Oakland soul food restaurant Burdell is finally opening

Owner/chef Geoff Davis poses for a photo at Burdell in Oakland, Calif. on Sept. 6, 2023.Douglas Zimmerman/SFGATE

As a young kid, Geoff Davis loved going to the Central Valley farmers markets with his grandfather. He remembers watching his grandmother using cookbook recipes to prepare the vegetables and lamb shank they would bring home. 

The chef behind Oakland’s Burdell, the highly anticipated soul food restaurant that opens Sept. 9 in Temescal, grew up in a household that valued fresh produce and conviviality, one where eating family-style and laughing with each other was a steadfast rule. He’s bringing all of that to his first brick-and-mortar.

Both sets of grandparents — Costella and Lee Davis on his dad’s side, Warren “Pop-Pop” Demby and Burdell “Mom-Mom” Demby on his mom’s side — were keen to influence Davis with their favorite foods, like lemon meringue pie and pork chops slathered in Shake ‘N Bake and served with apples, as well as their family history as Black Americans. They ate a lot of soul food, but not the kind that immediately comes to mind.

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A sign in the window at Burdell in Oakland, Calif., on Sept. 6, 2023.

A sign in the window at Burdell in Oakland, Calif., on Sept. 6, 2023.

Douglas Zimmerman/SFGATE

“People nowadays associate soul food, Black food, with fried chicken or chicken and waffles,” Davis told SFGATE recently. We’re at the Brazen Head, the dark, moody, retro pub in San Francisco’s Cow Hollow and one of Davis’ favorite restaurants. He’s dressed in all black and feasting on prime rib, washing it down with Beaujolais. “But back in the day, meals were made in either 30 minutes or over six hours — there was no in between.”

Davis, known as “Brazen Head royalty” to the bartending staff, is quiet and introspective; he thinks before he speaks and just wants to open a restaurant that honors his time spent with family. Ever since the history lessons served to him alongside collard greens and black-eyed peas, Davis, perhaps unknowingly at times, has been on a journey to open the next great soul food restaurant. Burdell is set to open inside the former Aunt Mary’s Cafe at 4640 Telegraph Ave., a beloved Oakland restaurant that served soul food, like chicken and waffles, on its eclectic menu.

“It’s going to be really special, we’re really going to watch our kids grow up at this restaurant,” he said. “One day they’ll be in the restaurant and the next we’ll be sending them off to college.”

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The interior of Burdell in Oakland, Calif., on Sept. 6, 2023.

The interior of Burdell in Oakland, Calif., on Sept. 6, 2023.

Douglas Zimmerman/SFGATE

Burdell, which is named after his maternal grandmother, will be a refined soul food restaurant that mixes all of Davis’ experiences from his family’s kitchen with his infatuation with great wine and his background in fine-dining establishments from New York to San Francisco. In 2019, Davis was recognized as a Black leader in fine dining by the Iconoclast Dinner series hosted at the James Beard House in New York.

But, “refined” to Davis doesn’t mean “better than.” To him, it just means food that conjures memories of time-honored, family-style soul food dishes, but prepared using techniques that Davis learned throughout his career; ones that will bring out the flavors of meat cooked low and slow over six hours, but served at a clipped restaurant pace. Think chicken and waffles, but instead of a breaded breast and wings, the cornmeal waffle is served with chicken liver pate, crispy chicken skin and a maple vinaigrette. Imagine boiled peanuts with tasso spice and peanut miso; pork neck with chanterelle mushrooms, peach jam and braised mustard greens.

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Born near Philadelphia but raised in Modesto, Davis didn’t always aspire to be a chef. He wanted to be a writer. While in college, he studied English literature. But early into his studies, he realized college wasn’t for him, and he eventually dropped out.

Family pictures hang on the wall at Burdell in Oakland, Calif., on Sept. 6, 2023.

Family pictures hang on the wall at Burdell in Oakland, Calif., on Sept. 6, 2023.

Douglas Zimmerman/SFGATE

After contemplating what his future might hold, he reflected on his time with his family, when his grandfathers would teach him about the Negro Leagues, the joy he felt on those farmers market mornings, and long, home-cooked meals. Food and hospitality brought him happiness. So he decided to move back east — and landed at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York.

While at the famed culinary school, he ventured to Manhattan on weekends to stage at places like Daniel and Le Bernardin, where he was able to learn about fast-paced, fine-dining cooking.

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“I would go down there like three weekends out of every month,” he said. “I think I did it with more frequency than anyone else at CIA.”

But he missed home and soon returned to California, where he worked his way around acclaimed Bay Area kitchens such as Aqua and the Fifth Floor in San Francisco, Cyrus in Geyserville and The Dock in Oakland, under James Syhabout. Davis golfs with Syhabout on weekends as they remain good friends.

In 2017, Davis spent time in Europe, learning about food and wine in Italy and France. Soon, his appreciation for wine grew tenfold. His parents always had a bottle at the dinner table, “but it was probably from Trader Joe’s,” he said. He was eager to expand his knowledge and learn about the different appellations in each country he visited, and taste as many varieties as possible.

Some of his favorite memories were from France, where he met winemakers, such as natural wine producer Jean-Claude Lapalu, on their land and listened to their stories, just as he did as a kid around the dinner table with his family. Inspired by these experiences, Burdell will offer a selection of about 60 wines from around the globe that are made with sustainable practices. By the glass, they will be priced at $14 to $16, and many were picked to pair with specific dishes on the menu.

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Burdell in Oakland, Calif.Douglas Zimmerman/SFGATE
Burdell in Oakland, Calif.Douglas Zimmerman/SFGATE

“It’s really not something you see often with soul food,” he said of wine pairings.

On his return to the Bay Area, he landed at Unti Vineyards in Healdsburg for a brief stint to listen to the stories of California winemakers and learn about biodynamic wine. But he missed food. He returned to the kitchen, eventually landing the role of executive chef at True Laurel, a cocktail bar from Lazy Bear’s David Barzelay, where he served eclectic takes on refined bar food, like a patty melt, which gained attention throughout San Francisco.

Finally, last year, Davis started his own thing: Burdell. Working out of the Oakland kitchens of Sequoia Diner and Tribune, and even returning to True Laurel for one night, Burdell received almost instant acclaim. Davis was finally cooking his interpretation of Black food, what he calls “nostalgic soul food.” He was also finding success in his first love — writing. Working with Resy editor Paolo Lucchesi, he published five articles between 2020 and 2023 about Black excellence, historic Black culinary icons and some of his favorite restaurants in San Francisco, which includes the Brazen Head.

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This entire journey has led him to the grand opening of his own restaurant. Burdell will be decked out with vintage Pyrex cookware, family portraits on the walls, repurposed church pews as a seating arrangement at the large communal table, and a colorful mural on the side of the building “with a nod to African art.” It all makes sense if you know Davis — a historian, a writer, a chef.

At the center of Davis’ life, after all, are stories — family histories, memorized Negro League baseball stats from a half-century ago, French winemaker tales. Food is just one medium for him to share his experiences and to honor those that have left an imprint on him. If there’s anything Davis wants you to leave with after visiting Burdell, it’s a story. It can be something you learned about soul food or it can be something your dinner date told you. Burdell is Davis’ story, and he is ready to share it with the Bay Area.

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