Eat the Street: Caffe Strada

Invention, tradition prevail at Berkeley’s revered outdoor cafe. 
Caffe Strada on a recent autumn night. Photo: Ira Serkes
Caffe Strada on a recent autumn night. Photo: Ira Serkes

Originally published on Nov. 4, 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. Second up: Caffe Strada.

At a time when boutique roasters like Blue Bottle, Verve and Stumptown are making their mark on the artisanal coffee trend, Caffe Strada remains true to its roots, serving only espresso made from a proprietary blend of organic fair trade beans supplied by McLaughlin Coffee Company in Emeryville. The café hasn’t served drip coffee since owner Daryl Ross opened Strada on Jan. 30, 1989.

“That’s an intentional choice of mine because I feel like we’re specialists in espresso and I like not diluting the concept by having other stuff,” said Ross, a UC Berkeley graduate who also owns the Free Speech Café on campus, Café Zeb at the law school, and Freehouse, just across the street from Strada. For someone who supplies Cal with its main source of caffeine, Ross is pleasantly down-to-earth and unassuming.

“Every part of me loves this idea of Strada being this simple, pure, pseudo-European business. Like when you go to France, this is what we have, you know?”

The European gourmet/artisan concept is a renowned Berkeley tradition. Strada’s take on it came after Peet’s established itself as the first name in gourmet coffee in 1966, well before you could get a bottled iced cappuccino at any gas station. Once upon a time, the only place you could get a white hot chocolate was at the southwest corner of College and Bancroft, where Strada became a beacon for them.

“According to our chocolate supplier (family-owned Guittard Chocolate in Burlingame), no one — in Northern California at least — was making white hot chocolate before Strada,” said Ross, speaking with his hands and leaning forward with the humble confidence of an insider who knows the back story.

“White hot chocolate is his creation 100%,” said Mark Spini, vice-president of sales at Guittard, who worked with Ross in the early days. “Now it’s a staple on every coffee store’s menu.” Guittard, Spini said, manufactured the first white chocolate chips for the consumer market. Ross used them in his recipe after seeing samples at Guittard.

Strada Bianca Mocha (Ross’s Theorem). Photo: Siciliana Trevino
Strada Bianca Mocha (Ross’s Theorem). Photo: Siciliana Trevino

White chocolate has a lower burning point than regular chocolate. Its consistency is unruly when heated; it is easy to turn it into a clumpy mess. For months, Ross and his team experimented with different techniques until they found that melting white chocolate chips with milk did the trick, and the Strada Bianca was born ($2.95, $3.40). Their discovery also led them to create the café’s signature drink, the Strada Bianca Mocha — white hot chocolate with espresso ($3.10, $3.65). Served hot or cold, its velvety sweetness is like drinking an electric lollipop. The foam on top is whipped into a dense meringue-like texture that melts in your mouth. In 1997, on a tip from a UC Berkeley intern who raved about them, then-Vice President Al Gore came to Strada to try the Bianca Mocha after an appearance on campus.

Complex Magazine’s 2011 “Top 10 College Cafés in the U.S.” listed Strada at #8. The walls of the café are crowded with “Best of” awards going back to the mid-90s. Behind the twin orange espresso machines, emblazoned with gold lion medallions and the La San Marco brand name, are baristas who have to apprentice for at least three months before making coffee. Some have been with Strada since the beginning. And working there is a pedigree of sorts, said Ross. “Once they get Strada-trained, it’s like the stamp, and then other places take them.”

Where the white hot chocolate (Strada Bianca) was born. Photo: Siciliana Trevino
Where the white hot chocolate (Strada Bianca) was born. Photo: Siciliana Trevino

Strada’s drink menu also includes its own blend of tea with notes of cinnamon and clove. The café serves 25 flavors of Torani Italian Soda ($2.25 small, $2.50 large). (It used to carry every flavor.) There is a small but diverse selection of muffins, pastries, bagels, fruit cups, yogurt, apples and bananas. The business is cash only, but an ATM is located on site.

Strada is in a prime location next to Cal, steps from Memorial Stadium and International House. Berkeley Law and the Phoebe Hearst Museum of Anthropology are across the street, with the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive a few doors down. Strada, with its maze of patio tables shaded by flowering pear trees, and its corner view of two converging one-way intersections buzzing with students, cars, cyclists and buses, is ideal for people-watching and inspiration. While it’s easy to spend hours there, you won’t lose track of time: you can hear the Campanile bells striking at the top of the hour.

“The neat thing about Strada is it’s sort of a public space-private space kind of feeling you get,” said Ross. “You’re sort of intimate with the person in your section, you relate to the people out of your section…(all) looking out onto the street in this wonderful way.”

Strada baristas Carlos and Christian. Photo: Siciliana Trevino
Strada baristas Carlos and Christian. Photo: Siciliana Trevino

The location also has a place in history. In 1986, when the café was run by Espresso Roma Café —which still has six locations in Berkeley — one of the most important conversations in number theory took place on the patio. Harvard professor Barry Mazur and Cal professor Ken Ribet realized over a cappuccino that Ribet had solved the Epsilon Conjecture (Ribet’s Theorem) about a rare elliptic curve known as Frey’s Curve. The event motivated Sir Andrew Wiles to prove Fermat’s Last Theorem, which he did eight years later, in 1994. (You can watch professor Ribet recount the story, while sitting on Strada’s patio, in the BBC documentary Fermat’s Last Theorem.)

Strada will celebrate its 25-year anniversary Jan. 30, 2014. Said Ross: “Always for the big ones — for the 10th anniversary, our 20th anniversary and I’ll do it again for 25 — we give away free coffee the entire day. The lines are insane. We get the Cal Band to play. You know what I should have started a long time ago? One of those boards where people put up their pictures, you know, saying we met here and 20 years later we’re still married.”

Caffe Strada is located at 2300 College Avenue. Up next on Eat the Street: Shen Hua.

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