The interior of La Pena Cafe. Photo by Ellen Salaza
The interior of the newly opened La Peña Café. Photo: Ellen Salaza

By Rachel Budker

Where do politics, art, culture and community meet? Around the dining table.

When La Peña Cultural Center opened 38 years ago, the founders believed in the necessity of a gathering place where community members could discuss local issues of the time. While La Peña has had an adjacent café since its opening in 1975, the café has been run as a concession for the past 12 years.

Not anymore. On Friday, July 12, La Peña took back the operation of the café and revamped the menu. It now features food from Oakland-based Pachamama Cookery and Bacheeso’s Restaurant, which has outposts in Berkeley and Oakland. The menu is affordable and internationally focused, with a wide variety of foods, including empanadas, vegetarian and vegan entrees like eggplant with tofu, lentils and rice, and seasonal fish.

Smaller plates include chips and salsa, humus and pita, as well as several salad options.  There is an extensive beverage menu featuring four local beers from Berkeley and Oakland, reasonably priced wine, as well as specialty drinks such as La Peña’s famous sangria. 

Kristen Sbrogna, executive director of La Pena. Photo: Rachel Budker
Kristen Sbrogna, executive director of La Peña. Photo: Rachel Budker

La Peña’s executive director, Kristen Sbrogna, and its co-founder, Eric Leenson, want the café to reinforce La Peña’s mission of bringing together community, provoking conversation and enacting social change. They are also hoping the café will attract new people, especially young people, to the center and bring a renewed energy and vitality to La Peña.

“We want La Peña Café to be an attractive place, with good food and fun,” said Leenson, just a few days after the café opened. “Somewhere where people can engage deeply with their community,” added Sbrogna.

The new café will also support La Peña’s core mission of music and cultural programming. As funding for the arts decreases, a stream of income from the café will help the center continue scheduling more than 200 events every year.  Such “social enterprising” as Leenson calls it, will allow La Peña to maintain its independence and relevance.

The café will also enhance cultural programming: nationality-specific dishes may accompany events focused on a particular nationality. For example, the café might serve Bolivian dishes when a Bolivian band is playing.

Revamping the café is just the first step. Leenson says the outside mural is also being renovated. In the future, they plan to remodel the café and open up the deck onto the sidewalk to invite more people in.

Interior of the La Pena cafe. Photo: Rachel Budker
La Peña Café. Photo: Rachel Budker

Committed members of La Peña are what truly keep it going.  In the case of the café, 35 volunteers ran around and put in hundreds of hours of unpaid labor to help with set-up and get the café ready for the opening.

These same volunteers share the vision of Sbrogna and Leenson in continuing community outreach at La Peña, always welcoming in a more diverse crowd.

The café, located at 3105 Shattuck Ave., is open Wednesday-Sunday, 5:30-9:30 p.m. for food and drinks, staying open later for drinks and cultural center programming.

For more information about La Peña Cultural Center and Café, visit its website.

Rachel Budker, who grew up in Berkeley, will be a junior at Oberlin College this fall. She is studying English and Chemistry.

Check out our weekly Bites column on Berkeleyside Nosh for East Bay food news.

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