Eat the Street: Elmwood Café

A timeless neighborhood cafe defines community.
The Elmwood Café on College at Russell has a storied history. Photo: Tracey Taylor
The Elmwood Café on College at Russell has a storied history. Photo: Tracey Taylor

Originally published on, July 18, 2013.

In a new occasional series, Berkeleyside’s Siciliana Trevino sets out to eat at, and report on, every restaurant on College Avenue — from Bancroft to Broadway, taking in the gourmet goldmines that are the Elmwood and Rockridge neighborhoods in between. First on the list? The Elmwood Café.

The intersection of College and Russell was oddly absent of the congestion that normally plagues it at dusk. DJ and I were on the sidewalk, at a crossroads about where to get a drink, or maybe have dinner.

DJ and I often wondered what it would be like to eat at every restaurant on College Avenue from Bancroft to Broadway. It was a what if…? that became a real possibility when I left New York City in April to live with him in Berkeley, where we both originate. But that night in June we vowed that if we ate out on College, we would go forward with our long-held plan.

Despite being close to farmers’ markets, owning a sharp chef’s knife, a rice cooker, a food processor and a Griddler, we eat out many times a week, mostly from a handful of the same favorite restaurants we’ve had since childhood: Gordo’s, Kirala, Ajanta, to name a few. Out of habit, we generally ignore some of the newest and trendiest spots. We’re usually too lazy and hungry to get creative and, besides, we know where to go to get around our particular food aversions. DJ doesn’t eat Chinese food, runny eggs, nuts, or anything that even hints at mayonnaise. I’m not a fan of spicy food. Trying all of the restaurants on College would take us into new places and deepen our awareness of our eating habits.

We had already scouted the scene. In May, pen and paper in hand, we had recorded the name and address of every restaurant and sit-down café along the 2.4-mile stretch of College between Bancroft and Broadway. We counted 79 eateries. Then along came the June 1 opening of A16. That made it 80.

Determined to finally embark on our quest, we crossed the street to the Elmwood Café. The building at 2900 College Avenue at the corner of Russell first opened its doors as The Elmwood Pharmacy and Soda Fountain in 1921 and has had a legacy since then of defining community. Grab a copy of Tales from the Elmwood by Burl Willes to read about its landmark history and heyday as Ozzie’s Soda Fountain, owned and operated by Ozzie Osborne, a World War II fighter pilot-turned-activist who, in 1981, helped organize and pass Measure I to protect independent business owners in the retail district.

Elmwood Fountain menu, circa 1921. Courtesy Berkeley Historical Plaque Project. Click on the menu to view larger.
Elmwood Fountain menu, circa 1921. Courtesy Berkeley Historical Plaque Project. Click on the menu to view larger.

By the mid-2000s, Ozzie’s and the pharmacy were struggling. The doors shut in 2007, but, in 2009, Michael Pearce, who used to frequent Ozzie’s when he was an undergraduate at UC Berkeley, purchased the building. He restored it, retaining many of the original fixtures, including the soda fountain counter and stools. He repainted the Ozzie’s sign, which is visible above the café’s front door. The café’s yellow and white striped awnings evoke the time of five and dime stores and Key Route streetcars.

Pearce brought in Kara Hammond, formerly of Café Fanny, to manage the space, which focuses on local and sustainable food. It opened for business in March 2010 and donates half its profits to charities voted on by its customers.

I had been to the Elmwood for a morning latte and afternoon tea, and frequently coveted their pastries, but I had never eaten dinner there.

Elmwood Café pastries. Photo: Siciliana Trevino
Elmwood Café pastries. Photo: Siciliana Trevino

DJ and I perused the menu, which centers on food that’s easy to prepare behind a counter – Elmwood Café does not have a full kitchen. It is heavy on soups, sandwiches and salads. You place your order at the counter and then find a seat among the many marble-topped tables. A laminated sign punctuated with a heart reads: Thank you for bussing your own table!

Still, we found plenty to eat. We ordered curried split pea soup to share ($6.00), a grilled pastrami sandwich without aioli for DJ ($8.50), and a hummus and veggie sandwich ($8.00) for me. He drank a stein of Steelhead Extra Pale Ale on tap ($4.75) and I had a glass of a Vinegarden blend of sauvignon blanc and chardonnay ($7.50)

We headed outside for a sidewalk table and sat down between a group of cyclists and a couple on a date. When our food arrived I was impressed. The soup delivered on comfort, texture and bite. A fresh mound of organic mixed greens not over-dressed in vinaigrette accompanied a sandwich filled with house-made basil hummus, avocado, carrots, cucumbers, sprouts, red onion and organic greens on Acme whole-wheat seed bread. I rarely order veggie sandwiches; this one was hearty enough to share and worth the price. To me it was a deal compared to what I would have paid in Manhattan for a sandwich this fresh. I was glad to be home.

Elmwood Café Grilled Pastrami, hold the aioli. Photo: Siciliana Trevino
Elmwood Café Grilled Pastrami, hold the aioli. Photo: Siciliana Trevin

Even without the horseradish aioli, DJ’s sandwich was a Berkeley food talisman made of toasty grill marks on Acme levain, Golden Gate Pastrami, pickled-red onions and melted Gruyère that tasted as good as it looked. I wouldn’t stop taking pictures of it, irritating DJ. I want to make this sandwich at home. Anything’s possible now that my bed isn’t next to the stove and I don’t have to use my refrigerator for a closet.

As we sat there lingering over our dishes, enjoying the magic hour and the glow of this timeless corner café, a father and son rode past on their bikes. The son asked his father, “Is it the last day of school for all the big kids?” “Yeah,” answered the father.

DJ leaned in with a wry smile: “And the beginning of the rest of their lives.”

We raised our glasses for a toast.

“To the big kids, the Elmwood Café and to the 79 restaurants ahead.”

The Elmwood Café is at 2900 College Ave. Visit the Elmwood Café website for details about the menu and opening hours. Up next on Eat the Street: Caffe Strada.