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Mar 6, 2013 09:02 AM

K2 Restaurant Group - ruined restaurants in Berkeley?

Seems like several of restaurants I used to enjoy in Berkeley (Sea Salt, Fonda, Lalimes) went downhill in the last few years after being taken over by the K2 Restaurant Group. Seems like they were good after the takeover but slowly went downhill. At Lalimes and Sea Salt I noticed a drop in the quality of ingredients and the chefs seemed dispirited. At Fonda they toned down the food so it was more like an expensive Chiles or something. Is this just my impression or coincidence? Does anyone know more about this?

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  1. Similar observation, no insight. They seem to intently purchase neighborhood gems, and whatever made them special dies.

    20 Replies
    1. re: bbulkow

      K2 actually did not purchase or takeover any of the restaurants in the original post. They created all of those restaurants, as well as Paisan, Jimmy Bean's, and TRex (I think some branches of Jimmy Beans and TRex have since been sold off).

      As far as quality, I haven't really been enough recently to say. We had a really nice meal at Lalimes a few years ago, shortly after George Morrone left. This was summer 2010 and I thought that incarnation (post-Morrone) was the best it had been in several years, they seemed to have hit the right mix of the Steve Jaramillo favorites and more focused G. Morrone menu. But that was two years ago and I couldn't say if they've kept it up.

      1. re: Truffle Dog

        I think LALIME has mediocre food which falls to poor when price is factored in and doublly so when the unwelcomingness factor is added, so it is on my "never again" list.

        FONDA, I've wanted to like ... at least they are welcoming and convivial but there is just too little of interest on offer, esp the dessert menu [usually stopping in for a drink+light eating, so i'm not so much judging on mains] ... i think the items are both boring and mediocre in execution.

        1. re: psb

          I've had really good Mexican food at Fonda during the late-night happy hour, but maybe not recently.

          1. re: psb

            Both places USED to be really good.

            I have had absolutely fantastic meals at Lalimes about 10 years ago. I still remember a particular meal there of perfectly prepared sweetbreads. At one point it got very hit or miss. The turning point was a mediocre “Day of the dead” meal that seemed very promising and we were excited about.

            Fonda used to be good and had a really fun atmosphere. But they toned down the level of spice and lime in their food and at the same time the quality of the food deteriorated. Duck tacos that used to be amazing were suddenly mediocre.

            Sea Salt used to be great with innovative salads and appetizers like grilled squid with sqpik (I forget the spelling) sauce and amazing devilled duck eggs but the last few years we stopped going after several disappointing meals.

            1. re: Ridge

              I had a good meal at Sea Salt just last June. I didn't go there for innovation, just for reliably excellent seafood dishes such as chowder, lobster rolls, fish and chips. I don't think I was ever disappointed.

              I think the guy who bought it made a big mistake in changing the seafood focus.

            2. re: Truffle Dog

              I remember (I am older!) eating at Lalime's a very long time ago when it was located on Solano Avenue in Albany. I remember the original owners. It used to be my very favorite place to eat. It was only moderate in pricing and the prix fixe nightly menus were outstanding. I have not been in over 15 years and I am sure things have changed.

              1. re: wrldtrvl

                Lalime's is still owned by its founders, Cindy Lalime Krikorian and her husband Haig.

                1. re: wrldtrvl

                  Loved those prix fixe nites at Lalimes. And the newsletters they used to send out about their family, and food, and travel.

                  1. re: escargot3

                    They still send out notices about the prix fixe nites.

              2. re: bbulkow

                Truffle Dog is correct. The K2 Group is owned by Haig Krikorian and Cindy Lalime Krikorian. They started with Lalime's, then added Jimmy Bean's, Fonda, T-Rex, Sea Salt, and Paisan.

                They recently sold T-Rex and Sea Salt. I think T-Rex had gone downhill before and has gotten better under the new owner. I thought Sea Salt was fine. The buyer who took over in January changed the name and concept and went out of business in two months.

                K2 was somehow involved for a while in both branches of Cesar but I believe it's no longer connected with either.

                  1. re: Truffle Dog

                    I read that at the time, but the liquor licenses were never updated to reflect any ownership change. The Piedmont license is as of last November in the process of being transferred to a new LLC managed by Hal Brendel.

                    1. re: Truffle Dog

                      Interesting. I wonder if perhaps something internal happened at K2 that caused the quality to go down at their restaurants or if it was due to their factors (like changing chefs as was mentioned). What I noticed at Lalimes was what seemed to be a decrease in the quality of ingredients. For example the chicken used in their fried chicken the last time I went was completely bland. The quality of the chicken itself seemed poor, so I thought perhaps they were cutting corners and buying mass produced chicken and other products. Have not been to any of these restaurants in over a year due to dissapointing meals.

                      1. re: Ridge

                        I haven't been to Lalime's in years, but I have noticed a decline in the quality of ingredients in a fairly broad range of restaurants during the Lesser Depression over the past four years or so. It's just one way that a significant number of better restaurants have chosen to cope with hard times. C'est la vie!

                        1. re: Mike C. Miller

                          I haven't noticed any decline in the quality of ingredients at the places I go. In many cases I know they're using the same suppliers.

                          1. re: Mike C. Miller

                            I agree. The decline in quality at many places is noticeable. Cheaper cuts of meat, less of or much simpler sauces, less expensive breads, etc. - commodity prices have risen dramatically over the last few years and profit margins are being squeezed hard.

                            The Nov 12, 2012 Inside Scoop interview with Seattle's Tom Douglas gave some interesting insight into the economics of scale. He has 13 restaurants in Seattle, and it allows him to develop new concepts and 'tinker with them.' The established places give him the financial breathing room.

                            He said the best year he ever had managed only a 5% profit!

                            1. re: jaiko

                              Most of the places I go don't buy food in the commodity market system.

                              1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                Even if they don't buy directly, everyone is affected indirectly, Robert. Nobody gets a free pass when raw material costs and transportation costs rise. It doesn't matter if you're a consumer buying from Lucky or Whole Foods, or a restaurateur buying wholesale.

                                Actually bigger corporate chains have the most protection against spot or seasonal price jumps because they sign long-term contracts and often hedge option as well. Upscale restaurants just raise prices.

                                It's the middle and lower tier restaurateurs who feel the pain. Anyone who tells you they aren't paying more for the same quality food than they were three years ago...well, I'd be reaaaaallllly skeptical.

                                1. re: jaiko

                                  The prices in the alternative distribution system most of the restaurants I frequent use (and that I use myself) aren't much affected by the national markets. I have not seen much change in cost in the last few years. Some things have gotten cheaper, e.g. pastured eggs.

                                  Farmers and ranchers who sell everything they can produce directly to local customers have a more stable business model than the international factory farm system.

                                  I don't know anything about Lalime's but the menu and prices suggest they're not part of the alternative system.

                  2. I can't speak for the others, but I believe they changed chefs at Sea Salt at least twice in the past few years. So I don't know if it's a top-down management thing, or if the new chefs just weren't as good. Did the major change to their brunch menu a while back correspond to a chef change?

                    T-Rex (which, like Sea Salt, was sold recently) fits into this same mold -- I haven't had a good meal there for at least a couple of years. Have not gone since the sale, though.

                    1. Berkeleyside reports that there's a liquor license notice up at Fonda. The ABC site shows the buyer is an LLC managed by Hal Brandel, the guy who took over Cesar on Piedmont.

                      2 Replies
                      1. re: Robert Lauriston

                        What was the consensus of the Cesar changes? I'm not sure I've been back since that change - maybe once for a drink -

                        1. re: bbulkow

                          Shattuck is solid, still very Spanish, second-best restaurant paella (after Duende) around here.

                          The only thing I've had at Piedmont since Brandel took over was an excellent bowl of New England-style clam chowder that was a daily special (on a hot day in September). The menu's mostly Mexican.

                        1. re: Robert Lauriston

                          I can't speak for all the restaurants, because I don't visit many of them anymore, but I can only imagine that keeping a portfolio of restaurants afloat in the past few years has been more than a challenge. That said, the kitchen at Lalime's, where I go typically once to twice a month has been putting out some excellent food, often on their Thursday special menus (not offered every Thursday).

                          1. re: lmnopm

                            Yeah, they expanded a lot in recent years.

                            1985: Lalime's
                            ?: Jimmy Bean's in SF
                            1994: moved Jimmy Bean's to Berkeley
                            2001: Fonda
                            2005: T-Rex
                            2005: Sea Salt
                            2009?: Artisan Foods (wholesale bakery)
                            2010: Paisan

                            Was there also another branch or two of Jimmy Bean's for a while? maybe as the cafeteria in a hospital or something? And they were somehow involved in both branches of Cesar for a while. Maybe they bit off more than they could chew.

                            1. re: Robert Lauriston

                              Jimmy Beans had a branch on campus for a while.

                              1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                They also have/had a full-service catering operation under the Jimmy Beans name (they catered my sister's wedding).

                                1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                  Jimmy Beans was in SF well past 1994. Maybe they ran both for awhile?

                            2. I noticed today that the K2 sign has been removed from the front of Lalime's. The spot hasn't been repainted yet. When did that happen?

                              3 Replies
                              1. re: Glencora

                                The liquor license was transferred to a new LLC in January but the officers are still the Krikorians.


                                The license for the new Longbranch (former Sea Salt) is owned by West Berkeley Center Partners, officer Harold Brandel.


                                  1. re: Ridge

                                    My periodic (approx. 1x/mo) trips over the past several months have been very good.