Coffee is a big business on college campuses, and UC Berkeley is no different. As such, it should come as no surprise that there’s a new challenger on the block (or more like beneath the block). SoDoI, located on Durant Avenue (right next to Cheese ‘N’ Stuff) is the newest addition to the Berkeley cafe scene. There are glowing murals on the walls. Enormous speakers fill the room with sound. In full view, baristas pour individual cups of coffee using what look like giant metal watering cans. Up on the wall a chalkboard lists the four single origin blends of coffee available. For you uninitiated masses, apparently “single origin” is a very big deal in the world of independent coffee. The blends are christened with Cafe Gratitude-esque names: My Dream, My Coffee; Open Your Heart; Memory of Arashiyama; Decaf Guatemala (advertised by SoDoI: “You won’t believe it’s decaf!”); and the Single Origin of the Day. Below each blend is a long list of pretentiously unnecessary adjectives, some of which one might not normally associate with coffee, such as “lemony.”
At the main table in the back, there’s a loud crowd of UC Berkeley students who seem to have consumed too much coffee. They engage in explosive, animated conversation about 10 topics at once. Elsewhere around the room people appear to be busily “working” on their laptops. The Wi-Fi is spotty and only seems to load Gmail and Facebook. I’m unhappily unable to pirate “The Life of Pablo.” I sip a cup of My Dream, My Coffee. It’s good — definitely a step above Caffe Strada or Milano, both of which serve up espresso that tastes like it’s been sitting around for days. My Dream has a delicious, full flavor with deep, dark chocolatey notes. A+. Within moments I’ve finished the cup. I peer around the room, watching other people drink their coffees, trying not to look too creepy. I consider asking the staff up front for some samples of their other blends but decide not to; there’s a long line of people waiting to order and only so many pour-over stations.
Much like Peet’s or Philz, you can buy coffee by the pound at SoDoI. It’s a bit more expensive than your typical Folgers or Yuban, at $17-20 per pound (but not much more than Peet’s, which goes for $16-20 per pound). But it doesn’t seem like anyone is buying just beans, despite the quality of the coffee.
I look around the room some more. The vibe of this place is very old-timey and very heavy on kitsch — like an antique shop that decided to branch out and start selling coffee. At the same time, everything feels a little dark and grotto-like, the unfortunate consequences of the location. In truth, the location is the single biggest thing going against SoDoI. In comparison to Strada and Milano, both of which are directly adjacent to campus and positively sun-drenched, SoDoI feels like it could exist in the basement of Evans or Barrows. This is no sunshiney cafe. But they do have a fantastic stereo, and the music they’re playing is much better than the weird mix of classical covers of pop songs that Milano seems to have on constant repeat. I stalk Facebook and think to myself: I would be fine sitting here for a while just drinking coffee, listening to music and pretending to be productive.
Around the room, many people appear to be doing the same. Very few people appear to be getting their coffee to go. In fact, I don’t think I’ve seen anyone quickly pop by without stopping to sit down. This might be because SoDoI just opened, but at the same time it doesn’t seem like a place one would grab a quick coffee on the way to class. This is a place that you go to with the intention of spending some serious time underground. SoDoI might be the new Main Stacks of Berkeley coffee shops.
SoDoI seems to proffer itself as a challenger to Philz. The similarities between the cafes are unmistakable. Both are pour-over spots. Both exist with a coffee-first, study-second attitude. Neither is cheap. So, how do they compare? Which is better? My answer: It depends on exactly what kind of beverage you’re looking for. If you’re looking for an excellent cup of coffee, you can’t go wrong with either establishment. Like Philz, SoDoI’s coffee is exceptional. You could order a simple black coffee from either place and be very happy with yourself. In this way, SoDoI and Philz are tied neck-and-neck. But SoDoI is inferior to Philz because it only sells plain black coffee.
So, in summary, if you’re looking for good coffee close to campus, and/or a cafe with a cool vibe and good music, give SoDoI a try. But if you’re looking for variety (say, a delicious mint mojito iced coffee), you’re going to want to stick to Philz.