For the last 13 years, Anula Edirisinghe has woken up almost every morning at 4:30 a.m. to prepare her restaurant’s daily specials. Her quaint shop in downtown Oakland, Anula’s Cafe, serves a mix of Sri Lankan and West Indian cuisines. There is no set menu. Instead, Anula and one other employee make as much as they can of a couple of daily specials each day.
Edirisinghe said the intensive labor is worth it after seeing her customers smile when they take a bite out of the jerk chicken or lamprais, a staple Sri Lankan dish that she makes once a month.
“Every day I’m happy here when I’m cooking and meeting the people,” Edirisinghe said. “I don’t complain about the work, only at the end of the day when I’m tired.”
Ben Frost has been a regular customer at Anula’s Cafe for the past 10 years. Frost, who works for YR media, said he’s tried most of the food in the area yet Anula’s homestyle cooking kept him coming back. “I’ve got the whole menu memorized,” Frost said as he rattled off item after item, from the tender lamb curry to the jambalaya to the beloved Lamprais to the coconut cake.“I was a Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday guy; oh, and Thursday too.”
It came as a shock to Frost when Edirisinghe told him last week that she would be closing the cafe for good on Thursday, Aug. 5. “I hadn’t eaten there in over a month, so I walked in [last] Monday to get the curry chicken and she told me she was closing,” Frost said.
Anula Edirisinghe told The Oaklandside that a combination of factors influenced her decision to close. Edirisinghe said that the commercial kitchen space she cooks out of on Franklin Street had recently increased the rent. She kept her cafe closed for the majority of the pandemic to focus on catering and only recently opened in February of this year.
Foot traffic downtown has also been slow. The loss of office workers, the customer base for many restaurants in the area, has hurt other cafes. “People don’t come to work anymore, and renting out two places is too high, so I’m going to focus on my catering business,” she said.
Edirisinghe will be hosting a party this Saturday from 12-6 p.m. to celebrate with regulars like Frost.
“I will miss my people because this is my happy place,” she said.
‘I’ve always been independent’
Edirisinghe left her home city of Colombo, Sri Lanka at 17 when she was pregnant with her first daughter to stay with her brother in Italy. From there, she found a U.S. sponsor and made her way to Pennsylvania, where she became a citizen. “I didn’t like Pennsylvania too much so then I moved to California with my daughter,” she said.
One of her first jobs in Oakland was working at a gas station but she switched careers because she wanted to have her own business. “I’ve always been independent and I wanted to be free,” Edirisinghe said.
Before her tenure as a cafe owner, Edirisinghe operated a flower shop from 1997 to the mid-2000s at the intersection of 17th Street and Franklin Street. “I forget the name now, I think it was Paradise flowers,” she said. “I just knew I loved flowers and food.”
Edirisinghe said there were already a fair amount of East Bay restaurants that served Sri Lankan cuisine, but she wanted to do it her way.
“My kids told me, ‘put Sri Lankan and West Indian food together.’ And people always ask me how I learned to make jerk chicken,” Edirisinghe laughed.
Edirisinghe grew up eating her family’s cooking and her mother would show her and her siblings how to prepare Sri Lankan meals. She perfected her recipes through trial and error and by remembering the flavors she loved so much. “I learned to trust, more than anything else, my own flavor,” she said.
‘She’s like my auntie’
When Ben Frost found out Anula’s Cafe was closing, he texted everyone he knew who frequented the cafe. That included Yared Gebru and Myles Bess, who had been eating there with another close friend of theirs since 2015. Gebru, Bess, and their other friend made it their mission to eat at Anula’s almost every day until its impending closure.
“There’s not a lot of options in downtown for a homecooked type of meal,” Gebru said, “and she’s like my auntie.”
Gebru appreciates every aspect of Anula’s Cafe, from the tasty meals to Edisiringhe’s loving approach to cooking to her hospitality. “Anula is such a warm spirit full of light, and she’s so delicate with her approach to food. She’s just a really good chef.”
Myles Bess also fell in love with the home-cooked taste and saw the daily specials-only menu as a culinary adventure. “I had never eaten Sri Lankan food and thought it was delicious. She had a meat dish and veggie dish every day, so at first, I kept going because I wanted to try everything; I fell in love with the cuisine,” Bess said.
Bess spent years only eating lunch from Anula’s when he worked downtown. Gebru has worked downtown for most of his life and considers the cafe to be a staple in the neighborhood.
Over time, eating these homemade meals became a focal point of their friendship. “It became a tradition for us and definitely helped establish the bond,” Bess said. “Even these last couple weeks of making it a point to go with each other shows that Anula’s is such a big part of why we’re friends and why we care about each other.”
Edirisinghe has appreciated the support she’s gotten from this group of friends and so many others, though she is also ready to rest and travel a little bit after decades of non-stop work.
“I have beautiful daughters. They are doing good and I think everything happens for a reason, so I’m happy,” she said. “ I just want to say thank you to Oakland. I love it from the bottom of my heart.”
Anula’s cafe is located at 1319 Franklin St., and is open this Thurs. from 8 a.m to 3:30 p.m.