Cafe Row Heralds Change At South Berkeley Border

Friday June 20, 2003

It may not be the next Paris. Or even the next Rockridge. 

“I don’t even think it’ll be the next Albany,” cracked Michael Kuchkovsky, a customer at North Oakland’s newly opened Nomad Cafe. 

But the eight-block stretch of Shattuck Avenue from Nomad Cafe at 65th Street to South Berkeley’s recently renovated Sole, just north of Ashby Avenue, has become the East Bay’s latest cafe row—drawing an unfamiliar crowd to the neighborhood. 

“It’s kind of a hip, younger, with-it group,” said Don Link, a longtime North Oakland resident and neighborhood activist. 

The strip still includes its fair share of auto repair shops and rundown storefronts, but Nomad, Sole and Jumpin’ Java, a small coffee shop with free Internet connections and modern art on the walls, have created a new feel. 

“It’s kind of a happening place to be,” said Thomas Myers, acting manager of Berkeley’s economic development office. 

Nomad, the most recent addition, is also the most striking. Located at 6500 Shattuck Ave., the month-old shop has a shiny, chrome exterior, silver tables and chairs and a tall ceiling. A pair of rust-colored leather chairs and a small, colorful children’s area offset the modern architecture. 

Owner Christopher Waters said he opened the cafe, which features jazz performance and rotating local art, as an extension of his Web site, www.gypsyspiritmission.com—a global community of artists and writers. 

“The Nomad is just sort of an outgrowth of that in real time and space,” he said. “That was the kernel at least—the reality is slinging espressos all day.” 

Coffee is not the only offering at Nomad. The cafe also offers free Internet connections, fruit smoothies, pastries and three sandwiches—grilled eggplant, spicy chicken and grilled focaccia—that go for about $5 each. 

“I really like it,” said Kuchkovsky, a Claremont resident who noticed the cafe on a recent trip to church. “It’s comfortable. It’s a nice place to be in.” 

Waters said his shop, which replaced a boxy, often-shuttered thrift store, is part of a larger transformation of a neighborhood that was plagued by gun shots and prostitution just 10 years ago. 

“In the six years that I’ve lived here the community policing groups have formed and fought tirelessly to improve the community, and crime has receded, and it’s turned into a pretty desirable place to live,” he said. “In the next 10 or 20 years, this part of the Shattuck corridor won’t be recognizable.” 

Mike Dawoud, owner of Jumpin’ Java, two blocks to the north, said the improving neighborhood was a major factor in his decision to run his own place after 12 years of managing local coffee shops. 

“I thought it was an up-and-coming area,” said Dawoud, who took over Jumpin’ Java a year ago, shortly after it opened. 

The cafe has an attractive exterior of wood, glass and steel and a smaller, more intimate feel than Nomad. Jumpin’ Java sells bagels, but its focus is on beverages like hot cider, mocha and espresso, with prices in the $1 to $3 range. 

Dawoud said he’s not concerned about competition from Nomad, arguing that it just adds to the overall allure of Shattuck Avenue. But Bill Bahou, owner of Roxie Delicatessen, an old convenience store and deli at the corner of Shattuck and Ashby avenues, said he is worried that the area cannot support a ballooning number of cafes. 

“We have seven coffee shops within a mile with the same population, the same customers,” he said. “It’s too many.” 

Raymond Lee, owner of Sole, agrees. 

“I believe the cafe market is saturated,” he said. 

Over the last two months, Lee spent $85,000 to remodel his business, transforming it from a walk-up cafe to a sit-down restaurant with dark wood, mirrors and a textured, deep yellow paint on the walls. 

“Some people, they’re still not used to it—they’re a little intimidated by the decor,” said Lee, who changed the name of his business from Cafe Sole to Sole with the remodeling. “But I’m a true believer, in this day and age, that people deserve better.” 

Lee, who has owned the space since December 2001, said he keeps his prices low so he can attract blue collar workers, along with the doctors and architects who have set up shop in the neighborhood. 

Sole, which is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner, serves a B.L.T. for $5.95, burgers for $6.75 and Cajun-inspired seafood and gumbo in the $6.50 to $7.75 range. 

Lee said the cafes and restaurants in the area, which are already tapping a new group of young, affluent homeowners, will only do a booming business if they can convince more of the locals to shake off the neighborhood’s bad reputation and stay local in their leisure time. 

“I want people to feel like, hey, my neighborhood’s coming up,” he said.