The gist: Back in 2016, we named The Way Back among both the most important and the sexiest newcomers of the year for the buzz it had built with its “polished yet edgy” New American plates, exuberant cocktails and intriguing yet cozy design. But partners Chad Michael George, Kade Gianinetti and Jared Schwartz couldn't help but feel their little gem had a flaw: a somewhat awkward, easy-to-overlook location on 38th Avenue. Last summer, they shuttered it in search of a better showcase — and now, they’ve not only got a prime space on Tennyson Street but a huge catch in exec chef Jon Lavelle, who left his longtime position as chef de cuisine at Danny Meyer’s Maialino in NYC to join them. “Their ethos toward local, sustainable, responsible food really spoke to me,” Lavelle says, “along with the fact that the menu was untraditional — they did whatever they wanted. Having cooked Roman food for seven-plus years, I was ready to do something else.”
The food: For George, the culinary goal (as at the original location, not to mention sibling Wayward) is to “push the envelope while being approachable enough to appeal to the neighborhood.” That means not only roast chicken and deviled eggs, but bison-heart carpaccio and fried chicken “with the claws still on," he laughs, “which is freaking some people out.” But even the more familiar items aren't as simple as they appear. Take Lavelle’s play on chips and dip, which pairs polenta-oatmeal chips that incorporate local, whole-grain cornmeal with a dip of sour cream based on housemade crème fraîche as well as dill, chives and burnt-onion powder. (On that note, he also makes his own butter, buttermilk and yogurt.) “I’m a big believer in a lot of work for very little reward,” Lavelle jokes — another case in point being his squid-ink fettuccine tossed with calamari rings, a pesto of green chile, cilantro and parsley, and what he calls “our take on furikake,” combining toasted rice, quinoa, amaranth and nori. Somehow it’s all under $25.
The drink: With progressive cocktail bar The Tatarian just steps away, George says, “We really wanted to simplify our list to complement what’s in the neighborhood. We’re not gonna get too esoteric about it.” Variations on the classics form its core: an Old Cuban here, a Paloma riff there, supplemented by highballs, spritzes and a few signatures from the original joint. Available in 6- or 9-oz. pours, wines by the glass reflect George’s well-known preference for “small, old-world producers that are using sustainable farming practices,” as will the soon-to-come bottle list. The beer selection, meanwhile, is larger than before, with about 20 mostly local brews “hand-picked to be sessionable" (including a couple from Call to Arms down the street).
The vibe: The bones of the old Patrick Carroll’s pub will no doubt be visible to longtime Berkeley residents — which is a plus as far as Gianinetti is concerned. “We were craving something that had some age and history to it,” he says. Though the wood-paneled light boxes, floral motif and funky chandeliers in the 40-seat dining room — anchored by a 60-plus-seat bar — are all new, “We didn’t erase what had happened in that space, so there’s a sense we’ve been here longer than we have, that we’ve folded ourselves into the community.” The result, he hopes, is “that neighborhood place where you can eat two or three times a week and, at the same time, that showstopper where you can take your parents or people from out of town.” As of this week, The Way Back is already on track to be just that.
The details: 3963 Tennyson St.; 970-682-6888. Open Tuesday–Thursday 4–10 PM and Friday–Saturday 4–11 PM.