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Comfort Meals, Low Prices

Friday April 11, 2003

I report this more in sorrow than in anger, but I have been flipped off three times in the past couple of weeks by middle-aged women driving expensive vehicles. 

People, people. Get a grip. Don’t make me start publishing license plate numbers.  

I understand that these dark times can give rise to feelings of nameless dread, to intimations that the best years lie somewhere behind us, to that old where-but-to-think-is-to-be-full-of-sorrow-and-leaden-eyed-despairs sensation. The anonymity of the freeway might allow some of us flirting with the hopelessness of it all to act out just a bit. 

May I offer a better alternative? Meal Ticket, located a few steps north on San Pablo Avenue from Gilman Street, is the kind of place that can help reconnect us to our fellow person. “We sort of think of it as part community center,” explained Carolyn Del Gaudio, who owns the restaurant along with her husband, Jimmy Carter. 

It’s a true mom-and-pop operation, with Carolyn handling the front-of-the-house chores and Jimmy doing all of the cooking. “It’s amazing how loyal customers can be if you offer real warmth with a personal connection. I think that people long for an intimate, non-corporate setting,” said Carolyn, an erstwhile civil rights attorney. 

And loyal its customers seem to be; many of them have followed Carolyn and Jimmy crosstown from their original Southside establishment, a storied hole-in-the-wall joint that they closed in 1998 for a spate of serious globe-trotting. The new, larger place has a comfortable haute proletariat air, sporting a painted concrete floor and plastic-covered tables, with decorative artifacts from their travels providing the haute. 

Carolyn takes orders at the counter up front (be sure to check the blackboard of daily specials). Grab your own water, coffee and silverware. If the place isn’t too busy, Carolyn provides refills; otherwise, fend for yourself. 

Of course, it’s the food that really keeps the faithful, well, faithful. Jimmy — trained in the kitchens of the old Fourth Street Grill and the original incarnations of the Santa Fe Bar and Grill and Christopher’s — brings his classical technique to bear on some pretty straightforward dishes.  

“I like to cook simple, seasonal, what I think of as comfort food, using really fresh, great ingredients,” he said. “And I want to keep things affordable.” He does all the shopping each day, then turns out food that a dining companion described as “Chez Panisse for the working class.” 

One fan insisted that you should always order Jimmy’s fish, waxing poetic about the silky salmon and eggs offered for weekend brunch, and the grilled salmon and trout often featured as lunch specials. “I do a lot of fish, because I think it’s really good for you,” the Scottish-born chef said. Another raved about the tender, flavorful grilled pork loin with chipotle salsa. “I only serve all-natural meat,” Jimmy said. “We also have a vegetarian soup and a vegetarian pasta every day, so vegans and meat-eaters can dine together.”  

While Jimmy’s omelettes, such as a fluffy artichoke, blue cheese and green onion creation, are justly popular, I always opt for his airy, slightly crisp, made-from-scratch cornmeal pancakes for breakfast, served with a smattering of fruit and real maple syrup. (Buckwheat pancakes are also offered.) Really good homemade pastries and granola also can be ordered.  

Salads are impeccably fresh; sandwiches are served on warmed, seeded baguettes; dressings and croutons are house made. Good wines are served by the glass. (Such demanding attention to detail befits the three-time Olympian that Jimmy is.) And the most expensive item on a recent visit topped out at $7.95. No wonder the place boasts an almost cult-like following. 

Right now, Meal Ticket only serves breakfast and lunch, though plans are afoot to add dinner and perhaps patio dining in the near future. 

I talked Jimmy into sharing the recipe for one of his delightful soups, a smoky, slightly sweet roasted tomato soup. “Of course, vine-ripened summer tomatoes work best,” Jimmy cautioned. “And do add some cream or butter if you want a richer version.” 


Meal Ticket is located at 1235 San Pablo Avenue in Berkeley. Its hours are Wednesday through Friday, 7 a.m. to 3 p.m., Weekend Brunch 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. The telephone number is 526-6325.