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Lois the Pie Queen

on November 23, 2009

Neither the pies nor the woman upon whom a royal appellation was bestowed for making them is in evidence at Lois the Pie Queen at 9 a.m. this Wednesday morning. That’s no surprise—Lois died many years ago, and everybody knows her granddaughter Margot now makes the pies. Her dad Chris, Lois’ son, runs the joint at the confluence of 60th, Adeline and Genoa streets on the dilapidated fringe of northern/western Oakland near the Emeryville and Berkeley borders. Tempting as the pies are, at this time of day diners are more likely to be deciding between menu selections like eggs with hot all-beef sausage links, smothered pork chops, salmon croquettes, grits, and maybe fried chicken.

“How we doin’,” the easy-smiling Margot coos, approaching the lone diner in the restaurant and touching his shoulder with affection. Besides making the pies, Margot also takes the orders, refreshes hot coffee, and runs a convincing customer relations front. The man, wearing a woolly fedora and a mustache-soulpatch combination that by the looks of it he could have been born with, leans over a plate of eggs over-easy, grits, patty sausage, and a side of biscuits and jam. “Want another hit of joe?” she asks. He will soon demur, after three or four more offerings. But this time he smiles as Margot warms up his mug with steaming hot coffee, which he takes black, and returns to his San Francisco Chronicle.

The menu tells the restaurant’s history and of “food that warms the soul,” which is apparently LPQ’s motto. The eldest of nine children, Lois was taught to cook by her mother, Mathilda Cleveland. After high school, Lois Davis (neé Cleveland) and her sister Bernice worked at a catering company where they made as many as 3,000 sandwiches a day. Lois’ first restaurant, founded in 1949, was on Sacramento Street in Berkeley. She started it with her husband Roland, also a cook, who soon dubbed her and her regal confectionary “Lois the Pie Queen.”

The restaurant has been in its current location since the early 1970s. You can fact-check that assertion easily by witnessing its dedicated morning-time client base, a group of mostly men of middle-age or older who one could imagine have been coming here since the location opened. Soon a steady stream of regulars is pouring in to the restaurant—mostly coming up on foot, seemingly from nearby homes or offices. They take their seats around the short tables or at the bar, giving each other the fist-pound and cracking insider jokes as cars whizz by on Adeline.

Dozens of framed photographs fill the wall behind the bar, giving the room the cluttered look of the parlor of a Renaissance patron who over-indulged her penchant for collecting. Faded purple and torquoise-ish wall treatments are a suitable, if strange, compliment to the bright copper trim on the bar and its chairs. The paint on the western wall and ceiling, and also on the table cloths, actually looks a good deal like rusted copper. Oil paintings in garish hues depict shirtless and befeathered Native Americans. They are for sale. The photos also tell a history. They are mostly of Chris + some celebrity/notable local spotted at Lois the Pie Queen. Sample photo captions: “Saxman Paul Taylor + Chris,” or “The One and Only El Debarge + Chris.” Also on the wall of fame: Huey Lewis, Dionne Warwick (+ Lois), and DJ Timothy Alexander White from the radio station KBLX which now plays over the P.A., contributing to the din of more and more customers taking their seats and greeting Margot, who seems to know pretty much everyone.

Margot, a genial host to be sure, calls coffee the “caffeine train” as she flips over bright white ceramic cups and pours the strong brown liquid into bright white saucers made brighter and more gleaming in the morning sun that streams in through the east-facing windows. She speaks to the busser, a man wearing a 13th-annual Myrtle Beach Invitational T-shirt tucked into khaki pants hanging low over shiny leather loafers, in passable Spanish, directing him to fetch a fresh cup of coffee or clear the plates left by Mr. Fedora when he takes his leave. (On his way out he passes a man of his acquaintance, who’s greeted by Margot thusly: “Hey, Joe!”)

The busser wipes down the blue plastic brush-patterned tablecloth and grabs a fringed paper placemat and silverware set from behind the bar. Other than the kitchen staff, somewhat obscured in their operations at the end of the bar on the far side of the restaurant, these two seem to be the only ones on the clock. Margot still has time to stop and ask each diner how everything is tasting and if they’d take more coffee, with such effortlessness it’s like she was born to run this place.

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Photo by Basil D Soufi
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