Just across an inviting stretch of lush, verdant lawn, a two-story brick building stands on the edge of Berkeley’s Strawberry Creek Park on Addison at Bonar. Without any visible signage, the stately building appears to want to remain anonymous. But inside, an aptly named new restaurant — The Hidden Café — opened last week.
Unless you live or work in the area, you might be surprised to learn that this, a former furniture factory building from 1912, is an official historic landmark. Now called The Strawberry Creek Design Center, it houses about 40 small businesses, many focused on artistic or craft endeavors, including longtime Berkeley pasta company Phoenix Pastificio. Phoenix owners Eric and Carole Sartenaer opened the retail store in 2013, taking over half of the former French-inflected Café Zeste and subleasing the rest of the space, first to Johnny B’s in 2015, then most recently to Café Rene, which closed abruptly in March after about a year in business.
The two prior businesses were standard, if not predictable eateries, serving coffee, sandwiches and other familiar café offerings. The Sartenaers’ newest subtenants, though, will buck that trend. While The Hidden Café sells beverages and pastries, from there, it veers off on its own course, with a unique seasonal menu, a bohemian botanical-themed decor and a chef who waxes poetic in the kitchen and on paper, and who isn’t afraid to experiment with his food.
The Hidden Café co-owners are Andy Kellogg, Luke Flaherty and James O’Brien Makowski. Kellogg is the co-founder of Adelines Lab, a community space for local artists where Makowski, a member who ran a poem shop there, started making wildcrafted beverages and creative food offerings at the lab’s art shows. When Kellogg was approached by the landlord at the Strawberry Creek Design Center to take over the café, he brought on Makowski to handle the food. Inspired by the light-filled, high ceilinged building and the quaint natural environs surrounding the space, the owners knew they wanted to make this more than just an eatery, but a community gathering space. “This should be something special,” said Makowski.
Instead of menus, a series of poems hang in the windows; the pages held up by uneven strips of blue painters tape. Many of Makowski’s poems speak to finding a balance between what’s nutritional and nourishing with what pleases our senses; others talk about the community that can be found in food. A poem just outside the door asks, “what if instead of pinch of spice i wanted whole handful of flavor.” The answer, it turns out, can be found just inside.
A Jack of all trades, Makowski has past food experience, but he also was once a landscaper, and some of his knowledge and appreciation for plants can be seen on his menu. He infuses roots, berries, bark and other botanicals to make non-caffeinated beverages that are unlike drinks you’ll find anywhere else. The herbal teas are offered warm or iced ($4 by the cup, $7 by the bottle). I especially liked the Rosemary’s Geeky Mate, a refreshingly herbal and earthy infusion with green mate, rosemary and gingko leaves. Another made with chicory was warming and spicy, even when iced. For those who need the caffeine fix, The Hidden Café offers pour-over coffee and cardamom cold brew (it will eventually offer espresso drinks, but during my visit, the machine was not set up yet), and Chinese white, red and “wet” (pu’er) teas.
Tacos are the main substantial menu item at the café, although purists may balk at the fillings in these non-traditional versions. Makowski was drawn to the dish because they are “a form you can change as ingredients become available,” he said, noting that many of his tacos are vehicles to highlight seasonal vegetables. On my visit, the café was offering four different kinds: Three Sisters, a version made with roasted summer squash, sweet corn and black bean puree; the Caprese, with fresh heirloom tomato, basil and mozzarella; a breakfast taco; and the Original, with Italian sausage, tomato sauce, parsley and Parmesan cheese (All tacos come in your choice of corn or flour tortilla, and are $3 a piece). Makowski, who’s originally from Chicago, says the Original was something he came up with after eating a chorizo taco and wondered how Italian sausage would taste in its place. He tried it and liked it, and the Original became one of his staple dishes that he offered at a short-lived underground restaurant.
I tried all but the breakfast taco and, despite the initial mental side-eye I gave to the Italian sausage version, it was the most satisfying and had the best flavors of the three. Makowski buys the sausage fresh from a local butcher and fries it to give it a crispy texture. Some parts were a little over-crisped for my taste, but I can see why this is a dish the chef keeps in his pocket.
Salads are also large and hearty, with additions of grains, nuts, fresh fruit or proteins. For the Strawberry Leaf ($9), chopped strawberries, nutty farro, roasted crushed almonds and fresh mozzarella add bulk to a bed of frilly frisee. The grapeseed vanilla balsamic dressing was (thankfully) more acidic than sweet, even though Makowski said he added some fresh strawberries into the dressing on a whim. The other salad on the menu was a deconstructed BLT, with chunks of torn toasted bread, bacon and perfectly ripe tomatoes mixed in with romaine lettuce. For those who are risk-averse when it comes to food-borne illnesses, you’ll appreciate the caveat on the menu that the “eggy dressing” is made with raw egg yolks. But, my friend who ordered the salad made it out just fine.
For sweets, there are cookies and pastries made by Phoenix Pastificio next door, but Kellogg said they’ll likely add some housemade desserts in the coming days, too.
The Hidden Café is fairly small, but it’s very charming with the combination of its old factory windows, wood furnishings and organic decor, like a large hanging botanical wreath made by Kellogg’s wife, Asako Unome-Kellogg, who runs Chloe Hana Flower at Adeline Labs. There are a few tables inside, as well as a bar at the counter and along the windows, that all together seat about two dozen inside. On sunny days, a shaded table on the patio will tempt most to dine al fresco.
Workers at the offices in the Strawberry Creek Design Building are glad to have a new place to eat (some stopped in on my visit, to say so), but many who come upon this unconventional café will do so by chance. And what a delightful find it will be, before or after time spent in this quaint neighborhood park in Berkeley.
The Hidden Café is open 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., Wednesday through Friday; 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., Saturday; 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday.