Not all restaurants have authors central figures that breathe their essence into a place but the ones that do tend to be special. They are also uniquely vulnerable, for if that central figure disappears, a restaurant can be left adrift without its animating force, like a fully-rigged sailing ship on a breezeless sea.
In January, Cathie Guntli, the founder and guiding light of the Liberty Café, died. She opened the place in Bernal Heights in 1994, in a woody Victorian storefront space along then-backwatery Cortland Avenue, and the restaurant quickly established itself as one of the city's new neighborhood jewels. It was the Firefly of Bernal.
Since Guntli's death, Liberty Café has passed into new hands associated with Hard Knox Café and Sally's. So far the change in ownership is not visible; the restaurant looks the same and the general new-American tenor of the food is familiar. The menu still features the famous chicken pot pie. The real changes can be found outside the restaurant; Bernal Heights was a sleepy little hill town 15 years ago, but it isn't anymore. The commercial district along Cortland has bloomed with shiny new restaurants in recent years, and Liberty Cafe, which began as an outpost or beacon of sorts, no longer holds that distinction. These days, in fact, its homey Victorian look seems almost quaint.
The restaurant has long adhered to a no-reservations policy. This can complicate patrons' planning, but it does help keep tables full, particularly if there is a steady stream of passersby on foot and a loyal clientele. Liberty enjoys both advantages, and it isn't hard to see why: it's kid-friendly and modestly priced, and it's in the middle of a walk-friendly zone.
Still, there are signs of stress. The dining room strikes me as slightly understaffed; although Liberty Café is barely bigger than tiny, with 32 seats divided between two rooms, you can almost see the front-of-house staff a single server, maybe two, aided by a couple of bussers panting to keep up. People must be met and greeted, summoned from the wait list, and then seated. The no-reservation system is an efficient way of filling tables, but it adds an extra step or two to the service, and that is enough to stretch the staff.
The food is a quirky mix of modesty and elegance, although the balance now tips more toward the former. As if in compensation, portions are quite generous. If you like caesar salad, for instance, you'd have trouble finding a better deal than Liberty's ($7): a looming plateful of immaculately crisp romaine spears tossed with croutons and tabs of Parmesan cheese under a light fall of grated Parmesan like the first snow of winter. No anchovies, though, alas.
The house-baked breads and dinner rolls flow out to the tables in a steady stream. While they are tasty and satisfying on their own if smeared with a bit of softened butter, they're also useful if you happen to have ordered soup. The soup ($7 for a broad bowl) changes daily; it could be of portobello mushroom, a thick pottage tasting intensely of the earth and decorated only with a sprinkling of Parmesan cheese. I had mixed feelings about this soup; there was no doubting the purity of its flavor, but it looked like mud. A bit of colorful festooning wouldn't have hurt.
There was plenty of color on a plate of seared ahi ($18): purplish fish in thin slabs, pale-green chunks of ripe avocado, brilliant red pear tomatoes, halved and very ripe. The tuna had been well-coated with cracked pepper for some extra jolt, and the dish as a whole fluently spoke the language of summer. But the tomatoes and avocado didn't seem quite coherent; they were meant to be a salad, but they behaved like junior-high boys and girls reluctant to mix at a dance.
Impressive coherence was achieved with the vegetarian pot pie ($13), a meatless version of the chicken pot pie.