There’s a standard design formula that many new cafés conform to these days: white walls, or maybe white subway tiles, a blonde wood bar, shiny new coffee equipment, but an otherwise clean and minimal decor. This aesthetic, that once seemed chic, modern and visually appealing, has become a bit predictable, cold and cookie-cutter with its overuse.
That vibe’s fine when popping in and out for a $4 cup of coffee, but that’s not the scene I’m looking for in a neighborhood hangout. Which is why I felt immediately drawn in when first visiting Way Station Brew, my new favorite café in Berkeley.
The seven-month-old-café on Dwight Way, just off Shattuck, that took over for Lindgren’s Coffee & Café has retained the understated but cozy and warm bistro-like vibe of the former coffee shop. I’d describe its look as classically good looking and approachable. It skips on trying too hard visually, instead concentrating its efforts on small, thoughtful details that elevate its offerings above the usual café fare.
Take for instance its yogurt.
Yogurt is the last thing I’d order while eating out. Well, maybe after a bowl of cottage cheese. I’ve relegated yogurt to food you buy at the supermarket to eat at home, or maybe, on the rare occasion at an airport when extremely hungry and pickings for edible and affordable eats are slim and bleak. The usual café yogurt doesn’t tempt me because it’s generally uneventful. But the version at Way Station Brew is noteworthy because it’s housemade.
While most homemade yogurt is cultured for four to six hours, Way Station’s is long-cultured overnight, for at least 24 to 28 hours. Co-owner Warren Spicer learned about the process from a book recommended by his girlfriend’s nutritionist for her food sensitivities. This long-culture method, popular among followers of the GAPS or SCD diets, eats up the lactose in the dairy, making it more digestible for those with lactose intolerance, and increases the good, healthy bacteria, or probiotics, that makes your gut happy.
Good info to know, but dietary sensitivities are, fortunately, not a concern for me. What gives this yogurt my stamp of approval is the texture and flavor. Incredibly light, almost fluffy, but creamy and rich, the yogurt reminded me of eating a cloud. If I had to compare it to another, I’d say it’s closest to my favorite yogurt splurge from Saint Benoit Creamery. Way Station’s magical yogurt uses organic, whole-cream milk and a Straus whole-fat yogurt to kickstart the fermentation process. The extra fat results in a thicker, richer yogurt with less of a tang, the perfect blank slate for adding toppings.
Another regular café offering that I usually avoid but would recommend trying at Way Station Brew are its scones. Spicer, a self-described “scone snob” who credits Zuni Café in San Francisco with making his favorite scones, said he and co-owner Peter Snyderman were mostly impressed with Lindgren’s original scone recipe. They decided to keep it, but made some small adjustments until they got the results they wanted — a light, flavorful dough that bakes with a good lift. The scones are available in four flavors — pear and pecan, blueberry, cinnamon-sugar and cranberry. These pillowy triangles are a far cry from the dense, tasteless hockey pucks you normally find sitting in pastry cases on café counters.
Spicer and Snyderman (the latter who formerly owned Elite Café in San Francisco) wanted to offer a strong menu that works in a quick-serve café environment, but at a quality that meets the expectations of a full restaurant. They worked with chef Jeremy Weiss, a Berkeley native who worked with Snyderman at Elite Café to put together a menu of dishes, like sandwiches, salads and bowls, made with components that can be prepared in advance, then put together or fired to temperature when ordered.
Take for instance its brisket sandwich ($13). The cut of beef is coated with a coffee rub and marinated in red wine and herbs before its slow-cooked overnight. The tender meat comes shredded on Firebrand sourdough bread, topped with roasted tomatoes, jack cheese, a mix of purple and savoy cabbage and a house made thousand island-caper dressing. The brisket can also be ordered as a side for $5, or perhaps as an add-on to the warm, roasted veggie bowl ($7 for small, $12 for large).
But my favorite thing on the menu here is the chicken — offered in a sandwich ($12), on a salad ($13), or as a side ($5). Way Station eschews the normal, safe chicken breast route for tender, juicy (and organic) roasted thighs. The addition of roast pasilla peppers to both the chicken sandwich and salad adds a deep chili flavor that’s a savory match made in heaven. Even the greens used on both chicken options are worth noting — sweet, crisp little gems retain their crunch, even when topped with warm chunks of chicken or tossed in generous amounts of green goddess dressing.
As with Lindgren’s, Way Station roasts its beans on site using a cast iron drum machine located in the back of the café. You’ll pass it on the way to the back patio (more on that later). Spicer, who does most of the coffee roasting at Way Station with help from an expert roaster, prefers blends to single-origin brews. He’s constantly tweaking the combination of beans to find the perfect ratio to get the best flavors out of his roasts.
If iced coffee is your jam, you’ll want to try Way Station’s cold drip, which is made in a fancy Kyoto-style slow drip-brewer. Water drips through the coffee grounds at a rate of one drop per second. The contraption’s ceramic filter holds back acid and fats in the coffee beans, so you get all the rich body without the acidity. One batch (3000 ml) of cold drip takes eight hours to brew, so the number of pours per day are limited, even though the price ($3.75 for 12 oz and $4.25 for 16 oz) doesn’t reflect it.
As for stronger brews, Way Station currently offers craft beer and wines. Six beers are on tap, with the capability of adding two more. Most of these are from local outfits, like Ghost Town Brewing in West Oakland and Speakeasy in San Francisco, but Spicer mostly just fills the taps with what he likes. There are also a few cans on offer, like Ex-Novo lager, Melvin Hubert MPA and Glutenberg pale ale, which is gluten-free. Wines offered ($7 by the glass, $28 for a bottle) consist of rotating vintages, but there’s always three reds, two whites and a rose on hand. Champagne ($55 per bottle) and mimosas ($5, $4 on weekends) are available if you want to get festive with bubbles.
On warm days and evenings, the best place to enjoy any of the above offerings is on the back patio. There are plenty of spacious wooden tables, comfortable seats, umbrellas in case it gets too bright and heat lamps for when the temperatures drop. Dog people will be happy to hear the pooch can hang her, too. And as the days get longer and with Way Station’s new extended evening hours (8 a.m. to 8 p.m., Monday through Wednesday; 8 a.m. to 10 p.m., Thursday through Saturday; 9 a.m. to 7 p.m., Sunday), there’s even more reason to spend time here.