Welcome to Breakfast Week, East Bay Nosh’s celebration of the most important meal of the day. Come back all week for stories on the region’s greatest morning treats and where to find them.
Berkeley locals are more than familiar with the corner of San Pablo Avenue and Cedar Street: The intersection once housed Alice Waters’s Cafe Fanny, and has been home to Acme Bread and Kermit Lynch wines since 1983. When Cafe Fanny closed its doors, locals mourned the loss, but its successor — Bartavelle — quickly gained loyalty among Berkeley residents with its focus on exceptional coffee and breakfast treats, seasonal small plates and carefully curated wines.
A partnership between mother-and-son team Suzanne Drexhage and Sam Sobolewski, Bartavelle thrived as a coffee bar and cafe by day and was just ramping up its wine bar, Bar Sardine, on occasional evenings when the COVID-19 shelter-in-place ordinance forced them to temporarily shutter. In the midst of this, Drexhage and Sobolewski were notified that they’d have to leave their 1603 San Pablo Ave. location sooner than expected.
“We were already losing our lease on the main cafe space before the pandemic, but when we had to shut down in March of 2020 it expedited the process,” Sobolewski said. “Fortunately, we already had the annex kitchen space around the corner.”
1609 San Pablo Ave., Berkeley (until its new cafe opens)
8 a.m. to 2 pm Wednesday-Sunday
After five months of planning and modifications, Bartavelle reopened at its former annex space at 1609 San Pablo Ave., as a morning and early afternoon takeout window. The pivot made it a Berkeley breakfast destination, with a tomato tartine sought not only for its delectable combination of fresh Acme bread, juicy Early Girl tomatoes and house-made aioli, but also for its photogenic presentation.
The takeout window also offers baguette sandwiches, breakfast porridge both sweet and savory and rotating pastries by pastry chef Nellie Stark. With the exception of the coffee beans (Bartavelle serves Portland-based Heart coffee, chosen for its taste as well as its transparent sourcing and labor practices), local acquisition of seasonal produce has always been a priority and focus of the Bartavelle menu, with the season’s bounty even making its way to the beverage menu in the form of shrubs, seltzer and agua fresca.
Another result of the pandemic was the birth of Bartavelle’s bottle shop and retail pantry: After the shutdown, Sobolewski was left with a plethora of wine and coffee beans. Since he was, and still remains, so passionate about where he sources both — as well as the people behind each — he couldn’t bear the idea of any of it going to waste.
“We had all this wine leftover from Bar Sardine and had to figure out something while we were closed. We even sold toilet paper at one point,” Sobolewski said with a chuckle. Coffee beans and other pantry essentials like tea and house-made granola are still available for purchase at the takeout window (though toilet paper is not).
Although Sobolewski is thankful for the success of the takeout window, the transition has not been without its challenges.
“[The takeout window] works surprisingly well, but that’s not to say it’s been easy, or ideal,” Sobolewski said. “There are some things we just can’t pull off with the somewhat comical space constraints and lack of fridge space, and other menu items that we aren’t currently offering because it makes us sad to put them in a cardboard box.”
As previously reported by the Chronicle, Drexhage and Sobolewski still plan to move Bartavelle to a new space at 1621 San Pablo Ave., just a few steps away from the takeout window. The vision for the cafe remains the same as it ever was: A warm space that begins the day with breakfast and seamlessly transitions through lunch to happy hour and Bar Sardine in the evenings.
Sobolewski also plans to include the bottle shop and pantry at the new space. With the move, the takeout window will shutter to the public and will transform into a prep kitchen, allowing pastry chef Stark more room to experiment with and expand her dessert offerings. If all goes well, the new cafe will open later this year.
Sobolewski looks forward to bringing back sit-down service, and with that, the return of some of their signature menu items like their Persian breakfast, a dish inspired by Samin Nosrat that consists of labneh, feta, fresh herbs, za’atar and house-made jam served with Acme flatbread.
“We really miss putting food on plates, coffee in real cups, and, most importantly, the more intimate and substantial interactions we had with our regulars when they could come inside,” Sobolewski said.
“Our goal is to fully realize our original dream of a cafe by day, wine bar by night with a fluid and flexible transition between them; afternoon coffee drinkers mingling with day drinking wine enthusiasts, as much a place to come by yourself with a book as it is a place to bring friends, or maybe make new ones!”
Featured image: Bartavelle’s pastry window. Credit: Paulina Barrack