In the midst of a coffee-inspired, motorcycle-powered tour of the West Coast, I recently found myself with limited time in the quite extensive coffee hub of San Francisco. I opted to ask some local coffee veterans for some direction. Curiously, their responses were a similar trifecta. They’d always recommend their own cafe first, then a varying shop chosen based on flashy buildouts/equipment/aesthetics, and then they’d each mention a pretty little cafe in Berkeley called Bartavelle.
Meet Bartavelle, a dreamy European-inspired bistro. Sandwiched between two West Berkeley institutions—Acme Bread and the headquarters of Kermit Lynch Wine Merchant—the cafe could easily fly under the radar amongst the cozy row of storefronts. The space is small, working with a humble eight square feet for kitchen space, but the menu is anything but meager. Bartavelle boasts a thoughtful offering of breakfast, lunch, and small bites that seamlessly pairs with a well-curated wine selection and a serious coffee program.
The folks behind it all are a mother and son team, Suzanne Drexhage and Sam Sobolewski. Sobolewski, the coffee director and cafe manager, started out as a teenager bagging coffee at Blue Bottle’s Oakland location and has remained active in the realm of coffee ever since. While completing a graduate program, he completed a two-year stint at Joe Coffee in NYC (where—full disclosure—we first met as coffee professionals). Shortly thereafter, Sobolewski returned to SF to start the planning and building of Bartavelle.
“We were inspired in part by the cafe/wine bar hybrids in Venice and elsewhere in Italy,” said Sobolewski. “There’s something so great about being able to return to the same spot throughout the day for wholly different purposes, whether it’s a cappuccino and a pastry in the morning, a delicious lunch, an afternoon snack or espresso, or a glass of wine and some charcuterie in the early evening,” he continued.
Bartavelle’s location is no stranger to culinary greatness. The space was home to Alice Waters’ Cafe Fanny for 28 years, a long-treasured institution of the Bay Area food scene. Through Cafe Fanny, Drexhage started her connection with the space and Alice Waters many years ago, becoming a server in 1998 at Chez Panisse, the original iconic Waters endeavor.
“After years of working front of house in restaurants in San Francisco, the deep connection this kitchen had with the local farms was a revelation,” Drexhage told me. After her time at Chez Panisse, she went on to work for Kermit Lynch Wine Merchant, which shares a parking lot and wall with Bartavelle. There, she had the opportunity to explore the field of Old World wine. Through Lynch she gained access to a network of small producers in France and Italy, many of which are featured on Bartavelle’s offering list today.
The whole experience is a sensory dream. The original walnut bar from Cafe Fanny runs along the entire length of the space, which is illuminated by rays of sun from an overhead skylight. The large open windows allow for the aroma of baked bread to drift through the space from Acme Bakery next door. Starting at sunrise, Drexhage and two other cooks bake scones and other pastries, assemble toasts, and prep porridge for breakfast orders while seamlessly dancing around each other, preparing for the day while expertly managing their tiny kitchen space behind the bar.
Bartavelle’s menu clearly takes inspiration from Waters’ approach—a small but intentional breakfast, lunch, and small plate offering that’s built with local farmers market fare. Everything encompasses a warm, welcoming, home-cooked feel. Making my way through the menu, I started with the avocado toast accompanied by an anchovy egg, made quite memorable by the bread that had just exited the oven from their neighbor’s oven. Another standout is their Persian breakfast, which consists of homemade labneh (finely strained yogurt), sheep’s milk feta, sliced Persian cucumbers, a bunch of fresh herbs, really good jam, and za’atar (sumac, thyme, sesame seeds, and sea salt).
On the beverage side of the bar (a few steps away from the kitchen side), Sobolewski has chosen to serve tea from San-Francisco-based Song Tea & Ceramics and Leaves and Flowers. The wines are imported with the help of their neighbor, Kermit Lynch Wine Merchant; the selections focus on smaller French and Italian producers, accented by a rotating selection of bottled beers. Bartavelle proudly serves Heart coffee, rotating through the Portland roaster’s single-origin offerings for espresso drinks and filter coffee, meticulously dialing-in small batches on FETCO daily.
It seems that a small row of shops a bit off the beaten path has been transformed by Bartavelle to create quite the community; using great food, wine, and coffee as its conduit. Bartavelle’s small stature isn’t viewed as a limitation by the owners, but as an opportunity to cultivate a new tight-knit community, paying homage to the atmosphere that Cafe Fanny had cultivated in its past. “The smallness of the space gives it an intimacy,” says Sobolewski. “We have an incredible number of regulars that return two or three times per day, and that really sets the tone.”
Fortified by its neighboring businesses and a rich culinary and community history, Sobolewski and Drexhage have built a genuine and thoughtful experience that you can’t help but want to return to…motorcycle optional.
Josh Littlefield is a coffee professional, doughnut enthusiast, and volunteer firefighter living in New York City. This is Josh Littlefield’s first feature for Sprudge.