A couple weeks ago, a listing for the sale of a Mediterranean restaurant in Berkeley went up on Craigslist: “For Sale by Owner. Popular, profitable restaurant, prime location in coveted Elmwood District. 2,600 Sq. Ft., 100 plus seats, Asking price $495K or Best Offer.”
Those familiar with Berkeley’s restaurants easily recognized that the posting was describing Café La Méditerranée on College Avenue, a staple in the Elmwood neighborhood for the past 36 years.
Café La Méditerranée, or Café La Med as many have come to know it, opened on Nov. 3, 1982. It was the third outpost — the first in the East Bay — for the restaurant’s founder, Levon Der Bedrossian, following locations in Pacific Heights and Noe Valley in San Francisco. Der Bedrossian opened the Berkeley La Med with his cousin Garbis Baghdassarian, where they introduced many to Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cuisine over the years. But Baghdassarian, who manages the restaurant, insists many Berkeley residents were already hip to the food it served when it opened.
“I remember I worked in San Francisco one year at the Fillmore Street location. A lot of people didn’t know what hummus was. But people in Berkeley, being the avant-garde city in the Bay Area, knew tabbouleh and were familiar with ethnic and foreign foods,” he said in a phone conversation with Nosh.
Over the years, Café La Med became a neighborhood favorite. In 2007, on its 25th anniversary, Berkeley’s then-mayor Tom Bates declared Nov. 3 as Café La Med Day. “We created a charming little getaway, with candlelight, flowers, and music. It had its own character,” said Baghdassarian’s wife Silva, who chimed in via speakerphone. Multiple generations grew up eating at the restaurant, and many come back, even after moving away. “They come with their grandchildren,” said Baghdassarian. “[And others,] they come and say, ‘My parents used to bring me here when I lived here.’ There are a lot of stories.”
But 11 years later, Baghdassarian is ready to sell the business.
“I’m going to be 72 years old. How long can I go on? I need to retire,” he said. Baghdassarian currently lives in Orinda with Silva. Although the couple has two children, neither his daughter nor his son wants to continue the family business. And his business partner, Der Bedrossian, who still owns the two San Francisco La Meds and a catering business, is not interested in taking over the Berkeley location.
Although Baghdassarian is selling the restaurant, he is not selling the building. As its landlord, he’s dedicated to finding someone who will operate in the space as a Middle Eastern or a Mediterranean restaurant.
“After being there for all these years, I really would like to see someone continue the same type of food. We have a variety of different types of restaurants [in the Elmwood]; I’d like to keep the diversity,” he said. “I believe being here for almost 36 years and having built a clientele, [diners] come for Mediterranean and Middle Eastern food. They come for the hummus, baba ganoush and all that.” His hope is that the new operators will continue the tradition he’s started, perhaps putting their own stamp on the place by adding new items to the menu. And also, because Der Bedrossian still owns La Méditeranée, the new restaurant will have to change its name.
Baghdassarian plans to be involved in the transition, giving guidance, when needed, to the new owner.
“The restaurant business is a little tough; it’s not that easy. It’s good to have a partner or family to work together. When you’re open seven days, it consumes a lot,” he said. Baghdassarian admits that several factors have made owning the restaurant difficult in recent years, including rising wages for employees, several retail closures in the area and ongoing construction projections that have negatively affected foot traffic.
Still, he feels optimistic for the new restaurant to come. “Despite all the changes, it’s a place that’s not going to disappear,” he said. “It’s an excellent location, it has excellent potential, it just needs a new battery.”
When asked whether Baghdassarian will close Café La Med if he can’t find a buyer by a specific time, he said no. “We can’t close a place like that. I’m sure the right person will come.”