Sunday brunch at the Berkeley Thai Temple could soon become a thing of the past.
City zoning officials are investigating the 30-year-old Buddhist temple on Russell Street for possible use permit violations after a group of neighbors charged it with running a large-scale commercial restaurant in a residential neighborhood, bringing litter and congestion to the area.
The neighbors made their complaints during a public hearing on proposed expansions to the temple at the Zoning Adjustments Board last week.
Temple supporters denied the charges and requested a permit to build a new Buddha shrine on the site and add four parking spaces on an adjacent vacant lot.
“We are not a restaurant,” temple committee member Komson Thong told zoning officials after the hearing. “Offering food is part of our religious ceremony. People can come and eat or go to the prayer room. They are free to do what they want.”
For the 208 food enthusiasts who have rated Wat Mongkolratanaram—as the temple is formally known—with four or more stars on the popular user-generated review website Yelp, the place is known as a “Sunday food fair” and “a cafeteria-style Thai place.”
People from all over the Bay Area rave about its pad thai, fried chicken and mango rice with custard as the best cure for hangovers and advise friends to start lining up to buy tokens—which visitors exchange for food—as early as 8 a.m.
“You must have a solid tactical plan to avoid a nervous breakdown,” said one reviewer from Oakland, who compared the experience with queuing at IKEA, the DMV and Berkeley Bowl.
Another lamented: “Prices have sadly gone up because, as you’ll see when you get there, demand has also definitely gone up.”
Demand has definitely increased, according to testimonies by some Oregon and Russell street neighbors who complained that the 200 or more people who visit the temple for brunch every Sunday block their driveways and climb on their fences, leaving behind paper plates, cups and plastic forks in their backyards.
“We get the idea that the extent of things might be a little more that what the original permit allowed,” said the city’s project planner Greg Powell. “So we have decided to review all the city approvals granted over the last 15 to 20 years to compare it with what we see today.”
He said the main issue is what happens on Sundays.
“They do not have a permit to be a restaurant—you need a variance for that,” Powell said. “I don’t think they operate as a restaurant. It’s a Thai tradition to serve food to temple visitors. They say it’s on a donation basis—but that’s certainly not supported by what we heard at the public hearing.”
The reviews, Powell said, gave the impression that people treated it like a restaurant.
“We don’t want anyone who walks in to think that way,” he said. “We don’t know what kind of cooking facilities they have. If they told the city they were going to have these food events four or five times a year with 10 people, then the current situation is beyond what we recognized.”
Some neighbors were angry that the temple started work as early as 5 a.m., since a 1993 zoning permit limits the use to 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily. The temple has been serving food to the public outdoors in the back of the property from 9:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. every Sunday.
Piper Davis, who moved into the house abutting the Thai temple three years ago, complained at the hearing that the noise of pots and pans clanging to prepare food woke her up early in the morning.
“We want this large-scale, open-air commercial restaurant moved to another location,” said her husband Tom Ruff. “It’s really under-described, and has inflicted significant harm on the community surrounding the Thai temple. We respect the spirit of their mission, but we respectfully object to a large-scale commercial restaurant.”
Another neighbor, John W. Taylor, said he had been unable to enjoy his driveway, which was blocked by cars belonging to visitors at the temple every week.
“They need to construct more parking spaces,” he said. “Four parking spaces is like putting your finger in a dike.”
Temple Monk Manat Suksa-ad told the Planet that the monks cleaned up behind the visitors every Sunday.
“We only get a large crowd on Sundays,” he said. “Rest of the week it’s pretty quiet.”
Next door at the South Berkeley Public Library, branch manager Jeri Ewart agreed.
“The crowd often spills into our lawn, but they do a pretty good job with picking up the litter,” Ewart said. “We are closed on Sundays, but on the rare occasions we do stay open, I have never had a problem finding a parking spot. They put up big signs asking people to stay clear of people’s driveways and even have trash cans ready. But I guess if I lived across the street it would be different.”
James Harris, who lives next door to the Thai Temple on Russell Street, described it as “a good neighbor.”
“I am the one who should be complaining right?” he said. “But I have no complaints. I’d rather have them than Section 8 housing.”
The temple will start mediating with its neighbors about parking, hours of operations and other concerns this week. Last Sunday, the monks cut back on the brunch hours—restricting it from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m.
“We have taken some immediate steps to address the concerns,” Thong told the Planet Tuesday. “No more cooking outside. The amount of food will be limited to the number of visitors. We will also stop serving fried food because neighbors complained of the smell.”