Last call: This quintessentially Berkeley cafe is ‘hanging on by a thread’

The Musical Offering, a nearly 40-year-old cafe/music store, says it needs the community’s support to get through the pandemic. It’s selling prix-fixe meals as a last-ditch effort.

The Musical Offering is a quintessentially Berkeley institution in search of “a miracle,” said the cafe’s general manager Jean Spencer. The nearly 40-year-old business — which was making money “hand over foot” serving up espressos long before there was a Starbucks on every corner — is now “hanging on by a thread,” according to Spencer.

What was once a cutting-edge space is now being managed by a 76-year-old woman who readily admits she doesn’t have the technical skills to bring the business into the 21st century.

“We are looking for someone who is younger” and has experience with the restaurant business as well as online marketing and social media, Spencer said. “I am doing five people’s jobs, and I am beyond challenged.”

A life-sized statue of the RCA dog sits in the foreground while Musical Offerings employee Nadja Matisoff handles a purchase from regular customer John Christiansen. Photo: Pete Rosos

A lot has changed in four decades, and COVID-19 is only the latest existential challenge to this business. The Musical Offering started as a classical-only record store in 1978, under the management of University Press Books. In 1981, the bookstore and the record store moved into two storefronts at 2430 Bancroft Way, but the space was too large for the record store, so the owners added the cafe to fill half the space and bring in more customers. In 1988, Jean and her late-husband Joseph Spencer were brought on as managing partners of the cafe-music store. In the early 2000s, The Musical Offering began adding CDs to its vinyl collection and expanded its offerings to include jazz. Over the years, the cafe hosted live classical and jazz performances on a weekly basis. Since the pandemic, the performances are on hold and the record store has been temporarily closed (Spencer says customers can still call Musical Offering for requests). In June, University Press Books closed its physical store and has since gone virtual due to competition with online retailers and streaming services, but the cafe remains.

The Musical Offering’s general manager Jean Spencer.  Photo: Pete Rosos

While food needs a physical space, it also needs enough customers. In 2018, The Musical Offering underwent remodeling, hoping the refreshed space would welcome in a more diverse crowd. At the time, former manager Deirdre Greene told Nosh the cafe “has a reputation for being a café for retired professors,” even though Berkeley residents and Cal students of all ages and backgrounds were regulars. But with the pandemic, UC Berkeley closed and Zellerbach Hall dark, the cafe’s business has nearly dried up.

“We are now doing 6-7% of our pre-COVID business,” Spencer said. “We can’t pay our rent,” even though the rent has been greatly reduced, she added.

The cafe is offering lunch five days a week, and a four-course gourmet prix-fixe dinner for $32 a person (or $60 for two) on Wednesday and Friday nights. The meals are prepared by executive chef Erick Balbuena, who studied at the French Culinary Institute in New York. He specializes in Mediterranean, Caribbean and French cuisine, and the dinner menu changes weekly.

Musical Offering chef Erick Balbuena packs up the evening’s dinners. Photo: Pete Rosos

If the cafe is to survive, it will need to start selling a few dozen more dinners each week, Spencer said. The cafe also has a GoFundMe page, but it has raised only about $2,600 of the $100,000 goal.

Spencer would like to bring the cafe and its culture back as conditions permit — but The Musical Offering needs a “miracle” to get from here to there.

Updated on Nov. 16 — The Musical Offering no longer serves lunch, but is currently offering four-course prix-fixe dinners on weekdays from 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. for pickup from 4-6 p.m. Call 510-849-0211 to order.