Café culture is alive and well at Sanaz Shariatzadeh’s Bench
Twenty years ago Sanaz Shariatzadeh went to a café in Tehran with her husband Ali. People were gathered together to socialize and the shelves were lined with books. At the time, Shariatzadeh told Ali that some day she wanted to have a café in her life. Though trained as an architect, every time she went to a café in different cities and countries, Shariatzadeh continued to imagine what her café would look like.
Last month she opened Bench, a café in Berkeley that serves tea, coffee and her homemade baked goods. Shariatzadeh began baking seriously while pregnant with her first child. Having settled here in the United States and suffering occasional pangs of homesickness, she made pastries to celebrate Nowruz, the Persian new year. “It was the first time I decided to bake for everyone,” she said. Her family loved the pastries she made and encouraged her to keep baking.
Shariatzadeh began baking every day for her extended family and for friends. What started as home bakes subsequently evolved beyond a hobby when she began to receive orders from the Persian community. “I found this joy in baking,” she said. That longing to build a space for people to experience was also tied to the tradition of Persian hospitality—Shariatzadeh wanted to share the joy she’d found with the community at large.
Benches remind Shariatzadeh of her school days and the beginning stages of a romance. “We didn’t have individual chairs. We shared a bench at school,” she said. “It reminds me of friendship. It’s a communal way of sitting.” Framed photographs of benches, taken by her and her husband when they made the transition from being friends to dating each other, adorn the café’s walls. Ali built the long bench that sits snugly against one of the café’s walls.
When she started baking, Shariatzadeh not only gathered recipes from family members but also did her research. “There are recipes everywhere these days but I started studying the basics of baking, which was the most important thing for me,” she said. She wakes up between 3 and 4am to make several kinds of pastries to serve at Bench. Half of them are sweet and half are savory.
Some of the sweets are Persian, including four gluten- and dairy-free cookies—walnut, almond, chickpea and coconut. Shariatzadeh compares making them to an art, describing them as “very beautiful and tasty.” Most days she also makes kookoo, the Persian equivalent of a very herby frittata. When I visited Bench, the countertop was also lined with blueberry scones, savory cheese scones, biscotti and crisp golden sugar cookie sandwiches held together by dollops of Nutella.
The Bench menu also features tea blends made by her uncle’s ex-wife. “I want to introduce the Persian tea culture, in addition to serving coffee,” Shariatzadeh said. Ideally, she wants customers to stay at the café after putting in their order. “I want people to experience the place, to share it together,” she said. “I hate those paper cups. I’m serving tea in proper glass cups. You can see the color and feel the temperature.”
Giving up a professional career in architecture in favor of full-time baking wasn’t an easy decision for Shariatzadeh. She spent two years deciding that she ultimately wanted to change direction. When one of her former university professors found out her plan to take up baking, he texted her to say he was mad at her. “I have a master’s degree and I still like it, but it’s hard to explain to people that you’re done with that,” she said.
Before opening Bench, she’d been baking cakes for birthdays and weddings, but her desire to engage with people at a café persisted. “Sometimes I bring cookie dough in [to Bench] and put it in the oven so people can experience the scents, as well as the taste and the place,” she said.
Bench, 1947 Martin Luther King Jr. Way, Berkeley. Open Tue–Sat, 8am to 3pm. [email protected]. instagram.com/benchberkeley.