Round tables and moveable chairs. Those are the key ingredients for a great conversational cafe. Small square tables and benches lend a studious air, and those cafes work as study halls. The greatest cafes have both aspects, and thankfully, Berkeley is blessed with some of the finest cafes ever.
For a cafe to survive here, it helps to have a prime location, as does the Caffe Strada, on the corner of College Avenue and Bancroft Way. The ambiance under the trees is pleasant, and the crowd international; conversations occur mostly outside, while the interior tends toward serious study. The basic cafe fare of espresso drinks, juice and pastries is available, although when a construction worker came in and asked for coffee, the woman behind the counter said, “We don’t have coffee.” She neglected to tell him they do have espresso, and he left, confused.
The original Berkeley cafe, listed for years in European guidebooks as “the gathering place for 1960s radicals who created People’s Park” is the Caffe Mediterraneum, on Telegraph Avenue near Dwight Way. When students used to ask me what they should do to become writers, I would always answer, “Hang out at the Med.” In one afternoon, 15 years ago, I saw June Jordan, Gary Snyder, Robert Crumb, Jane Scherr, John Oliver Simon, Ruth Rosen and Ishmael Reed. The Med has changed ownership these last few years and the crowd I knew there has dispersed to other cafes. There are other good cafes on all the streets bordering campus, from the International House to the Milano to Nefeli on northside. Most are clean and comfortable, and each has its own ambiance and clientele. The Musical Offering serves simple meals and is popular with professors and visiting musicians, and one can often see clumps of people wander in after a performance or lecture.
Three-quarters of a mile from campus at Ashby and College is the well-designed Espresso Roma. The outdoor tables offer a lovely view of the hills; the center room is comfortable and tends toward conversation, with fresh salads and good soups as well as coffee and pastries. There is a room off to the side where silent people sit tapping at laptops. The Roma is one of the few that are open on holidays.
There are also numerous Peet’s Coffee and Tea stores in the area, where the coffee is guaranteed to keep you up as late as you need to for study, and they can be found in Walnut Square on Vine Street, which was the first Peet’s location, on Solano Avenue in North Berkeley, and on Domingo Avenue by the Claremont Hotel, among other locations. I went to the one near the Claremont for a year after the Med got too funky, but in that year, I didn’t make a single friend. There are no tables, so students don’t study there, and on the benches I found conversation very limited, often abrupt. If you need a private, quiet cup, this could be the place.
A young woman sitting near me a few weeks ago at Saul’s Deli on Shattuck Avenue complained that “Berkeley is the loneliest town on the planet!” When I asked her why she said that, she replied that she had been warned before she arrived that all people do here is read and argue, and that in fact had been her experience. “When I finish this year, I’m going home,” she told me. I suggested that she try my personal favorite cafe—Royal Coffee on College, just over the border of Oakland on 63rd Street. “If you want to meet people, just ask someone if you can sit at their table. I’ve met wonderful friends there; in fact, we know call ourselves the Royal Family.”
Krista Rogerson, a Royal regular, had these insights:
“People still have churches and neighborhood bars, I suppose, but since I have neither, the pull of the cafe is a strong one,” she said. “My friend Doug says he doesn’t even like the coffee, but he comes to hear the opinions of people he trusts, a kind of kamikaze intimacy.”
It’s true that any town can be lonely, but here in Berkeley there are at least places where scholars and book lovers can sit quietly in the company of others, and where noisy politicals can holler at each other in a fairly peaceful environment, all in the same room.