Although signs point the way to Jazzcaffè, many passersby have walked by without realizing there’s a café just downstairs at the California Jazz Conservatory. Photo: Sarah Han

It has been in business for 15 years, but downtown Berkeley’s Jazzcaffè is still often “discovered” by surprised diners who have unknowingly walked past its low-key Addison Street entrance many times.

That the café is literally underground — located down a flight of stairs, within the California Jazz Conservatory — adds to its hidden-find appeal. The eatery comprises a comfortable, glass-enclosed nook with counter seating and a handful of tables, along with a roomier seating area near the school’s Hardymon Hall stage, where lucky diners might catch a jazz performance. Outside, two sidewalk tables allow for good Berkeley Arts District people watching.

The Jazzcaffè’s roomier seating area is located near the California Jazz Conservatory’s Hardymon Hall stage, where lucky diners might catch a jazz performance. Photo: Joanna Della Penna

Downstairs, regulars line up to order flavorful, seasonal California fare off a chalkboard list of specials that changes every other day — nourishing soups and stews garnished with diverse herbs and confits; fresh, well-crafted main salads; hearty panini and slices of frittata. Many dishes are met with hunks of salt-topped focaccia from Berkeley’s Acme Bread, lightly grilled and hand-rubbed with garlic. Rich, Italian-style coffee drinks are brewed using Caffè Umbria blends, complemented with house-made baked goods.

Stairs from Addison Street lead down to the Jazzcaffè in downtown Berkeley. Photo: Sarah Han

On nicer days, shafts of sunlight illuminate the below-ground room through its many street-level windows.

“It was this sun that made me love the space,” said owner Kristine Seinsch (pronounced zeintch), pressing her hand to a beam warming one of the tables. “During the build-out of this basement, imagine — everything was dusty, there were no colors, but everywhere there was this October sun and I thought, wow. I knew I wanted to have this.”

Seinsch moved to Berkeley from her native Germany in 1994. She began her restaurant career at Berkeley’s former Santa Fe Bar & Grill, where she rose from server to general manager and catering director within months, and stayed for eight years.

Kristine Seinsch, owner of the Jazzcaffè in downtown Berkeley. Photo: Joanna Della Penna

Wanting her own business, Seinsch waited patiently as a short-lived first eatery — Café Arpeggio — opened and closed under a different owner at 2087 Addison, then took her chance. She signed the lease on Jazzcaffè in September 2002.

“I started this café with shaking knees,” she said, smiling and pointing out an oil painting hung opposite the kitchen by Bay Area artist (and former Santa Fe Bar & Grill coworker) Brandon Smith, depicting a younger Seinsch, first-time proprietor, in delicate profile from behind her new counter.

A painting of Seinsch by Brandon Smith hangs in the café. Photo: Joanna Della Penna

It turns out she had little to fear: Seinsch’s strong industry friendships born from a then near-decade of California dining and hospitality experience — coupled with a European outlook on what a café should be — proved just the right fit for the niche space. Her opening chef, Barbara Bragiel, helped set the menu of clean, appealing seasonal dishes that were full of flavor but with “no schnickschnack,” said Seinsch, using the German expression for unnecessary components. Her current executive chef, Brian White, continues this focus.

Within two years, Seinsch had taken another chance and branched out into catering. Today, her company, ACT Catering & Event Production, employs a staff of 35, with commercial kitchens in Emeryville. (This also answers how tiny Jazzcaffè’s savory, complex dishes are seemingly crafted from two soup warmers and a panini grill.)

Throughout the café’s existence, diners have come for the homestyle soups alone, including refreshing gazpacho in summer. Long-time regular Robert McLean, a senior student at UC Berkeley’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at nearby Freight & Salvage, is one such customer. “It’s always very, very good,” he said. “I’ve never had a bad bowl.” (As he talked, a nearby diner nodded her head vigorously.)

Reza Ghaemi and Kristine Seinsch. Photo: Joanna Della Penna

Behind the Jazzcaffè counter, Seinsch’s old friend Reza Ghaemi, who has been with the café since its inception, is the person most often taking orders and helping guests to bottles of ice water, carafes of wine and cappuccinos. Ghaemi has the expert charm (and wry twinkle) of a beloved bartender who never forgets a face.

“Reza has a heart of gold,” said Seinsch. “He is the one who built the café. What you see here today, it is all on his shoulders.”

Jazzcaffè in Berkeley. Photo: Sarah Han

Alongside Ghaemi, two busy staffers prepare and carry dishes to tables with old-fashioned efficiency. Perhaps most appealingly, the relationship between the café and the California Jazz Conservatory creates a special ambiance, separate but symbiotic — quiet tête-à-têtes, office lunches and pre-theatre dining coexist with bustling young musicians and their teachers hoisting and playing the occasional instrument.

“I can’t imagine the school without it,” said California Jazz Conservatory founding president Susan Muscarella, who favors the café’s Caesar salad, Mediterranean panini and cappuccino. “[Jazzcaffè] adds a tremendous warmth to all that goes on here… and the food is simply delicious.”

Jazzcaffè is open 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., Monday through Friday; 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 4:30 to 8 p.m., Saturday; and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Sunday.

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Freelancer Joanna Della Penna has written about food, people and the arts in the Bay Area since moving here from the East Coast in 2001, and was Gayot's Northern California regional restaurant editor for...