Steaming soup pots come out of the kitchen, baked goods line the countertop, and a bust of Mozart watches The Musical Offering Café open for the day. A half music store, half café, The Musical Offering provides for locals and university students alike, and has been doing so for over 40 years. 

The Origins

The current owner, Jean Spencer, came to Berkeley with her husband Joseph in 1987 and revived a small, struggling record store-café. On any afternoon, Jean always walks around serving food and chatting with customers, bringing a personal touch to the place. Joseph passed away in 2001, but his influence remains apparent, as the current music store manager Nadja Matisoff notes, stating that he was the “heart and soul of the music store.” His personal music collection has been added to the stacks of CDs and LPs that crowd the shelves, joining classic opera performances and orchestral ensemble pieces.

The Evolution

Chloe Lee

While the music store itself mainly specializes in classical and baroque music, over the years Matisoff has had to expand the CD and LP collection to be more modernized. Now extended to include jazz, The Musical Offering pays homage to a genre beyond classical. Additionally, the walls of The Musical Offering are adorned with modern art pieces of jazz musicians—bringing bright color into the room.

“We’ve been trying to broaden the music that we present. It has sort of swung towards jazz; signs point towards jazz being legitimized as American classical music in a way, late 1800 early 20th century legitimate music with canon and different music practices and eras and different important composers. It’s a whole other world that we respect and have barely dipped our toes into in terms of what we’re selling in the store,” Matisoff said.

Enjoying the Live Performances

The Musical Offering brings the community together beyond the shared food and music, as live groups perform weekly. On Thursdays, people pour in to hear different trios and groups of jazz musicians fill The Musical Offering with energy. Each week, the groups change, featuring different instruments through their improvised solos. One week in particular, a student group showcased two saxophonists, a guitarist, and a double bass. The group formed a small circle, reading each others’ physical cues in order to build musical passages. Some weeks, the music may be more focused on ballads and slower pieces, while some may be more up-tempo with skiffling drums and fast, improvised solos. 

“A lot of them [the groups] present themselves and ask—we have more offers than we have opportunities for performance really. A very fine violinist named Corey Mike is the first violinist of the Town String Quartet, which is our quartet in residence, which has been playing here for well over a decade, with some personal changes but with steady membership,” Matisoff said. “Corey used to work here in the café, and now he manages Angeline’s Restaurant, the Cajun restaurant downtown on Shattuck.”

At all times except for when the live groups are performing, Matisoff selects music from the store to play.

“I’m always trying to see what the mood in the room is, or what the mood would ideally be. I’m trying to suit the music to that. If it’s a crowded room, I play something that’s not as fully orchestrated. On the other hand, playing fuller music is a good tactic if people are too quiet and whispering to each other for a fancy dinner evening,” Matisoff said.

Bringing in the New

While the jazz groups change week by week, The Musical Offering has a consistent partnership with The Town Quartet—a string group comprised of two violinists, one violist, and one cellist. From their online site, the quartet performs the works of “Abel, Arriaga, Bach Bartok, Beethoven, Boccherini, Brahms, Cherubini…” The list goes on to include ten more composers from a wide range of musical eras. One weekend’s program revolved around Romantic pieces, including strident Saint-Saëns and passionate Berlioz arrangements. The Musical Offering hosts The Town Quartet on Wednesday evenings and Sunday mornings. Four-year café manager Jestina Thompson elaborates on the café’s musical partnership.

Chloe Lee

“It’s something we’re trying to do consistently for Wednesdays. Because it’s so new, we’re not having the kitchen stay open that late. So we serve coffee and pastries. That’s how we accommodate customers who want to come in and to enjoy the evening and have a small bite,” Thompson said. “When there are events over at Zellerbach, we do fine dining, which is a whole new different menu. The chef makes the menu the day of the dinner; he might have something in his mind, but a lot of the ingredients he’ll kind of put on the plate that day.”

Staying for the Food

The consistent staples on The Musical Offering's menu include sandwiches, salads, quiches, and soups. Served on Acme Bakery bread, the sandwich selection includes classics like BLT with avocado, to more experimental combinations like eggplant and caramelized onion, or pesto pepper and melted brie. Each creation comes with a side salad that is simple yet a perfect balance to each sandwich. 

Chloe Lee

“My favorite thing on the menu, well I have two,” Thompson said. “When I first started working here, I just got the Turkey and Brie, but upon becoming more familiar with the menu, I started to get the roasted bell pepper [Pepper & Melted Brie] and then added chicken to it.”

On the countertop on some afternoons, customers may sample pieces of scone or bite-sized savory crostini. The menu expands past sandwiches and salads with daily specials of the chef’s—Eric Balvazq’s—choice.

“The specials are different every day. It varies, on Monday we had a duck ratatouille. Sometimes he [Balvazq] goes more fancy, sometimes he has a simple rigatoni. He’ll go off of the weather too. if it’s cold out, he’ll make more hearty dishes that are warm. If it’s warmer, he’ll make a cold pasta or soup. Very differential in a lot of ways, but anything he makes is really good,” Thompson said.

The Community

Brought into The Musical Offering by comforting food and calming sounds, locals and students alike form a solid customer basis. On any afternoon, customers may be working on thesis papers, working on crossword puzzles, or chatting with old friends. Five years gives time for established relationships to grow, as Thompson finds.

Chloe Lee

“Since I started working here I made a connection with a lot of the customers. The regulars, I could probably say about 70% of their names because they’re regulars now. That’s probably my favorite thing about working here for over five years. It goes a long way [to know names]. If there’s a long line, if someone’s five people in, I’ll start making their drink, just so when they get to the counter it’s ready to go,” Thompson said.

The community in The Musical Offering is like no other; its genuine atmosphere creates a welcoming space for anyone who seeks good food and company.

“This place has a life of its own, it’s bigger than any of us,” Matisoff said.