Big changes for Telegraph Avenue dining scene

New Sequoia building Photo: Max Cherney
The new Sequoia Building, where Mezzo and Raleigh’s will soon open. Photo: Max Cherney

By Arielle Gordon-Rowe and Kate Williams

Around 8:30 p.m. on Nov. 18, 2011, a devastating fire broke out at 2441 Haste St., the site of the Sequoia apartment building. The historic building, constructed in 1916, had been a home to not only dozens of Berkeley residents housed in the 39 apartment units, but also beloved restaurants Raleigh’s and Cafe Intermezzo. The fire left the building gutted and it was eventually torn down. A charred facade was left for years, a reminder of the building’s past, until this year, when a new Sequoia Building rose again.

Students now live in the new, 42-unit building, which is still owned by Kenneth and Greg Ent, and next year, those long-lost restaurants will reopen. When they do, the new Mezzo — formerly Café Intermezzo — and Raleigh’s will join a decidedly different crop of Southside restaurants, coffee shops and bars than those on the avenue in 2011, a crop that includes an ever-growing group of local and national chains in addition to smaller, homegrown eateries.

Smart Alec's Intelligent Food. Photo: Clément Wehrung/Flickr
The former location of Smart Alec’s Intelligent Food, which will become a Super Duper Burgers in 2017. Photo: Clément Wehrung/Flickr

These are, of course, not the only changes to the neighborhood; the “Telegraph Public Realm Plan” aims to reimagine the Avenue as a shared pedestrian-vehicle space, with shared streets, new streetscaping, solar powered trash cans and cleaner sidewalks. Work has begun on some of these initiatives, with more being phased in over the next few years.


But it is the changing restaurant scene that will be the most immediately visible change. Twenty-year-old Telegraph Avenue veteran Smart Alec’s has already closed to make room for Super Duper Burger, a San Francisco chain that will ditch air-baked fries for cheese- and garlic-topped fried potatoes and will serve locally sourced hamburger meat sandwiched in a locally baked bun.

Smart Alec’s closure was due to rent increases for the space, which former owner Alex Popov speculated was quite large. Super Duper, which is owned by San Francisco’s Back of the House restaurant group, was better able to afford the rent. (Back of the House also operates Belga, Uno Dos Tacos, Starbelly, Lolinda, El Techo, Delarosa, BerettaThe Bird and the upcoming 450 Hayes restaurant, all in San Francisco.)

It’s a common story. In a Berkeleyside story from August, Russ, who runs a small shop on Telegraph and refused to give his last name, said he had heard rents on the Avenue could easily top $4,000 to $5,000 a month for a relatively small space. Stuart Baker, the executive director of the Telegraph Business Improvement District told Berkeleyside that month that the average rent was between $2 and $4 per square foot.

Yet businesses are still biting; vacant lots are on the decline, according to city data, and since 2008 there’s been a near 50% drop in vacant square footage. Many of these new businesses are food-related.

“There’s a combination of things driving the change,” Baker said in August. “Clearly the economy is still red hot, the housing market, the rental market is pushing a lot of change, and we’re taking advantage of what’s happening right now.”


An employee assembles a fried chicken sandwich at The Organic Coup. Photo: Courtesy of Erica Welton
An employee assembles a fried chicken sandwich at The Organic Coup location at 101 Spear St. in San Francisco. Photo: Courtesy of Erica Welton

Another Bay Area chain moving into Telegraph is The Organic Coup, which will replace the recently-closed Pacific Cookie Company at 2309 Telegraph Ave. Owner Erica Welton said they’d have a fast turnaround for the space, and plans to hold a soft opening right before Christmas. The restaurant currently has four locations: one in Pleasanton, one in Davis and two in San Francisco, with an Oakland location and a third San Francisco spot slated to also open in 2016.

According to Welton, The Organic Coup decided to open a Berkeley location because of Berkeley’s long history of commitment to sustainable food practices. Welton and her partner Dennis Hoover formerly worked at Costco and used their experience there to envision a type of fast food that “disrupts” the current fast-food industry. The chain is America’s first USDA certified organic fast food restaurant.

In addition to shutting the door on GMO’s and chemicals, this vision incorporates fair labor ethics with wages at $15 per hour. “We are inspired about delivering great food at a fair price, and [about] creating all of these jobs and disrupting a fast-food market,” said Welton. “We believe a change can happen”

The menu is simple — fried chicken, served as a sandwich, wrap, or salad with a choice of four sauces. The chicken, sourced from Mary’s, is fried in coconut oil. The Organic Coup sources its bread from a 30-year baking veteran in Hayward and its produce through Bay City Produce in San Leandro.

According to Welton, local, organic sourcing does make a difference in the way her food tastes: “So many people [are] coming into our restaurants and complimenting us that they don’t feel icky after eating fried food.”


A cheeseburger, with fries and a shake, from Super Duper Burger. Photo: Aubrie Pick
A cheeseburger, with fries and a shake, from Super Duper Burger. Photo: Aubrie Pick

Like The Organic Coup, Super Duper Burger is positioning itself as a sustainable alternative to the typical fast food restaurant. Rachel Phillips, a representative from Back of the House, told Nosh in an email that “we’re committed to serving fast food burgers using slow food values.” She said this motto will “resonate with Berkeley’s demographic.”

Super Duper also emphasizes its organic, locally-sourced ingredient list, as well as its relationships with local farmers and family-owned businesses. All of its packaging is compostable. “Living and working in the Bay Area, we try to keep our footprint as small as possible,” said Phillips.

Construction on Super Duper will begin in the beginning of 2017, and Phillips said the restaurant is looking to open sometime in the year’s second quarter.

Both of these restaurants will have to compete with the likes of Chipotle and the soon-to-open Taco Bell Cantina.

Photo: Taco Bell/Facebook
Nachos from Taco Bell Cantina. Photo: Taco Bell/Facebook

Taco Bell Cantina is a slightly more upscale iteration of the chain, and it features alcoholic beverages and an expanded menu including “shareable” home-style nachos, beef taquitos, and chicken tenders with buffalo and avocado-ranch sauces. At 2528-B Durant Ave.It’ll be the second Cantina for the Bay Area, and the only one to actually serve its promised beer and wine. (The SoMa Cantina has run up against neighborhood resistance to acquiring its ABC license).

Taco Bell Cantinas also have a different design from standard Taco Bells — the ordering system looks much more like Chipotle, with an open view to the food preparation. The SoMa location features exposed brick, subway tile, reclaimed wood and pendant lights in an attempt to class-up the design. We expect that the Berkeley location will also include such design elements.

Baker told Nosh that Taco Bell is planning to open at the beginning of December.

Of course, not every restaurant headed to the Southside is a chain.

As we reported last week, there are now new owners of Caffe Mediterraneum. We don’t know yet if the café will change names, and how much (if any) its menu will be updated. The building will, however, undergo an extensive renovation including a new kitchen and bathrooms. Caffe Med owner Craig Becker does still own the building, and he is “really excited” about the new owners, a group of successful restaurateurs.

“What interested us is that they are ready to tackle this full-scale project,” Becker told Nosh last week. “They have restaurant experience with different kinds of restaurants. … They have the best flexibility and the best chance of success.”

Down the street, the Mad Monk: Center for Anachronistic Media is also making changes. It will be opening a café in the upstairs terrace sometime in 2017, according to Baker.

While it is being renovated, the former Shakespeare & Co. building is sporting a mural by Muralists, left, Turtle Wayne, right, Nigel Sussman, working from Sussman's designs.
While Romeo’s Coffee is being renovated, the building is sporting a mural by Muralists, left, Turtle Wayne, right, Nigel Sussman, working from Sussman’s designs. Photo: Ted Friedman

Romeo’s Coffee, which is set to open in January in the former Shakespeare & Co. bookstore at 2499 Telegraph Ave., is also an independent venture. Dino Micheletti, founder and proprietor of the incoming coffee spot, came dubbed it “Romeo’s Coffee” as a witty nod towards a coffee lover’s affair with the addictive beverage. Romeo’s will be sectioned into two ordering stations, one for pour-over coffee, which will feature around 20 different coffees, and one for espresso drinks.

Each coffee, which will be sourced from Verve and Temple coffee roasters, will be given what Micheletti refers to as a “caffeine rating system” on a scale from 00 to 03, ranging from completely decaffeinated roasts to amped up, highly caffeinated varieties. Romeo’s coffee will also offer local pastries from Starter bakery as well as juices, bagels and sandwiches, aiming to source all food and drink items from as many local vendors as possible.

Another coffee shop, yet unnamed, will join Romeo’s, the new Caffe Med and SoDoI Coffee, which are all within easy walking distance of each other.

In late December or early January, Sunil Mehta will open Juice Originz at 2493 Telegraph Ave.. Juice Originz, which is already operating in San Francisco and Sunnyvale, offers 100% organic acai bowls, almond milk, cold-pressed juices and smoothies. Mehta’s incorporates recipes based on Ayurveda, a system of alternative medicine in which plants, herbs and spices are used to prevent imbalance in blocked energy centers of the body.

Photo: Pokeganda/Facebook
Photo: Pokeganda/Facebook

Two poke restaurants, Pokeganda, which opened at 2575 Telegraph Ave. in late October, and Poke Parlor, which will open at 2485 Telegraph Ave. by early 2017, will operate within a block of each other. Also headed to the Southside will be Döner and Kebab (at 2528-A Durant Ave.), a fried ice cream restaurant, what Baker calls a “popcorn emporium,” and Plentea bubble tea.

Back at the Sequoia Building, construction is continuing on Raleigh’s and Mezzo. Greg Ent filed for ABC licenses for the restaurants last month, but, according to Baker, has been waiting on permits for several months. We don’t know yet when they will reopen, but we will keep you posted.

Want to keep abreast of East Bay food news? Subscribe to NOSH Weekly, the FREE weekly email packed with delicious news. Simply sign up here.