Telegraph Avenue. To some it is the ultimate college business district. It has no shortage of great record shops, treasure-filled thrift shops, fantastic cheap eats, eccentric characters, artists and street vendors selling their wares, and a rich political history filled with protests, riots, movements and marches. To others it is a street that happens to have a couple of good music stores and maybe a good thrift store. Otherwise though, it is filled with not-so-good cheap eats, overrun by people too old to make their living hawking cheap jewelry, packed full of homeless, abandoned and/or mentally ill people all too often in need of a bath, and remains a pale shadow of the political tour de force that it used to be.
Coffee in the immediate (Telegraph Avenue, not the larger campus) neighborhood, sadly, tends to adhere to the less savory side of things. The cafes, mostly owned by the Espresso Roma folks, tend to serve a mediocre brew. Still they are bursting at the seems with students typing furiously on laptops, reading books or meeting in study groups all while spending as little money as possible. There is Caffe Strada and a recently opened Peet’s Coffee which offer something slightly more promising, and then there is Caffe Mediterraneum.
“The Med,” as Caffe Mediterraneum is known, dates back to the 50’s and carries with it a history as rich as the street on which it resides. The Med’s back wall abuts People’s Park, a major player in Berkeley’s 60’s mythology, but now home to a sizable portion of the city’s homeless population. Dustin Hoffman sat in the window of The Med, overlooking Moe’s Bookstore (another Berkeley institution), during a scene in The Graduate. Allan Ginsberg allegedly sat here while writing Howl. The Med is also supposedly birthplace of the latte, invented in the late 50’s for customers too unaccustomed to the strength of their North Beach style Cappuccinos. The common wisdom is that is also the home of truly American coffee culture – where coffee escaped the confines of purely Italian neighborhoods like North Beach and Little Italy.
Until about a year and a half ago, however, the Med has not been worthy of much attention. The coffee was not particularly good and the hoards of gutter punks, crazy people and general uncleanliness was enough to steer most people clear. About a year and a half ago, however, ownership changed hands. Craig Becker, the new owner went with Barefoot Coffee Roasters, putting it head and shoulders above anything else in the neighborhood.
The Med uses Barefoot’s Bigfoot blend for their espresso and usually has about 5-6 single origin beans in stock at any one time, which they rotate as their drip. They have a small display stand up front where they sell 12 oz bags of pre-packaged whole bean coffee, usually featuring at least one other espresso blend. I was a bit alarmed to see that the beans on display were pushing 7-10 days from roast, but after I asked, Craig was more than happy to bag me up some coffee from the bulk stash, delivered weekly, and sold at the same price at which you’ll get it from Barefoot.
On both trips, I ordered a macchiato, one made by Craig and the other one made by another barista. Both were of similar quality and were quite good, with a burst of orange zest, clove and chocolate and a syrupy, rich mouthfeel. The foam was well made and sparing (a true “stain”) and blended well with the drink. The espresso did have a bit of a tingly, numbing quality that might be characteristic of the bean and not the pull, but not having had this espresso before, I can’t be entirely sure. Either way, it didn’t take away from the cup too much. The decaf drip my father ordered seemed good, but I don’t have good notes and am not sure which decaf it was. I also picked up some beans, some Guatemalan El Eden – good, but not exceptional – which I will comment on in a later post.
In my mind, The Med is similar to cafes such as Village Grounds or Aviano Coffee, small, independent cafés that you otherwise might not notice, but which serve high quality coffee. Given the neighborhood, lack of interior design, and typical clientèle, The Med might be considered somewhat less of a destination spot than cafes such as these. At the same time, it is steeped in history, which gives it a real sense of place and importance. I read somewhere that the plan is to try to restore The Med to at least some of its former glory. At least with the coffee, they’ve taken the right first step.