Let’s just get this out of the way: There are no poached eggs on the menu anymore, not at the skinny little cafe on San Pablo and Hopkins, wedged between Acme Bread and Kermit Lynch Wine Merchant. You won’t find granola there, or buckwheat crepes. No beignets. No baked-goat cheese salad. The coffee doesn’t come in a bowl. Cafe Fanny, the tenant for 28 well-loved years, had a great run, and now it’s gone.
What has sprung up in its place is Bartavelle Coffee and Wine Bar, a new venture for chef-owner Suzanne Drexhage. For Fanny fans, the first impression is reassuring: walls creamy-white, a zinc-clad bar, the comforting smell of fresh coffee and toast, tables and chairs catching the morning sun outside.
Settle in to sip a Sightglass cortado made by Drexhage’s friendly, Blue Bottle-trained barista son, Sam Sobolewski, however, and you’ll start noticing the spiffed-up details: subway-style tiles on the wall behind the kitchen prep area, copper-framed mirrors, shelves displaying neat arrangements of Sightglass coffee bags, Red Blossom Tea tins, Mediterranean-inspired cookbooks and sunny jars of preserved lemons. It’s all light and bright, warm and welcoming.
Of course, when Drexhage first opened the doors, on October 23 of last year, some regulars seemed surprised to discover that she planned to run her own business rather than the one Alice Waters, Jim Masur, and Sharon Jones opened in 1984. Keep a business going long enough, and your customers start to assume it’s theirs, a community-based extension of their living rooms.
But Drexhage has every intention of becoming that living room again, in her own style. She’s already a familiar face to many in the Bay Area, having worked in the dining room at San Francisco’s Slow Club throughout the 1990s, when it was an everyday hangout for the many media businesses in the Northeast Mission. Later, she spent two years as a waiter at Chez Panisse, then became a wine importer for Kermit Lynch. It was a good job, she said–interesting work, a steady paycheck, benefits–but as the years ticked by into her 40s, she feared being caught in a desk job forever.
In 2008, she started putting together a business plan for a cafe/restaurant in Berkeley. Just before she started looking for financing, the economy tanked–and the business plan went into a drawer. She returned to Chez Panisse, this time to do a year-long internship in the kitchen downstairs. She did some catering, some private cheffing, cooked at pop-up dinners and events with OPENrestaurant, with Samin Nostrat at Tartine AfterHours, at Local 123. She loved being the kitchen, but couldn’t see herself working as just another line cook. Then, a colleague told her about the closure of Cafe Fanny, and how the original owners were looking for a new tenant. It seemed almost too good to be true, but she dusted off her plan, scaled it back to the casual, coffee-and-small-bites business she’d originally envisioned, re-did the numbers and hoped.
Before long, Alice Waters was calling from France: she loved Drexhage’s vision. There was just one thing: She hated the name Drexhage had chosen. Could she think of a new one? Knowing that it’s always wise to keep Alice happy when you’re running a food business in Berkeley, Drexhage and Waters went back and forth until they agreed on Bartavelle, the French word for rock partridge, a plump, quail-like game bird.
Without the separate commissary kitchen that Fanny had relied on, Drexhage had to build more storage, refrigeration, and workspace into the narrow open kitchen. Adding in some new Health Department-mandated sinks revealed plumbing issues that required tearing up and replacing the entire floor. “My husband Stan, my dad, my brother–everyone helped out,” said Drexhage. “I have some amazing artisan friends who did some amazing, wonderful things, a lot for trade.” Eric Stark put up new counters, inside and outside, along with a tall cabinet at the back of the restaurant that discretely hides both dry storage and a refrigerator, while Paco Prieto and Pacassa Studios added zinc and copper cladding for both the counters and the outdoor tabletops.
Over the past two months, the brief opening menu of coffee, wine, and crostini has expanded into a appetite-whetting, seasonally-inspired list of sandwiches, small bites, and sweet and savory-topped toasts. Beautiful wooden boards, hand-carved by Prieto, are loaded with assortments of fresh and house-made pickled vegetables, cheeses, cured meats or smoked fish, with Acme bread on the side. In the morning, there’s a whole-grain (and gluten-free) porridge of brown and red rice, red quinoa, amaranth and flax seed, served sweet, with butter, milk, brown sugar or maple syrup, or salty, dribbled with ghee and sea salt or sesame oil and gomaiso.
Almost every purchasing dollar gets spent locally: at Monterey Fish nearby, for local ling cod she salts and dries for brandade; at Sightglass Coffee Roasters and Red Blossom Tea, both based in San Francisco; at Marin’s organic Straus Creamery for butter; at Tomatero Farm, Full Belly, Capay, and Happy Boy Farms for organic vegetables. Gorgeous eggs, with their marigold-yellow yolks bathed in olive oil, sea salt and marash pepper, or enriched with aioli and anchovy, come from a friend out in Clayton, who raises chickens on a biodynamic farm and Waldorf school called Beeloved Farm.
Next door, Acme bakes an irresistibly chewy-crunchy Roman-style pizza bianca–a cross between ciabatta and pizza crust–only for Bartavelle, where it’s used for sandwiches like this one spread with Bellwether sheep’s milk ricotta from Marin, sauteed kale and fresh arugula, seasoned with preserved lemons and shallot vinaigrette.
The coffee program is run by her son, Sam Sobolewski, who started his coffee career at 15 as Blue Bottle’s third employee, stamping bags and making drip coffees at the farmers’ market. After several years with Blue Bottle, he went to New York to work for Joe: the Art of Coffee, returning last year to help out on the beverage side of Bartavelle.
Why Sightglass? Most importantly, it’s taste: Sobolewski loves their coffee. Local 123, the nearest coffee shop, serves Four Barrel; Bartavelle is Sightglass’s first account in Berkeley. There’s no one coffee roaster that makes the “best” coffee, says Sobolewski, just like there’s no one winemaker making the “best” red wine. It’s all a matter of taste and style, and one that so far, even slow-to-change Berkeley is embracing at Bartavelle.
On this sunny, suddenly warm afternoon in January, Sobolewski looks up from his espresso machine to the wine bottles ranged in front of him as the golden-hour light sluices through the tall front windows, glowing through the pale salmon of the Abbatucci Gris Imperial. A day like this, it’s almost rosé weather, I say. Absolutely, he agrees.
“It’s rosé o’clock at Bartavelle!”
All Photos by Wendy Goodfriend