Whatever Happened to Berkeley’s Iconic Hippy Coffee-House?

by Steed Dropout
July 12, 2014

You never know when Berkeley’s, sixty year old Caffe Mediterraneum will explode with youth. College-youth from Cal…and today, eight-year-olds from the peninsula.

That You never know who will show may be why Berkeley’s oldest cafe and the first East-Bay baristas, is for sale. You could call the Caffe Mediterraneum a Berkeley coffee-house icon, or you could call it misspelled.

Youth was to have saved the Med.

When the Med doesn’t explode with youth or anyone else, it can be big, cold, and empty. At the moment there are ten customers (room for 100) beneath a 20 foot ceiling. The next moment could bring a rush of youth. Therein lies the rub.

The customer flow is flawed.

Erratic customer flow and a long list of missteps has brought the Med to yet another crisis. This would be its third crisis in 60 years.

In 1992, Roz Gordon, 83, convened a star-studded poetry reading on the Med mezzanine. It wasn’t a fundraiser, but rather a tribute. Everyone thought the Med was dead. In a way, it was dead, if you compare the Med’s successors to the original joint, which ran like a Swiss watch and payed off like a winning lottery ticket.

The ownership change in 1992 from the cafe’s founders to a couple of cooks was perhaps the beginning of the end for the Med.

Brad Cleveland, 83, was there for a local newspaper the day the Med opened in 1957. “Lines reached around the block, and they continued that way for many years,” said Cleveland, adding “it was a place to meet new people because you couldn’t find a seat to yourself.”

Med Heads as we call ourselves are now sitting here all by ourselves wondering what will become of us. Will we be swept aside for something stylish, that gleams, or stuffed and put on display? If swept aside, at least they’ll have to use a broom and that’s good.


“Sitting here in limbo
Waiting for the dice to roll
Yeah, now, sitting here in limbo
Got some time to search my soul
Well, they’re putting up a resistance
But I know that my faith will lead me on”–Jimmy Cliff

Med heads find themselves in a lingering limbo. Because the sale of the Med is now just another realtor-listing among many nearby for-sale businesses on Telegraph Avenue — we could be waiting for years to learn our fates.

We see the owner huddled with his realtor. We hear rumors.

Some Med Heads are planning alternative conversational meet-ups. One has an idea to turn one of the rooms in his cottage into a soiree.

Despite the crowds, various popular entertainments, an excellent selection of beers and wine cocktails, an at-times bustling kitchen, and killer coffee, the Med was barely meeting expenses, according to insiders. Equipment which broke stays broke.

This is not the first time the 1956 Caffe has been for sale. The present owner, who saved the Med from becoming an Indian restaurant, was supposed to have been its final owner. He owns the Med building, and had vowed to keep the Med always a coffee house.

I hope they [whomever buys the Med] make good coffee,” owner Craig Becker told me the other day.

Funny he would make that his swan song after years of his defining and producing some of the best coffee in the Bay Area.

We Med heads are hoping for more than good coffee; we’re hoping the Med survives.
“Anything could happen,” Becker told me, when I asked him who would buy the business, “some Indian restaurant?”

A successful Telegraph businessman is interested. Starbuck’s and Peet’s, even Paris Baguette, would have to consider the Med. Two mainstay employees, one, who trained with the Med’s founders may yet be able to make an acceptable offer for the Med.

There are Berkeleyans, who once hung out at the Med, who have moved on, like one would after getting out of school. Others still recoil at the mere mention of the Med. Every time, I run into an old Med Head I comment on not seeing them at the Med. “I’ve got better things to do with my life,” one told me through a sickening grin.

True Med Heads know they are wasting their time at the Med.

Young Med Head. Photo by Ted Friedman.
Cal Crowd @Med. Photo by Ted Friedman.
Kids bid for Med or Ice Cream. Photo by Ted Friedman.
35-year employee for sale. Photo by Ted Friedman.
Ceiling for sale. Photo by Ted Friedman.
Hippie Image for sale. Photo by Ted Friedman.

These views do not represent publications in which my work appears. Portions of this appear in the current issue of Berkeley Times.

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