Picture Orange County, CA in 1970. Psychedelic colors. Communal attitudes. Earthy spirit.
Fast forward forty years to a place where you can still find that comfortable, welcoming spirit, and you’ll be at Rutabegorz. That’s also where you will find generous portions of healthy, wholesome food and an owner with a wry sense of humor. Who else would name a coffee shop after a little known vegetable, the rutabaga, and turn it into a full service health conscious restaurant with three locations?
Meet Paul Berkman, who was one of the first to bring espresso to California. “We started as a coffee house, just a place to talk about politics,” he remembers. “We weren’t even open to the public when we started!” That was back in 1969, but by 1970 the place was so popular that they gave it a name and opened the doors.
“We took a vegetable and tried to make a parody of it,” says Berkman. “No one knows rutabagas.” Over the years he says they’ve just had fun with the name. “We used them on the walls, played with a couple of recipes. People say it a hundred different ways,” he adds. The regulars, however, just call it Ruta’s.
The restaurant is categorized by Berkman as “half vegetarian, and half non,” with special menu items such as Bean Nacho’s and Veggie Surprise on one half, and Garlic Chicken and a BBQ Fiesta Wrap on the other.
They still serve espresso, with great variety drinks like the Yerba Buena Caliente (Viennese coffee, a hint of mint, cocoa and whipped cream) and the Krakatoa Shake (chocolate ice cream, peanut butter, Viennese coffee and whipped cream) . . . or, on that healthy side again, blended juice drinks such as the Veg-Out Mix, which includes carrots, celery, spinach and tomatoes all freshly squeezed together.
It’s actually an extensive menu, with 24 pages filled with everything from history to enticing descriptions of munchies, soups, chili, salads, wraps, bagels, sandwiches, pastas, and baked goods. In fact, Berkman says they make five to six different soups every day, many of them “one pot at a time.”
Best recommendations? Go in early and settle in with a bagel and Cappuccino. Come back for lunch and get the Garlic Chicken Salad, with caramelized walnuts, chicken marinated and grilled fresh, served with avocado and crunchy noodles. “It’s the one we could open a restaurant with just that item,” says Berkman. “We were ahead of the curve—we were doing caramelized nuts ten years ago!” Or, try the Chicken Enchiladas Verde or the Veggie Surprise.
Don’t stop there, though—Ruta’s is known for its cheesecake and carrot cake.
The restaurant concept is one that has actually come into its own in recent years, thanks in part to healthier lifestyles. Berkman says that when they started, “People had the perception that we were too vegetarian. As the years go on, though, people want to eat healthier.” They serve nothing that is fried or deep fried and encourage people to avoid fast food.
In fact, Ruta’s even has a mission statement that says, “Our mission has always been to provide our communities with a healthy alternative to traditional restaurant offerings without sacrificing taste. We provide ‘old school vegetarian values—lots of fresh and natural foods. We strive to make your experience here positive, and hope you’ll enjoy our unique food, casual atmosphere, and friendly servers.”
It’s a mission taken to heart by the three Ruta’s general managers: Andra Villaborowitz in Tustin, Veronica Comeau in Orange and Dane Henderson in Fullerton. Villaborowitz says, “We embrace our regulars. They come in, sit down, and we know what they are going to order. We take care of them.” It’s that attitude that has helped Ruta’s capture a third generation of customers (and, recently, even a fourth).
“I was a hippie,” smiles Berkman. “That meant we had no rules in the restaurant. It was casual; nothing was uniform. Our first menu was on a ‘Mod Podge’ shellacked on a board. You could sit for a couple of hours and we wouldn’t kick you out!”
The 70s were an interesting time for the restaurant, with, as Berkman recalls, “an aerospace engineer from Hughes Aircraft sitting at lunch next to a hippie. We always had that half-hippies, half-not hippies type of group.”
The pervasive theme, though, is more about the food than about the clientele. “I tried to do everything I could do to help people eat healthy,” says Berkman. “It’s a challenge to eat healthy, without additives. I figured out how to make soups with no cream—how to get that creaminess with no dairy. I learned on the job how to cook.
“They said we would never make it without having hamburgers and french fries,” he continues. “I spent a whole year knocking on doors, handing out menus.”
It’s a tenacity born, perhaps, out of Berkman’s background. Both parents are concentration camp survivors who met after WWII. His chosen career was not a typical path—he says, “If you tell someone, ‘You can own a hot dog stand, or you can be president of IBM,’ parents are going to say, ‘Be president.’”
They obviously came around, however, and Berkman says his mother’s cooking has been an influence. “My mother was a great cook—very creative—who loved to socialize. The more the merrier.”
She also had a hand in his interest in healthy eating. “We never went to fast food; I never even had a soda until I was 21,” he says.
Now Berkman works with his three managers to choose the menu. “We work as a group,” he says, “But will do different specials at each location. That helps us develop new items, by testing them individually.” They take into account the special customers in each spot, too, like the college crowd found in Orange.
“All of our locations are in old downtowns,” says Berkman. “People said we were crazy to open a business downtown. Well, I’ve spent a lifetime defying the odds.” The restaurants all support downtown activities, including art fairs, parades and car shows.
The community feel extends into the kitchen in each location. “They are what make the difference,” points out Villaborowitz.
The entire group is constantly coming up with new ideas. “We look around and think, ‘How can we do that differently,’” says Villaborowitz. It’s how they come up with their monthly dollar specials, which have become known as the “dollar dip” because they are usually an appetizer. “We try something new,” says Villaborowitz, “and for a dollar they say, ‘Sure, we’ll try it.’”
When you go, though, start with a few of the standards, like the Walnut that Kissed the Chicken Sandwich with Cocky Leeky Soup. “It’s from an old English soup,” says Berkman. “When there was a cock fight, the loser went in the soup!”
Berkman says that now, “We walk the market, go to health food shows. You can’t put everything you like on the menu, but if we take a favorite away, there’s almost a panic.”
Villaborowitz says, “We’re known for our big salads, that can be shared. We have quite generous portions. We don’t just throw on a sprinkling—it’s a handful.”
When you go, take time to stroll around, look at the local artwork and absorb a little of the atmosphere. The Tustin location, for example, has windows made from 1950s movie theater chandeliers. “I found them in a basement in a hundred pieces,” he recalls. “I looked for 20 years for movie chandeliers!”
Now, with the California sun shining through those pieces, Berkman looks around at the eclectic restaurant and it’s similarly eclectic lunch crowd. “The crowd is always like this these days,” he says. “In the early days I never thought it would happen. It’s very hard to be in this business and have staying power. We do it by not raising our prices, keeping things stable, and accommodating people.”
It may be true that few people know much about the rutabaga as a turnip. But Rutabegorz is another story completely.
Picture Orange County, 2010. Three Rutabegorz. Millions of meals. After 40 years, Ruta’s has come into its own. You could even say that turnip has definitely taken root!
Find the recipe for Ruta’s Holiday Spread.
See our blog from the Las Vegas tour, here.
See the video from Rutabegorz here.
How does Berkman turn Christmas upside down? Check it out, here.
Visit Rutabegorz when you are in the Los Angeles/Orange County area:
158 W. Main St.
Tustin, CA 92780
264 N. Glassell St.
Orange, CA 92866
211 N. Pomona
Fullerton, CA 92832
This is a Raves & Faves Featured Restaurant.