After six decades on Telegraph Avenue, Caffe Mediterraneum will close — at least temporarily.
Longtime owner Craig Becker has transferred the lease of the iconic café, which is known, among many other things, as the home of the latte, to a group of restaurateurs. Its last day in its current incarnation will be Nov. 30. Becker will clean out the restaurant through the month of December and hand over the keys Jan. 1. After an extensive renovation, the café will reopen in 2017.
So far, it is unknown if the the new owners will keep the Caffe Mediterraneum name.
The lease transfer was a long time coming; Becker first listed the café in 2014, but it has taken this long to find the right people to take over, he said. “People had come by and wanted to lease it but they weren’t willing to do what we needed,” he said. “They wanted to do it halfway; we didn’t want that.”
What’s needed is a full kitchen remodel and the addition of wheelchair-accessible bathrooms. Other changes, Becker said, are still “undetermined,” and up to the new owners. Regardless, said Becker, “we’re really excited about the group.”
“What interested us is that they are ready to tackle this full-scale project,” he added. “They have restaurant experience with different kinds of restaurants. … They have the best flexibility and the best chance of success.”
As far as the name is concerned, Becker said: “There’s a lot of history to the place, and a lot of good will. We’ll help them if they do keep the name.”
For his part, Becker will be sticking around; he still owns the building.
News of the sale broke in the café Nov. 2, and regulars with furrowed brows worried openly about the future of the café’s mural and its beatnik spirit.
Berkeleyside contributor, and longtime Caffe Med customer, Ted Friedman, was on the scene, and later wrote on his Facebook page in a style evoking the café’s Beat poet days: “As news of sale descends on Medheads, with personal Med histories to Med opening, as first cap-cop in 1956, Geezers groping to cope with their memories and move on. But to where?”
Other longtime customers echoed Friedman on Facebook.
Wrote Ken Stein, a customer since 1969: “Oh, as for the demise of the Caffe Mediterraneum … little by little, Berkeley is becoming a little less and less of a better place to be.”
A friend of Stein’s responded: “My Caffe Med Story: In 1977/1978 … I lived in an apartment on Haste Street. With no heat! We used to go to the Med for Sunday breakfasts … to eat AND to keep warm. … I always used to say that it was too bad we didn’t know about tenants’ rights advocacy on Haste Street. But then again I wouldn’t have the Caffe Med memories.”
Indeed, there’s no other place quite like Caffe Med, even in a coffee-filled city like Berkeley.
It opened in 1956 as El Piccolo, which took its name from a San Francisco café with the same owner, Maxin Chitarin. It was renamed Caffe Mediterraneum the next year when Chitarin handed the place over to her Italian baristas. Over the next five decades, the café changed hands several times, and played host to several notable customers, including Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Jerry Rubin and Patty Hearst, according to the café’s website.
Becker said that he was finally able to confirm the popular rumor that the café was a Black Panther hideout in the 1960s: “I thought it was just a rumor, but someone who was doing a documentary on Bobby Seal came by and said he [told them] they used to meet upstairs and hide from the police.”
Many believe that the world’s first latte was served to a Caffe Med customer in the 1950s. As the story goes, early customers were not used to the strong-roasted flavor of traditional Italian cappuccinos and espressos. They would consistently ask co-owner Lino Meiorin to add more milk to their drinks. “Finally he thought of putting a larger drink on the menu with the same amount of espresso but more steamed milk, and calling it a caffe latte,” according to the Med’s website.
Becker bought the building that houses the Med in 2004 and took over the business operations 2006. He had been a customer since the 1980s, but noticed that the café had fallen into decline. The bathroom was in need of remodeling, dirty bags often littered the place overnight, and behavioral standards were rarely enforced, he told Nosh in 2014. When Becker came in, he spruced up the building and upgraded the coffee, but he kept the name — and much of the café’s character — in place.
For now, Becker said he plans to just “carry on to the end of the month,” and does not have plans for any celebrations marking the Med’s last day in its current incarnation. “We’ll do the best we can until then.”
Changes at Caffe Med are only a part of the activity in the neighborhood. In addition to sidewalk and street improvement, around a dozen new eateries and coffee shops are headed to the Southside. Some, such as Super Duper Burger, will be replacing other long-running businesses like Smart Alec’s. Others, like Mezzo (formerly Cafe Intermezzo) and Raleigh’s, will be making a triumphant return after years of closure.
Caffe Mediterraneum is at 2475 Telegraph Ave. (between Dwight Way and Haste Street), Berkeley.
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