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The Last Day at the Caffe Med

Steven Finacom
Friday December 02, 2016 - 07:33:00 PM
The Med on its last official night open.
Andy Liu
The Med on its last official night open.
The Med from outside, one of the lights of lower Telegraph.
Steven Finacom
The Med from outside, one of the lights of lower Telegraph.
Painter Ed Monroe and the campus painting.  Those appear to be uneaten hash browns on the Med dinner plate.
Andy Liu
Painter Ed Monroe and the campus painting. Those appear to be uneaten hash browns on the Med dinner plate.
Another view of the interior, on closing might.
Another view of the interior, on closing might.

November 30 I went to the last day of the Caffe Mediterraneum. Whether this was the final last day, I’m not absolutely sure. The Caffe has changed hands and was officially closing for remodeling by the new owners, but when I told a friend I was going there for the closing, she said “Oh, the Med has been periodically closing for YEARS!”

People often point to the Med as the first real cafe in Berkeley and the forerunner of Berkeley’s ancient coffee tradition. But although the Med dates to the 1950s and was the local forerunner, the widespread coffee tradition is not that old.

Listen, children, about the early days of Berkeley coffee culture. It has not existed in Berkeley, or the Bay Area, for ever and ever. Back in the ‘70s—oh, so long ago—it was still largely the era of Folger’s, and Maxwell House, and big metal percolators during fellowship hours after church services and community events, even in Berkeley.  

Although the first Peet’s existed, the adjacent Gourmet Ghetto didn’t; the primary features of North Shattuck were a Co-op supermarket and a mortuary. 

This is not to say there weren’t some establishments elsewhere in Berkeley that served specialized coffee drinks. If my fading memory serves me, near Telegraph Avenue there were just three: the Caffe Med, the Cafe Durant (upstairs on Durant), and the something-or-other (possibly the Cafe Renaissance) across from the Cafe Durant.  

And although I imagine some people did go to those places solely for coffee in the morning, the clientele, as I remember it, primarily went there for coffee and—gasp—breakfast. Plates of hash browns and bacon and eggs your style and such.  

The idea that you would go out of your way while headed to work to a business and get only a cup of expensive speciality take out coffee was still sort of alien, just as the sight of a person walking alone down the street and talking out loud was likely confirmation that they were a lunatic. Ah, the days before cell phones. 

Anyway, on Wednesday night I walked into the Med. It was busy, but wasn’t quite packed. First person I ran into was an acquaintance who confided “I just had a meal here, and it was terrible”, which is exactly what I remember some people saying about the Med back in the ‘70s, even the regulars I knew. Some traditions continue. “That’s why I’m not having dinner here”, I answered. I’d come for the atmosphere and a beverage.  

We hung around the counter quite some time before a staff member appeared. Then we ordered and paid, and waited a lot longer for the beverages to appear. This, also, was the nature of the older sort of coffee cafe, not the cookie-cutter Starbuckian “Next! Your order will be right up!” atmosphere one finds elsewhere. 

I ordered hot chocolate at the Med. I’m not a coffee person, and drink it rarely, usually only if it’s the only beverage available. This has gotten me in trouble at places like Peet’s on Domingo.  

“I’d like a hot chocolate”, I say. “You mean a COCOA?” the barista archly asks. “No, a HOT CHOCOLATE”, I’m tempted to say, standing my ground, but suspect I’ll be pulled out of line and torn apart by the grumbling crowd of coffee-addicted Saturday morning recreational cyclists waiting behind me. (Cafe tip; the best hot chocolate in Berkeley from my perspective can be found at Cafe Milano on Bancroft.) 

Before going to the Med we had stopped across the street for dinner in a newish pizza joint, filled with students. The pizza place was in the Fred Cody building, which was the first place I had a full-time job (not for Cody’s, but upstairs in a rented office, above what was then Cody’s Cafe).  

My most memorable moment there was when Cody’s received an early morning firebomb through the front door for selling “The Satanic Verses”. I’d gone into the building by way of the side door, and worked there alone for a couple of hours, not realizing that the front door to Cody’s itself was blocked off by police tape. Literally explosive history was happening just steps away, and I was obliviously processing some bureaucratic paperwork. 

Eventually I ran into a Cody’s staffer in the upstairs hall. He casually mentioned there had been a bomb in the building. What should we be doing? seemed the natural question for me to ask. “Oh, look around your office for anything suspicious”, he said, and went away. Do it yourself bomb discovery, Berkeley, 1980s. 

By way of conversation at dinner I said to the pizza cashier, while waiting to pay, “This area where we’re standing used to be the travel section of a huge bookstore.” “Huh?” she said.  

After I thought about it, I suspected the confusion was not over the idea that the building had previously been a bookstore, but over the concept of what a travel section involving actual books might be. 

The pizza place also had numerous quotes stenciled on the walls, sort of like a sanitized chain corporate version of Top Dog. From where I sat, I could see amongst the inspirational musings of people such as Mother Teresa, Confucius and Oscar Wilde, one quote from Henry Ford, two from Ronald Reagan, and one from…Donald Trump.  

The fact that a Telegraph Avenue restaurant un-ironically decorated the interior with quotes from Ronald Reagan and Donald Trump means…something…I’m not sure what. But it’s probably not good. 

After dinner, and the extended visit to the Med, we went back across the street and browsed in Moe’s. While paying for purchases, made conversation with the pleasant youngish woman at the register. As she bagged up our purchases I said, “Moe used to ask people in a very gruff manner if they wanted a bag, giving the impression that he would be doing you a big favor if he gave you one. Did you ever meet him?” “Oh, I’m not THAT old!” she exclaimed, unintentionally making me feel, well, old. 

I suspect some others writing about the last days of the Med will say that it had become a glass coffin for relic hippies who had been punching the coffee clock there for decades. I don’t think that’s true.  

There were some older customers, indeed—one man at the next table said he’d been a Med regular for more than 50 years—but I looked around on the last night and also saw young people there, not gawking first-timers, but drinking and chatting in what appeared to be their usual place.  

And newcomers. I asked the middle-ageish guy I sat down next to how long he’d been coming there. “Not long”, he said. “I live in Emeryville and I just discovered this place.”  

In any event, it was a true Telegraph Avenue institution, living piece of Berkeley character, and local “legacy business”. The community is vastly diminished by its closing. And thank you to Craig Becker, the owner, for keeping it going for so long. 

Another person I saw at the Med was Ed Monroe, a Telegraph fixture and Berkeley painter, muralist, and writer. You can often find him on weekends selling his paintings and prints—of both local and surreal scenes—at the corner of Channing and Telegraph.  

I had long imagined having an original Monroe painting as a piece of Berkeley artistic history. Then some years ago, out of the blue, Ed had told me when I stopped by his Telegraph display that he wanted to paint me into a picture he was contemplating of the UC campus.  

Why? was my first surprised reaction, but sure, I said. That would be great. Vanity then whispered in my ear and I qualified, “Just make sure I’m wearing a hat”.  

Years passed, and I periodically ran into Ed and inquired about the painting. He said it was in progress, and he was working out the details of this or that aspect of it. Ed is a very dedicated and professional painter and he does what he says, but sometimes he takes long intermediate detours from one project to another.  

So I didn’t have any expectation of a timeline or necessarily even seeing the painting before Ed, or I, expired, like the Med. 

Well, at the Med’s last night, when Ed saw me he jumped up and said “sit down right here! I’ll be back.” He disappeared, for a long time. I rather expected he was in the Med bathroom line, which was also long and didn’t seem to be moving. I chatted with other people at the Med, and took some pictures, then went to use the bathroom myself, but back across the street at the pizza place.  

When I came back to the Med, Ed was sitting there beaming, holding a rectangular canvas. It was the painting! He was done! I had worried my image would be huge—I was hoping for a primarily Berkeley scene, not a portrait. And a Berkeley scene is what it is, essentially a campus landscape with a reasonably small me standing in the foreground. “Take it home”, he said. “But bring it by, I want to make some changes.” 

So I went to the Cafe Med for its last day and got a first picture.  

That’s my Cafe Med closing story. Thank you Med, and thank you, Ed. May something equally magical occur, the next time the Med closes