scribe) and a refreshing red blend from Oakland’s own Broc Cellars. For the most part, the wines are the unfiltered ‘natural’ style that is so trendy these days. Beers on tap are mostly from small Northern California breweries and generously priced usually at $6 a pour.
Happy hour runs for three hours before dinner and three hours afterwards, appealing to all kinds of smartly frugal crowds. There are some great deals to find with $7 glasses of wine, $4 beers, a few discounted cocktails and snacks like the fries and smoked potato chips with a vegan broccoli-cheddar dip. Henry’s also plans to keep the tradition of rollicking, grand tailgates before football games this fall. More information will come about that in the next few months.
So, the tailgates will still have the same excitement of the old days, but there is an obvious new excitement at the reinvigorated pub in the old Hotel Durant. Chris Kronner and his all-star team are here. It’s time for a burger — and some cocktails, smoked carrot salad and Tartine bread. If only we all had this option across the street when we were college students.
2600 Durant Avenue MAP
Berkeley, CA 94704
Ph: (510) 845-8981
Hours: Dinner nightly from 6 PM to 10 PM ; happy hour daily from 3 PM-6 PM and 10 PM-1 AM
Facebook: Henry's at The Graduate Berkeley
Price Range: $$$ (small plates are priced $7-16 and mains between $20-$30)