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Good-Looking Salads: Love in the Time of Croutons 

Tuesday, Sep 23 2014
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Everyone, especially the undergrads, went to Cafe Intermezzo in Berkeley. I guess that's how I ended up there, although the boy I had a crush on probably drew me through the door too.

Some people went for the salads, others for the sandwiches — either of which could last two, maybe three meals. The salads were mix-and-match, an array of ingredients you could choose that would be tossed haphazardly in a big metal bowl by a hot skater crush or a cute punk crush, with a ladle of dressing sloshed in at the end. All of this would go into a beat-up, faux wood-grained bowl with a piece of bread stacked precariously on top. The sandwiches were the usual suspects, meats and cheeses and vegetables piled high with condiments. There was nothing exceptional about any of it — the café half a block up served basically the same thing, and with a shorter line. Big portions, inexpensive, tasty, and healthy enough. There was nothing exceptional at all.

Except, maybe, for the bread.

I guess "exceptional" isn't the right word for it. Not in the Bay Area, anyway, where award-winning bread is a given. Even in the early 1990s, before everything became artisanal, before Tartine, before toast at The Mill, there were plenty of places like Acme and The Cheese Board. Good bread — really good bread — was available everywhere.

Intermezzo served a honey wheat bread, sliced thick from pillowy loaves dotted with a sprinkling of sunflower seeds. There was nothing crusty or chewy about it, nothing sour or serious. It was soft and sweet, a little bit sturdy. It was comforting and especially good with a pat of soft butter.

I would get my salad and take it to-go in a plastic clamshell bursting with lettuce and carrots and little crouton disks. I can't remember finishing every salad I ever bought there, but I would savor that entire piece of bread and think about going back for another slice. Sometimes I'd ask for an extra before I got out of line. Some days that bread, alongside those giant, unfinishable salads, was the softest landing a teenage girl could have.

Eventually I grew out of Intermezzo, or more to the point I grew out of Telegraph Avenue. Once I graduated from college and the punk boys who no longer worked the salad line, I stopped going. I thought about Intermezzo with great nostalgic affection, and sometimes thought about swinging by for a piece of bread, but I never went back.

When the building burned down in 2011, taking Intermezzo and the neighboring bar with it, I felt the loss deeply, even though I hadn't been inside the cafe in nearly 15 years. I've heard plans of Intermezzo's return. If it ever does, I wonder if I'll go. I wonder too if some things are better remembered instead of re-experienced.

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Leah Reich

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