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Daughter’s Diner, the Uptown Oakland diner from fine dining chef Keven Wilson, permanently closed last week. The 15-month-old restaurant opened in the first year of the pandemic, and quickly gained a following for its high-quality classics with a twist — pancakes filled with marzipan and jam, or a ham and cheese served on a fluffy gougere — but the challenges that came with the omicron variant proved too much for the fledgling business, co-owner Justyna Wilson told Nosh.
Like so many closures these days, the end came so swiftly that patrons did not have a chance to say goodbye. The Wilsons announced the shutdown on Instagram over the weekend, a message reported on first by SF Gate. The post has since garnered over 170 comments from disappointed diners.
“Reading 100-plus comments from people saying we were really going to be missed in the neighborhood,” Justyna said. “It made me extremely proud. It also made me feel like crying.”
I first interviewed the Wilsons when their restaurant was about two weeks from opening, in September 2020. Keven had worked in the kitchens of tony San Francisco restaurants like Perbacco but said he “always loved a diner, with all-day breakfasts and friendly service.”
The husband-and-wife team, who funded the business themselves, told me then that they were anxious about opening during the pandemic, but indoor dining was slowly resuming in the Bay Area after six months of takeout or outdoor only, so things were looking up. They’d signed the lease in early 2020, before the pandemic, then renovated and redecorated the space at 326 23rd St. One neighbor tells Nosh, “I saw Keven in there with a hammer at all hours, doing a lot of the work himself,” and the result was a spiffy, teal-and-chrome spot with a vacation-y feel. They opened their doors on Oct. 1, 2020.
Six weeks later, indoor dining was shut down again, after a sudden spike in coronavirus cases. Still, the Wilsons hung in there. After all, a vaccine was on the horizon. Just a little bit further to go. And the restaurant was gaining a loyal following, with one patron telling Nosh he tried to spend some money, “even if it was something little,” every day. “Keven literally lived there,” Justyna said.
Meanwhile, Justyna had a non-restaurant day job that helped the family pay its bills, then she’d handle work at the Diner after hours. Their daughter, Mila, after whom the restaurant was named, turned four right as indoor dining closed down in November. “She was home with me, too, during all this.” Justyna said.
We’ve all lived through the last year, so we know what happens next. The slow reopening, then a faster one, still, when hot vaxx summer 2021 seemed in the works. Those were the days you had to wait a long time to get a seat for weekend brunch at Daughter’s Diner, as the place was packed from open to close. During the week it was far quieter, with workers in the area spending weekdays at home, but business was still on the upswing. The delta variant curtailed many companies’ returns to downtown offices, which was another setback. But it was manageable, Justyna said.
“We actually had a really good October and November,” Justyna said. “Thanksgiving was great … And then, like, end of November, when all the headlines started to come out about [omicron], we saw an immediate impact on the business that was already trying to basically just survive.”
“We just thought there was just …” Justinya paused for a moment as her voice broke. “I don’t want to be negative, there’s just no light at the end of the tunnel. There’s going to be another variant that’s going to come up, and another. And then there’s shortages of staff, so even if you do get busy, you’re just not even set up for success to serve all those people.”
The Wilsons went to their landlord, Isaac Abid of HP Investors. Yes, that’s the same landlord you read about when nearby Oakland institution Luka’s shut its doors. But for her part, Justyna said that Abid helped them find a way out of a non-sustainable situation, proposing potential solutions and eventually freeing them from their lease.
Basically, the realization that they had no option but to close “happened in the period of four weeks.” They were past the point of rent abatements and infusions of outside capital, so Abid “basically helped us transition out … we were very lucky that it didn’t take several months. It was kind of like a blessing in disguise, to an extent.”
“I know they did everything they could to make it through,” Abid told Nosh. He had a lot of praise for the restaurant, but said he thought that “a significant reduction in the local daytime population, which was a significant portion of their expected customer base,” made it much harder for the restaurant to succeed.
“Keven and Justyna worked tirelessly through the pandemic to get Daughter’s Diner off the ground,” Abid said. “It was rare to pop into the restaurant and not see Keven in the kitchen or behind the counter.”
That Keven was always there thing is a theme that comes up again and again, so when asked if they had any future restaurant plans, Justyna let out a laugh. “Kevin is gonna rest for a little bit,” she said. “He needs to recuperate, he needs to be with our daughter.” And after that? “And then he’s going to figure out what’s next. But I don’t know what that will be, and right now, he doesn’t either.”