At Bartavelle Coffee & Wine Bar, a mother and son teamed up in 2012 to run a Berkeley cafe together. Nearly a decade later, and in a new location, their admirable and enviable family business continues to thrive and evolve. Suzanne Drexhage oversees the menu and is the administrator. Her son, Sam Sobolewski, runs the front of the house and is in charge of their beverage program.
Back in the early 2000s, Sobolewski was the third employee at the nascent Blue Bottle Coffee Company. Until he moved back from college to join his mother, he continued to work at cafes while sustaining an interest in, and love of, coffee. At Bartavelle, Sobolewski chose to serve the beans from Portland’s Heart Coffee Roasters. He still recalls the moment he tasted a shot of their espresso. “It was unlike anything I’ve ever had,” he says. “It was Kenyan, and twice the serving size of what I’d ever had as an espresso.” Sobolewski describes the taste as “incredibly fruity and sweet, kind of tropical.” He felt as if he’d been served a tiki drink instead of a cup of coffee.
Drexhage’s career in the Bay Area restaurant industry is long and varied. As a child, she worked for a time as a server at Chez Panisse. Back then, Drexhage wasn’t convinced she wanted to be a chef. She left Alice Waters’ restaurant to work at Kermit Lynch for several years—until she returned to Chez Panisse in 2009 for a year-long cooking internship. “I loved being in that kitchen,” she says. “I knew a lot of the cooks from my first stint there, but it really cemented the deal for me.” After that experience, Drexhage knew she needed to work in the kitchen.
Waters’ Cafe Fanny was sandwiched in the corner between Acme Bread and Kermit Lynch Wine Merchant. When Waters closed the cafe in 2012, she reached out to Drexhage to see if she had a concept and business proposal in mind. Initially reluctant to do so, Drexhage knew she’d contend with certain expectations from customers who’d been devoted to Cafe Fanny. “A lot of people were happy that we weren’t doing the same thing,” she says. Whereas some regulars didn’t return. “We got a bunch of new customers.” And, eventually, some of the old customers became converts.
Last fall, after losing its lease, Bartavelle moved out of its corner spot and reopened a few feet away, around the corner into a prep kitchen on San Pablo Avenue. Now remodeled, the take-out window and doorway summon up the presence of a European sidestreet cafe. Bartavelle regularly sells out of its Persian breakfast, served with feta, cucumbers, fig jam and a freshly made lebneh. While I waited for my order, every second customer asked for the salame toscane sandwich. Bartavelle’s take on a lunchtime favorite includes a slice of hard pecorino that complements the shaved fennel and arugula.
Drexhage and Sobolewski’s inspired choice for a pastry chef is Nellie Stark. She was the last person they hired before the pandemic restrictions shut restaurants down. “Nellie’s just phenomenal,” Drexhage says. “She’s an amazing baker who’s taking our pastry to a whole new place.” I tried Stark’s astonishing brown butter madeleine. It is as memorable as the baked good Marcel Proust once expounded upon. Anything with apricots usually wins me over, so I happily grabbed the last slice of her apricot cake. Its tender consistency landed somewhere between a coffee cake and a pound cake, and was laced with the taste of almonds.
Bartavelle’s to-go model worked during the pandemic, but Drexhage is aware that, in this new iteration, there aren’t any tables or chairs where customers can hang out. “Having a place that we could do a little bit more would be a wonderful thing,” she says. Bar Sardine, their wine bar pop-up, is currently on hold as well. In the meantime, there’s an additional window on the side of the building. “We’re selling natural wines there,” until it makes sense for the pop-up to return, Sobolewski says.
Bartavelle, 1609 San Pablo Ave., Berkeley. Open Wednesday to Sunday, 8am to 2pm. 510.524.2473. bartavellecafe.com.