1888 Solano Ave./The Alameda.
With an ever-changing menu of creative, complex regional Indian dishes, this popular, attractive restaurant where some of the servers wear turbans is always a delight. Drapes separate the entry from the central dining room, and that room from the kitchen. Complete dinners at Ajanta are well priced, and presentation is part of the pleasure. Appetizers include papadam (a crisp lentil wafer served with dipping sauce) and alu tikki (deep-fried potato-and-pea patties). Complimentary condiments include mango chutney, housemade spicy carrots, and sour lime pickles. Entrees change regularly and include curries, tandoori meats (including signature lamb-rib chops) and fish, plus a selection of vegetarian and vegan dishes (but by request almost any dish can be made vegan or vegetarian); all can be ordered in any degree of spiciness. Plates are attractively arranged with three scoops of saffron-laced rice anchored in the middle by a mound of spinach purée. A light mango mousse and liquidy kulfi rice pudding are especially delicious desserts.
Use is made of local products, including Berkeley-brewed beers and Peet’s coffee, and decaf chai–a rarity–is available. This restaurant is named for a site in western India where ancient Buddhist cave temples are a famous tourist attraction and UNESCO World Heritage Site. Reproductions of some of the cave paintings appear on wall murals that were painted in India. Soft-spoken Ajanta owner Lachu Moorjani was the first to offer organic ingredients in a Bay Area Indian restaurant. He also is the first to bring in regional Indian dishes. (His cookbook–Ajanta: Regional Feasts of India–features these regional dishes and is available for purchase at the restaurant; he will sign it for you.)
Other restaurants offer these exotic dishes now, but no one else has the variety. The menu rotates regularly, so each time you return many new dishes are available. I recently dined here once again and was particularly impressed with the creative vegetarian selections. Tandoori portobello mushrooms are moist and chewy and spiced with cloves and cinnamon. Badal Jaam consists of smoky, thick eggplant slices that are fried and brushed with housemade tomato sauce and mango powder. My favorite, Baby Squash Medley, consisted of a variety of squashes mixed with peas and paneer cheese in a tomato curry sauce. I also especially liked both the spectacular tandoori scallops appetizer (they had just the right texture and were served with a yogurt-cashew-tamarind sauce) and the Methi Machi entrée (a filet of fresh wild salmon in a delicious tomato-based sauce). Paired with a cup of decaf chai, a mango mousse or creamy frozen Kulfi studded with pistachios provides the perfect ending.
Angeline’s Louisiana Kitchen
2261 Shattuck Ave./Bancroft; downtown.
Spicy Louisiana-style Cajun and Creole cooking is the name of the game here at Angeline’s Louisiana Kitchen, and atmospheric music and a brick wall-decor enhance the experience. The menu includes everything a southern-food lover could want, including crispy fried chicken, crawfish Etoufee, spicy brown Cajun gumbo, po’boys, a muffaletta sandwich, and bananas Foster bread pudding. Personal favorites include addictively delicious, deep-fried, golf ball-size cornmeal hush puppies, spicy jambalaya loaded with andouille sausage, and signature voo doo barbecue shrimp. I also enjoy the dessert beignets served snowed over with powdered sugar. Louisiana beers—Abita Amber, Turbodog, and Purple Haze—are served in a chilled Mason jar mug; swamp water (tea and lemonade), sweet tea, and strawberry lemonade are more drink options.
Laissez les bon temps rouler (let the good times roll)!
2119 Shattuck Ave./Center St.; downtown.
This hole-in-the-wall serves up delicious thin, crispy-crusted New York-style pizza, though the recipe comes from Rome. People fold it over to eat—it’s not bad manners, it’s the way it’s done. Though take-out at this slice joint is popular, the pizza tastes best eaten on the spot.
Baker & Commons
2900 College Ave./Russell St.; Elmwood.
In the space formerly occupied by the Elmwood Cafe, and before that the beloved Ozzie’s Soda Fountain, this cafe is a tad more refined and serves up a limited menu. (Note that the Elmwood Cafe closed after a well-publicized brouhaha related to an incident of racial bias that involved comedian, and local resident, W. Kamau Bell.) Diners wait in line to place their order and take a number. A server delivers to your table everything except coffee drinks, which is a potentially hot-mess of a problem when your drink of choice is a full-to-the-top cafe au lait. Both a bank of 1920s wood banquettes and cafe tables offer a super view of the street, and sidewalk seating or counter seating on red vinyl-covered swivel stools are also an option. Hot drinks include cafe au lait in a bowl, lattes, hot chocolate, chai, and apple cider, and cool drinks include fresh-squeezed lemonade and orange juice, seltzer water, and Ozzie’s soda with housemade syrup. Breakfast choices include a whole-grain waffle, house-made granola, breakfast sandwiches, and a variety of pastries. Sandwiches and salads join the menu at 10 a.m.
1568 Oak View Ave./Colusa Ave., in Kensington.
Located just off the Kensington Circle, this simple spot features red walls, black wood tables, grey tile floors, and big windows that let in plenty of light. Popular with families, Benchmark Pizzeria is cheery and noisy. The specialty is crispy-crusted Neapolitan-style pizza pies made with local ingredients and baked in an 800-degree wood-fired oven. The menu changes daily. Antipasti choices are especially interesting—perhaps house-pickled vegetables, olives and almonds, or house-pulled mozzarella. Pizzas measure about 12 inches and include the simple namesake Benchmark as well as one with housemade sausage and also a folded-over calzone. A few pastas are available, and dessert includes Straus soft-serve ice cream—my favorite is vanilla topped with butterscotch.
Breads of India
2448 Sacramento St./Dwight Way.
In spite of having few tables and little ambiance, this popular spot usually has a line waiting to get in. A sign-up sheet is posted outside. The teeny Breads of India kitchen stuffed with cooks produces dishes such as jumbo prawns in a complexly spiced, tomato-based masala sauce, and organic Yukon gold potatoes in a mild fresh spinach purée. The garlic naan is exceptional, and additional delicious exotic bread options—all prepared with organic flour–include roomali roti (a thin unleavened bread prepared with a blend of white and wheat flours) and tawa daal paratha (stuffed with spicy chickpeas). Entrees are served on one American-style plate with trimmings of basmati rice and dahl. The kitchen uses the best ingredients, blends their own spices, and never freezes or microwaves anything (indeed, there doesn’t seem to be any room for these appliances in the tiny kitchen). Only olive oil is used–none of that fattening Indian ghee. The menu, which changes daily, provided fascinating, detailed descriptions and always includes a tandoori-cooked meat item and two vegetarian dishes. With 700 recipes for entrees and 170 for breads, this restaurant aims to surprise.
1881 Solano Ave./The Alameda.
Mexican fast food at its best is served cafeteria-style in this popular taqueria. Cactus Taqueria burritos are custom made, with a choice of several kinds of flavored tortillas, black or pinto beans, and a variety of well-seasoned fillings. Tacos and tamales are also available. Tortillas are lard-free, meats are the best, and tortilla chips are fried in safflower oil. Housemade drinks include several fresh fruit agua frescas and horchata (a sweet rice drink), and several addictive salsas are available. Seating is at colorfully-stained wooden tables, and an indoor water fountain provides restive background sound. Weekend brunch brings on an egg-chorizo breakfast burrito and chilaquiles with red or green sauce. Mexican hot chocolate is always available.
2134 Allston Way/Shattuck Ave.; downtown.
Meats at Cancun are broiled over open flames, seafood is grilled, and there are plenty of vegetarian specials. Lard and MSG are not used, but purified water is. All vegetarian items can be made vegan by holding the cheese and sour cream. Everything–soft and crispy tacos, burritos, quesadillas, tostadas–is super tasty, especially when tarted up with delicious selections from the extensive complimentary salsa bar, think fruity mango and strawberry salsas, or maybe my favorite, pumpkin salsa. Agua frescas are served in mason jars and usually include my favorite strawberry as well as watermelon and horchata. Seating within the atmospheric room painted with Mexican symbols includes a mixture of large communal tables and smaller tables for two. A large arched window looks out onto the street and brings in mucho light.
2020 Shattuck Ave./University Ave., downtown.
Several spacious seating areas welcome diners in this vast venue—the front bar, the middle dining area with wood booths, and the back open-air covered dining area and beer garden with picnic tables. Inside, industrial decor and high ceilings blend with big art by local artists. And though a fuss has been made about the Meyer Sound system designed by this renowned audio engineering company headquartered in Berkeley, on a recent roaring Saturday night I barely heard any music.
Though drink options at Comal include draft beers galore and flights with selections from the library of Tequila and Mezcal (shots are served with house-made sangrita), cocktails are king. Made with hibiscus syrup and served in a stemmed margarita glass with a cacao-dusted rim, the pretty, pink, and peppery Jack Satan is hard to beat. But don’t overlook the addictive Comal Swizzle that is a sublime tropical combination of Tequila, pineapple, passion fruit, and lime.
Many items on the Mexican menu emphasizing Oaxacan cuisine are designed for sharing, especially the Platos Fuertes section featuring a very popular spit-roasted whole brined chicken and wood-grilled whole fish. For an appetizer the guacamole is primo and served with really good housemade corn chips, but consider also a refreshing stack of jicama and cucumber sprinkled with chili powder and lime, or sikil pak—an addictive guacamole alternative made with a mix of grilled eggplant and habanero chiles topped with toasted pumpkin seeds. Specialties include a variety of mole dishes such as beef and pork albondigas in a smoky adobo sauce with ancho chiles, and enchiladas with pork or turkey filling topped with clovey mole coloradito. More popular dishes include lamb barbacoa quesadillas and rock cod tacos with avocado aioli. Dessert brings on a satisfying arroz con leche, topped perhaps with fresh cherries and toasted pistachios.
1674 Shattuck Ave./Virginia St.
Named for a coastal city in northeast China, this spot inside a colorful tiled moon-gate entry provides a serene atmosphere in which to enjoy tasty Chinese fare. Seafood is a specialty, and garlic is used liberally. Menu favorites at Da Lian include traditional dishes prepared exceptionally: crispy fried won tons; spicy hot-and-sour soup; a sautéed version of General’s chicken; spicy kung pao chicken; delicate Sichuan prawns; delectable sweet & sour prawns; braised eggplant in garlic sauce; crunchy dry-sautéed green beans; terrific chow fun (favorite versions are vegetable and beef). Brown rice is an option. Lunch specials are a bargain and include salad and soup.
1346 Martin Luther King Jr. Way/Rose St.
“Make new friends, but keep the old, one is silver, and the other is gold.” This Girl Scout motto goes for restaurants, too. Good food made from scratch using basic ingredients is this popular old-timer’s forte. The lean ground chuck used for hamburgers at FatApple’s is ground on the premises; soup is made fresh; blue cheese salad dressing is made with the real stuff; robust coffee is freshly ground and served with heavy whipping cream, but frou frou espresso drinks are also available. I always order the same thing–the famous hamburger served on a housemade wheat bun, a side of fries, and a super-delicious olallieberry milkshake served in the metal mixing canister. For dessert, it’s impossible to go wrong with a slice of the puffy apple pie the restaurant is re-named for (how many of you remember when it was originally called Fat Albert’s?), but the chocolate velvet and lemon meringue pies are also delicious. Breakfast features fresh-squeezed orange juice, crisp buttermilk waffles served with pure Vermont maple syrup, omelettes, buckwheat or whole-wheat pancakes, and freshly baked pastries (don’t miss their famous cheese puff).
Though the name changed, not many other things have changed here through the years. An in-house bakery adjoins, where you can purchase cheese puffs and pies to go. Want to make a great apple pie at home? Try this SuperSimple recipe.
2200 Oxford St./Allston Way, in the David Brower Center; downtown.
The wide open interior at Gather couldn’t be more welcoming, and, indeed, is the perfect place for diners to gather. The hard-wood chair seats can be harsh, but comfortable banquette seating lines the curved outer wall (it is surprising to realize they are upholstered with recycled leather belts sewn together in a stripe pattern) and everyone gets a good view of something–the room, the open kitchen, and/or the sidewalk activity. Counter seating is also an option, and an outdoor patio is available in warm weather. Sand and honey-hued colors blend with re-used leather and rough-hewn woods and blend with reclaimed wood and other materials that have literally been “gathered” from around the Bay Area. A former water tank from Marin County has been turned into tables, counters and a door; bleachers from a Sonoma high school are now banquettes and tables; and bar lights have been crafted from recycled vodka bottles.
Carefully sourced local seasonal farm fare dominates the 50/50 vegetarian-vegan/omnivore menu; gluten-free items are also available. In addition to fussy dishes such as a mushroom bruschetta topped with a heavenly leek-cashew sauce, and a tasty vegan “charcuterie” (a sampler of five salads served on a wooden plank), pizzas and a simple burger and fries are also an option. A full bar focuses on organic spirits and cocktails plus biodynamic wines. Do try the honey-soaked Bee Sting cocktail, but don’t ask for Peet’s coffee—it isn’t all organic, so the coffee served here is Thanksgiving from Fort Bragg.
Update: Charis Wahl was recently promoted to Executive Chef and has added some new items to the menu as well as her own touches to some existing items. I began my dinner with an as yet unnamed cocktail made with Tequila, blood orange juice, habenero chiles, and cilantro. It was shaken, served straight up, and delightful. A starter course followed of Housemade Pickles and Ferments—a delicious and colorful array of six that included cauliflower with curry and mustard seed (my favorite) and pickle-like cucumbers with garlic and dill—served on a wood plank. Keeping our own shared meal 50/50, we had more veggies in the form of the chef’s Crispy Brussels Sprouts spiced up with fermented jalapeno, pickled radish, and cashew butter. Our next item was Roasted Half Chicken which couldn’t have been more moist and delectable; it came with scrumptious crispy buttermilk polenta and rounds of squash panzanella, one placed jauntily on the leg. Our thin-crust Fontinella pizza with tomato sauce, blistered mozzarella, and pancetta was quite delayed, but it gave us time to prepare space for it. We weren’t able to eat all of the last two items, so we took them home. It turns out I was really pleased to have the delicious leftovers the next day, when I made wonderful sandwiches with the breast meat and a luscious dinner with the reheated pizza slices (unfortunately, they were stuffed into too small of a container and so were quite squished but still very good). But we did wedge in a lovely little Pistachio Cake dessert enhanced with grapefruit curd. Overall, I was impressed with the general full-flavoredness of the dishes.
1586 Hopkins St./Monterey Ave.
Delicious thin crust pizza, with both usual and unusual toppings, is dispensed at Gioia Pizzeria by the slice or whole pie. Though it is mostly for take-out, a few counter seats are available inside and one bench outside. My favorite is the Pepperoni, but delicious vegetarian options include Funghi (cheese with roasted cremini mushrooms, thyme, parsley, and garlic oil) and Spinaci Aglio (cheese with organic baby spinach sautéed in chopped garlic and olive oil).
293 Arlington Ave./Amherst; in Kensington.
Situated amid a strip of shops, Inn Kensington has been here since 1981 and is particularly popular with locals. Seating is at small tables with chairs, and original art provides wall decoration and is for sale. Breakfast choices are extensive–dozens of omelettes (I especially like the Firenza stuffed with fresh spinach, mushrooms, and aged white cheddar cheese) and scrambles, excellent home fries topped with sour cream, gigantic housemade buttermilk biscuits–and are available through lunch, when an enticing selection of tasty international dishes joins the menu. Lunch items might include Santa Fe pita pizzetta, Moroccan-style deep-fried lemon-ginger chicken breast with salsa, or East Indian curried chicken in filo dough. And on Sunday, a white board lists a dozen specials. Desserts include housemade ice cream and a bargain oversize cookie.
941 Carleton St./9th St., West Berkeley.
Reminiscent of a Mexican roadhouse and always bustling, family-friendly Juan’s Place is named for the man who opened it. Indeed, members of his family continue to operate the business and have placed his image on the menu. Addictive flour chips (corn, too) are brought to the table when you sit down, along with a mild red sauce and a spicy green sauce, and sometimes a small plate of guacamole is included. All the usual traditional Mexican items are on the menu: burritos, tacos, tostadas, quesadillas, tamales, fajitas, flautas. Enchiladas come stuffed with cheese or chicken, as well as with crab or shrimp, and are topped with a variety of sauces, including a deep, smoky mole. Heavier meat entrees and several chilies are also options, and a horchata rice drink, wine margarita, and caramel flan dessert are also options.
2181 Shattuck Ave./Center St., downtown.
Operating within a former livery stable dating from the 1890s, this two-story brewpub features natural brick walls, dramatic bronze-hued pressed-tin wall paneling, and antique church pews recycled as bar seats. Little lights are strung across the bar room, mimicking an outdoor beer garden, and you can see pizza dough being tossed in the tiny corner oven area. Jupiter’s design is inspired by Berlin’s oldest bar. The dining area is spread over two stories, and a large, two-level outdoor beer garden with heaters and a fire pit is in the back. House brews are available–my fave is the pilsner–along with tasty soft, chewy-crust pizzas cooked in a wood-fired oven and a variety of salads and sandwiches. For two, sharing a regular pizza and a large salad is the way to go. When the wait is long, seats at the shiny copper-topped bar can often be had immediately. Live music is scheduled some evenings.
Jupiter Jam, the largest outdoor music event held in Berkeley, is scheduled every August.
1025 University Ave./San Pablo Ave.
Moved now from its former cramped quarters into a cheery spot with mango lassi-colored walls and way more space (plus white tablecloths under glass and crystal chandeliers), this Pakistani restaurant is now on the other side of the street and up a block west of San Pablo. Especially delicious items at Kabana include the don’t-miss house specialty–spicy tandoori fish—as well as aloo begun (potatoes and eggplant) and crispy garlic nan. Goat biryani is available on Saturday and Sunday.
2100 Ward St./Shattuck Ave.; South Berkeley.
Pass the inevitable wait here in the tiny bar, where a dish of edamame (soybeans) and a bottle of sake or Japanese beer speed it along. The Japanese fare at Kirala includes appetizers (delicate seafood or pork gyoza (like pot stickers); light-as-air tempura), robata grill items (spicy sardines; baby lobster tail with tiny red caviar; silky shitake mushrooms), an array of sushi (fresh water or sea eel among them) and sashimi, and full meals with soup, salad, and rice. A la carte portions are delicious but small, so do order a side of rice.
1767 Solano Ave./Ensenada Ave.
Plenty of seating is provided at Kirin, and most of it has a view into the busy glassed-in kitchen. The northern China menu has some delicious dishes, including Szechwan chicken, kung pao chicken or prawns, sesame chicken, Xian Jiang lamb, Mongolian beef, Kirin beef, Sichuan dry-fried prawns, vegetable chow fun, and Pan-Pacific wontons filled with crab and cream cheese. Ghan Shao Lamb made with Northern spices, plus spicy garlic eggplant with fried tofu, make a great dinner combination, especially if you add in an order of housemade Shanghai garlic noodles. MSG is used but can be left out of most items by request.
Lama Bean’s Cafe
1290 6th St./Gilman St.
Breakfast is served all day in this casual venue with counter service (table service at dinner), and a special brunch menu is added on weekends. Prime selections at Lama Bean’s Cafe include silver dollar pancakes, scrambles, omelets, corned beef hash, freshly baked pastries, and four kinds of eggs Benedict. Lunch brings on a grass-fed beef burger with hand-cut French fries, a delectable lamb sandwich, and a jerk chicken-mango-caramelized red onion lavash sandwich served with Caesar salad. A trio of flavorful dipping sauces comes on the side of each plate.
2936 College Ave./Ashby Ave.; Elmwood.
Situated in a low-key neighborhood and on a street filled with unique shops, La Mediterranee has a pleasant, protected sidewalk-side patio in addition to an attractive, high-ceilinged interior. The Middle Eastern menu offers an outstanding cinnamony chicken Cilicia in phyllo dough and succulent chicken pomegranate drumsticks, as well as soups and salads for lighter appetites. I like to come here for the lunch special, which is hidden on the back of the menu, and I usually get either the three filo choice–opting for two chicken Cilicias and one spinach-cheese–or two filo and a chicken pomegranate drumstick. The lunch special comes with a choice of tasty lemon-chicken soup, lettuce salad, or filling Armenian potato salad plus several pieces of pita and some delicious hummus. .
La Note Restaurant Provencal
2377 Shattuck Ave./Channing Way; downtown.
Touching just the right culinary notes, this charming restaurant situated inside a vintage 1894 building delivers the Provence dining experience without the native negatives of small dogs and cigarette smoke. On the patio on a warm, sunny day, while sipping a cafe au lait from a big bowl, it’s possible to fantasize about actually being in the south of France. Winning items on La Note’s breakfast menu (which is served through lunch) include lemon-gingerbread pancakes with poached pears, fluffy scrambled eggs and omelettes, and perfectly fried rosemary potatoes with whole garlic. Hot cereals and French toast made with cinnamon brioche soaked in orange water batter and drizzled with lavender honey are also available. Lunch brings on les salades, les soupes, and les sandwiches, and dinner les bagnats (traditional Provençale open-face sandwiches), les poissons (fish), and les viandes (meats). Bon appetit! Note that a 20% surcharge to be divided among all employees is no longer added to the bill. However, a “3% living wage surcharge” is now added and distributed among all untipped staffers.
1834 Euclid Ave./Hearst Ave., Northside.
Located on the quieter north side of the U.C. campus, this long-popular student hangout has good pizza, pastas, and brew–all at great prices. The super-casual seating inside at La Val’s is enhanced with overhead TVs broadcasting sporting events, but on warm afternoons sitting at a picnic table in the courtyard beer garden is hard to beat. Waiting time can be spent playing video games.
2977 College Ave./Ashby Ave., Elmwood.
Though I’ve never been to Japan, this small, deep venue strikes me as what you might find there when in search of a quick meal. Order in front at Manpuku for both take-away or dining in, and then seat yourself at the sushi counter or at one of the tables. From the large assortment of sushi, I selected a deep-fried spicy salmon roll special and found it delicious. The dine-in menu has extensive choices. Ramen and udon noodle dishes are good choices, and bento boxes include a spectacular tempura. A cold case allows quick grab-and-go take out, including California Roll, fresh steamed edamame, and kim chi.
900 Grayson St./7th St.
Situated within an atmospheric vintage building, this cozy restaurant usually requires a wait. Once inside, it isn’t easy to select from the tantalizing menu choices, but The Demon Lover does seem to be a runaway favorite. It consists of a spectacular crispy fried chicken breast atop an unremarkable waffle and is draped in old-time white chicken gravy; it is fork-licking delicious, but next time I order it, I’m getting it a la carte and ordering just the chicken with a side of gravy and slaw. Herb french fries, a burger, a pulled-pork sandwich, and coriander-crusted rare ahi tuna are also very good. Libations include unique mixed drinks and an agua fresca.
Nomad Tibetan Restaurant
1593 Solano Ave./Tacoma Ave.
Featuring a woodsy decor, with hand-crafted wood tables and art by a local Tibetan artist, this comfortable spot provides a restive retreat. A good way to start a meal at Nomad Tibetan Restaurant is with the juicy beef momo dumplings, which are very much like pot stickers, and particularly tasty with the house sauce. Among the many vegetarian items is duluma, a slice of eggplant topped with an assortment of other vegetables in a tasty sauce. Traditionally, ting-mo—hand-rolled Tibetan steam buns that look like big yellow flowers–are used to sop up the sauce. Among the many more dishes I want to try are Shambala curry and ngo-thuk (stir-fried noodles with beef and vegetables). You can enhance your meal with salty Tibetan butter tea or sweet ginger tea.
1328 6th St./Gilman St.
Claiming to be the largest taqueria in the Bay Area, this casual spot has two indoor dining rooms and an outside area with a soothing wall fountain. Get in line (it moves fast), order at the counter, and then select a table. Service is fast. Menu choices at Picante include the expected burritos, tamales, tacos (prepared with soft handmade corn tortillas that you can watch being made in the restaurant’s little booth), quesadillas, and tostadas. Especially good fillings include carnitas (slow-cooked pork), manchmanteles (red “tablecloth strainer” chicken in a mega-tasty grilled pineapple-red mole sauce), vegetarian rajas con papas (Poblano chilies, potatoes, onions, and Mexican cheese), conchinita pibil (Yucatecan pork steamed in banana leaf and served with spectacular habanero-pickled purple onions), and chorizo y papas (spicy Mexican sausage and potatoes). I love the crispy flautas made with flour tortillas and the chilaquiles verdes (green) and rojos (red) available at weekend brunch. There is an additional charge for the non-gmo, organic, house-made tortilla chips that are made in small batches. An extensive vegetarian-vegan menu and children’s menu are also available. Among the drinks are aguas frescas (fresh fruit drinks), margaritas made with agave wine, and a large selection of Mexican beers. Complimentary salsas are superb and something it’s hard to get enough of. Flavors choices are chipotle, salsa verde, morita, habañero.
In December, an assortment of tamales are made in house and available for pickup within a few days of Christmas. Delicious chicken mole tamales consist of six smallish tamales wrapped in green banana leaves and a generous amount of mole sauce on the side. Two tamales per person satisfies an average appetite.
2042 University Ave./Shattuck Ave.; downtown.
Salvadoran food is the specialty in this cheery, spacious spot. Lunch specials at Platano are mostly pupusa plates–choose from nine versions and sides of fried plantains, creamy beans, or creama; full dinner plates include two sides and handmade corn tortillas. Platillos (small tapas-style plates) make up a large section of the menu. Sweet unfilled tamales and various fish dishes are also available, as are vegetarian and vegan options (the only vegan item is Papa Guisada, a Salvadoran stew of potatoes, carrots and green beans). Complimentary curtido—vinegar-steeped cabbage salad–accompanies all meals.
Revival Bar & Kitchen
21021 Shattuck Ave./Addison St., downtown.
Situated inside a vintage 1901 building, this classy spot serves up dishes prepared with locally sourced ingredients. Chef-owner of Revival Bar & Kitchen Amy Murray says, “We butcher our own goats, pigs, quarter-hinds of beef, produce our own charcuterie, sausage and bacon, make our own jams and ketchup and may soon be able to keep bees on our roof to harvest our own honey.” Perhaps the best way to fully enjoy this varied menu is to share. Especially tasty options include tender goat meatballs amid chickpeas and mint, flatbread topped with a veritable salad of romanesco broccoli and olives, and a grilled pork chop with roasted fingerling potatoes and baby artichoke hearts. Desserts—perhaps a Meyer lemon-and-chocolate mousse cake or a rich, rich sticky toffee pudding—and cocktails—maybe a Port au Prince (rum, pineapple, pomegranate) or Silk Road Sour (tea, bourbon, orange, lemon)—are highlights, making this a popular after-theater destination. The large open dining room has a high ceiling and oversize windows yet exudes a romantic atmosphere with plenty of reclaimed wood, antique mirror panels, and zinc-topped tables. Banquettes add comfort. Live music is a complimentary enhancement on Thursday nights from 9:00 to 11:00 p.m.
Rick & Ann’s
2922 Domingo Ave./Ashby Ave.
Located across the street from the Claremont Hotel, this cozy neighborhood spot serves an extensive breakfast menu until 2:30 p.m. Rick & Ann’s features both the usual and the unusual–gingerbread waffles, colorful and tasty red flannel hash prepared with beets and sweet potatoes, lacy corn cakes, French toast made with challah dipped in orange-cardamom batter. Superb home fries are prepared using fresh potatoes and served topped with sour cream and chopped green onions. At lunch, hamburgers, salads, and a variety of sandwiches join the menu, and dinner brings on American classics such as meatloaf and macaroni and cheese. Good pie is available anytime. Banquettes along the wall, Shaker-style chairs, and tables with hammered metal tops lend
800 Heinz Ave./7th St.
Situated way out in a business park in southwest Berkeley, this contemporary Italian restaurant operates inside a vintage brick building. Riva Cucina has high ceilings, polished wood floors, and heavy drapes dividing the space into two rooms, and an outdoor area is inviting in good weather. Try the eggplant or housemade Italian sausage panino, the excellent execution of pasta al nero (squid-ink pasta topped with squid, scallops, and prawns), or the delicious tagliatelle Bolognese with traditional pork-beef-tomato ragu, and save room for the heavenly panna cotta. Service is attentive.
Skates on the Bay
100 Seawall Dr., at foot of University Ave.
Window-side tables take best advantage of the stunning three-bridge view at Skates on the Bay. The extensive lunch menu offers a variety of soups, salads, and pastas, and the dinner menu features fresh fish items. Desserts are traditional and include a hot fudge sundae, a burnt-cream custard, and, in season, a giant strawberry shortcake. Brunch features a variety of Mimosas and a fun build-your-own Bloody Mary bar containing assorted pickled and fresh vegetables (I am in love with the little red peppadew peppers), an expansive assortment of bottled hot sauces, and very spicy freshly made horseradish. The menu includes a selection of fresh shellfish, baked fresh Dungeness crab-artichoke dip, fried calamari misto, a yummy open-face crab sandwich with artichokes and melted Cheddar cheese on toasted sourdough bread, a seafood Louie salad with fresh Dungeness crab and poached jumbo tiger prawns, a tasty Benedict Florentine with spinach instead of Canadian bacon, and a tart and creamy Key lime pie.
Summer Kitchen + Bake Shop
2944 College Ave./Ashby Ave.
Mimicking an old-fashioned cottage with touches such as a screen door and ceiling fan, this small counter-order spot makes everything with organic ingredients and knows how to make a sandwich. A favorite at Summer Kitchen is the apple-smoked bacon with avocado, piquillo pepper, arugula, and housemade mayo. The hefty fried chicken version consists of a flat slice of crispy fried chicken breast, coleslaw, mustard sauce, and housemade sweet pickles. Salads include watermelon with feta and sherry vinaigrette, curried chicken, and both cauliflower and beet. Burgers and brick-oven-baked pizza are also available. Cupcakes and marble cake make a nice dessert,. Dinners become available at 4 p.m.
Thai Delight Cuisine
1700 Shattuck Ave./Virginia St.
Featuring a pleasant atmosphere, this one-room venue is a sea of well-spaced tables and chairs. Particularly tasty items include pad Thai, green curry, pumpkin curry, basil eggplant, and pra ram tofu (with peanut sauce on top of spinach and broccoli). If you want spicy, do request it. Vegan and gluten-free choices are available.
1920 Shattuck Ave./Hearst; downtown.
Serving house-brewed beer since 1986, Triple Rock is America’s fifth-oldest brewpub. Seating includes in the main bar area, in a large side room where several TVs entertain, and on a rooftop deck. Beers change regularly and include a Fixins India Pale Ale and an Ol’Malloy Irish Red Ale. You can try a few samples to help you select, or order a tasting flight. The burgers are delicious, but the menu includes much more—a Reuben, a salmon sandwich, a Caesar salad, a bowl of chili. Innovative veggie items include a BBQ seitan sandwich, an arugula bowl, and a veggie burger. The Chow+Brau $10 special is available daily until 4 p.m. and includes an entrée/sandwich special, a side of your choice, and a house-brewed beer or soda (I had a pineapple-topped burger that I never would have ordered normally–and loved it!–with a salad and Soft Rock Pilsner, all served up perfectly with a dose of Beatles and Stones.
1986 Shattuck Ave./University Ave., downtown.
The wide-open room here, with high ceilings and attractive Mediterranean wall murals, provides comfortable seating and plenty to look at. Menu fare at Turkish includes soups and salads plus appetizers both cold (grape leaves stuffed with a rice mix, eggplant salad, and exotic, tasty red bell pepper-based ezme) and hot (borek—phylo dough baked with feta cheese or ground beef; and sigara boregi—a deep-fried cigar-shaped pastry filled with feta). Choose from exotic sandwiches, stuffed pies, and main dishes (delicious baked chicken beyti–lavash stuffed with chicken and served with a tasty yogurt sauce; manti–like Turkish ravioli; eggplant stuffed with meat or veggies is a house specialty). Delicious house-made pita is made the Turkish way—without a pocket–and is perfect to sop up sauce. Sharing works well.
2390 4th St./Channing Way.
Operating within a colorfully painted former warehouse with skylights and boasting a spacious parking lot, this wildly popular Indian chaat house is self-described as reminiscent of a New Delhi bazaar. Eager diners line up to order at the counter and then volley for space at the charmless tables, and food is served unceremoniously on disposable plates with plastic utensils. Favorites among the deliciously spiced chaat, which translates as “small snacks,” include: dahi pakori (cold lentil dumplings with tamarind chutney), sev puri (cold potatoes and onions with garlic chutney), samosa cholle (deep-fried potato-stuffed pastries served with spicy garbanzo curry), and the dramatic bhatura cholle (this huge puffy puri, also called “balloon bread,” is served with spicy garbanzos and onion chutney and is nicknamed “the big puffy thing”). A dosa and both a meat and a vegetarian curry plate complete with rice and bread are also available; on weekends more delights join the options. Drinks include a delicious creamy mango lassi and a thick guava nectar; for dessert, select an Indian sweet from a glass case. Off the entrance, a related market sells exotic Indian cooking staples.
Andronico’s Community Market
1550 Shattuck Ave./Cedar St.
Owned now by Safeway, this upscale supermarket purveys convenient take-out fare and locally-made gourmet treats. Boxed lunches are available by 24-hour advance reservation. Before it became a Safeway, it was part of the Andronico’s Market chain, and before that it was the consumer-owned Co-op, a supermarket that operated here from 1938 to 1988 and was at that time the country’s largest urban cooperative.
Cafenated Coffee House
2085 Vine St./Shattuck Ave.
As would be expected from the name, this spot offers coffee and tea drinks galore, including seasonal and less common specialties such as Swedish iced coffee and Vietnamese egg coffee. More description and images.
The Cheese Board Collective
1504 Shattuck Ave./Vine St.
One of the best cheese boutiques in the world, this shop has the largest cheese selection in the West. When Cheese Board opened in 1967, it was a few doors down from the original Peet’s Coffee, but in 1975 it moved across the street from Chez Panisse. Because it is a worker-owned collective, everyone is trained and knowledgeable about all their products and everyone receives the same wages. A spectacular selection of breads and pastries–including several types of scone, fruit turnovers, a delicious cheese roll (heat it up at home), a fluffy, puffy pita bread, and a chewy gingerbread cookie—are also baked each day. And don’t miss the house-made hummus and the green castel vetrano olives available in the cold case, the “Killer Granola,” which is pretty good, too, but not as good as my own homemade “World’s Best Granola.”
The collective’s next-door Pizzeria prepares only one pizza every day—always with a sourdough crust, and always vegetarian–and customers wait in a usually long line to purchase pizza to eat on site, a slice to eat on the run, or a box to take home. Live music often helps pass the time. However, not everyone likes every pizza every day. As San Francisco Chronicle columnist Leah Garchik reported via reader David Miller in the Public Eavesdropping portion of her column, a teenage boy complained to his mother, describing the pizza of the day, “It has pine nuts, lemon, peaches and blue cheese. I hate pine nuts and blue cheese, and I don’t like fruit on my pizza.” Vegan and gluten-free versions are available (check website for details). Soft-serve buffalo-milk ice cream is also available.
1517 Shattuck Ave./Cedar St.
Opened in 1971 by U.C. graduate Alice Waters as a hangout for her friends, this fabulously famous restaurant inside a converted art deco-style house features the definitive California cuisine–simply prepared food made with the freshest ingredients. A different fixed-price menu is served each night in the legendary, hard-to-get-into downstairs dining room (Paul McCartney, the Dalai Lama, and President Obama have all eaten here, and limos are often seen parked in front).
The less expensive upstairs Chez Panisse cafe serves a seasonal menu of simple items such as baked goat-cheese salad, Spanish-style grilled chicken with lentils, and almond cake with poached Bosc pears and sour cherries. (Filmmaker Werner Herzog once prepared his own shoe for consumption here and recorded the event in his documentary “Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe.” Meals in both venues are usually a perfect 10.
A 17% service charge is automatically added to the bill and divided by the entire staff, so no need to tip more unless service was above and beyond. Note that an unusual bunya bunya tree grows to the left of the front gate. Also known as false monkey puzzle tree, or a coniferous Araucaria bidwilli tree, it is not indigenous. The pine code pods can grow to the enormous size of up to 16 inches in diameter and can weigh up to 40 pounds.
The area surrounding this restaurant is known as the “Gourmet Ghetto.” Allow time to explore.
1509-1513 Shattuck Ave./Vine St.
A pleasant courtyard with soothing waterfall in the back of the unusual Epicurious Garden food court provides informal seating. Choose from Japanese sushi and bento boxes, an expansive breakfast menu served all day long, and a variety of refreshing gelatos. An Indian bistro and wine bar and a cooking school are also among the offerings.
2109 Cedar St./Shattuck Ave.
This upscale hole-in-the-wall produces accomplished French take-out fare, and it must be good because California Cuisine guru Alice Waters is a customer. Chef Grégoire makes everything from scratch using fresh local ingredients. A few tables are available for dining, but it’s more fun to fax in an order and pick it up dressed in delightful eight-sided corrugated boxes made of recycled material (this is Berkeley). You can order online from the monthly menu posted at the website. An example dinner started with thick, tasty mushroom soup, moved on to falling-off-the-bone-tender braised lamb shank Provençal and crispy round potato puffs, and ended with a flaky housemade apple tarte tatin. Have merci!
Peet’s Coffee & Tea
2124 Vine St./Cedar St.
It was here in 1966 that now-retired owner Alfred Peet, a Dutch émigré, became the first in the U.S. trade to import specialty varieties of coffees and to dark-roast whole coffee beans–a radical move at the time that touched off a revolution among coffee drinkers. All other Peet’s are modeled after this one. This is the original Peet’s. And though Starbucks did purchase and own Peet’s from 1984 to 1987, Peet’s is once again an independent company with a plethora of outlets throughout the Bay Area.
A Berkeley institution, this coffeehouse dispenses an impressive variety of coffees and teas. Back in the day, it provided no place to sit down, but large numbers of coffee freaks still gathered there each morning spilling into the street, all chatting happily. Currently, there is usually adequate sit-down space both inside and outside. My favorite order here is a vanilla latte with a royally delicious Danish Kouign Amann pastry.
Saul’s Restaurant & Delicatessen
1475 Shattuck Ave./Cedar St.
Boasting a NYC deli feel and a goodly number of very comfortable booths, this casual spot presents popular traditional Jewish deli dishes: chicken soup with 2-inch matzo balls or noodles, long-simmered brisket with carrots and onions, crispy latkes, and creamy rice pudding. Currently my favorite item at Saul’s is the Malawac Yemeni pancake consisting of a delicious stretchy-dough base topped with spinach and chopped eggs and served with house-made labne yogurt cheese plus zhoug and harissa sauces; beef shawarma topping is additional. But I also really like the pastrami Reuben sandwich topped with sauerkraut, Swiss cheese, and Russian dressing on grilled rye. An appetizer pickle–sour, half sour, or dill–is perfect to munch on while perusing the menu. The deli prepares everything to go. I like to pick up a few cookies to take home, especially the black and whites.
The Butcher’s Son
1954 University Ave./Martin Luther King Jr. Way.
Despite the name, the father of the owner of this vegan butcher shop was not a butcher. And everything on the menu here is vegan. More description and images.
1686 Shattuck Ave./Virginia St.
With only a teeny, tiny space and just a few tables, this popular spot often requires a wait at dinner. Counter seating, with a view of the kitchen action, is sometimes an option. Vegan Japanese cuisine is the draw at Cha-Ya, with gyoza and tempura on the menu along with oodles of noodles and sushi. (Vegan means that no animal products of any kind are used—“No milk, no eggs, no gelatin, no fish, no dairy. Not even honey made by the hard working bee.”) Dishes are artfully presented and satisfying. Desserts include fresh pineapple and a chocolate mousse cake.
The Cheese Board Collective
1504 Shattuck Ave./Vine St.
One of the best cheese boutiques in the world, this shop has the largest cheese selection in the West. More description and images.
St./Ashby, South Berkeley.
The bricks-and-mortar outgrowth of a Berkeley farmers market stand (it also continues on at the markets), this all-vegan counter-order spot operates inside a cute, clean little cottage-like structure decorated lightly with Mexican crafts. The music mix at Flacos includes Bob Marley and Jimmie Hendrix. Tight seating inside holds about 12, while roomier tables are available outside on the edge of the free parking lot. Mexican menu items include crunchy taquitos filled with a soy mix (they are the size of a regular taco shell); tasty soft-shell tacos stuffed with vegan meat, radishes, and cabbage; banana-leaf-wrapped tamales in mole; gluten-free tamales filled with roasted poblano chiles, refried pinto beans, and potatoes; chalupas stuffed with potatoes and soyrizo; arroz sin leche (soy-milk rice pudding); and soy-milk Mexican hot chocolate. You’ll find no cheese, sour cream, chips, or alcohol (instead, try the aqua fresca of the day). The house specialty avocado salsa is slathered on some items. On Taquito Tuesdays they are $1/per instead of $2/per (and there is a whole lot of crunchin’ goin’ on). Taco Thursdays are $2/per. Rice is brown, corn tortillas are fresh-pressed, and packaging is biodegradable. Bulk organic vegan masa is available by advance order. A classic tamal poblano is fluffy and soft, with a filling of roasted poblano chile, potato and black bean tucked inside. Keep an eye on the weekly specials, like Taco Tuesday, for some generous deals.
1901 University Ave./Martin Luther King Blvd.
A cog in a chain that stretches to Toronto, Canada, this all-vegetarian cafe serves up the pancakes and other dishes that comprise South Indian cuisine. Thin, rolled or folded, rice-flour crêpes known as dosas are especially good. At Udupi Palace they include a gargantuan paper dosa that measures almost 2 feet long and is filled with yellow split peas, a triangular mysore masala dosa filled with spicy potatoes, and a lacy rava masala dosa made with two kinds of onion and filled with potatoes. Plate-size uthappam are fatter—more like Western pancakes—and topped with various mixtures. Rice dishes, curries, and a daily special ten-item thali plate flesh out the focused menu.
Cafenated Coffee House
2085 Vine St./Shattuck Ave., Gourmet Ghetto
As would be expected from the name, this spot offers coffee and tea drinks galore, including seasonal and less common specialties such as Swedish iced coffee and Vietnamese egg coffee. More description and images.
2500 San Pablo Ave./Dwight Way, Poet’s Corner.
Located on a retail strip known as the Left Bank in a neighborhood known as the Poet’s Corner (because the streets named for poets include Bonar, Browning, Byron, Chaucer, Cowper, Edwards, and Poe), this coffeehouse was once a branch of San Francisco’s famous North Beach Caffe Trieste.
More description and images.
2300 College Ave./Bancroft Way.
I am particularly fond of this coffeehouse located directly across from campus because of its expansive outdoor seating sheltered by mature trees. More description and images.
Free Speech Movement Cafe
In Moffitt Undergraduate Library.
Who knew the old days are being celebrated in this cheery campus cafe? More description and images.
Musical Offering Cafe-Bistro
2430 Bancroft Way/Telegraph Ave.
This casual coffeehouse/cafe has a sophisticated atmosphere with classical music playing in the background and original art on the walls (art is for sale). More description and images.
2410 Channing Way/Dana St., 1 blk. west of Telegraph Ave.
Named in reference to the 1951 United Nations guidelines protecting refugees, this non-profit coffeehouse attracts students with communal tables and a quiet, work-friendly atmosphere. More description and images.
Way Station Brew
2120 Dwight Way/Shattuck Ave.
The space is deep, the light is low, the ceiling is high with an exposed-pipes industrial feel, and the atmosphere is chill. More description and images.
Asha Tea House
2086 University Ave./Shattuck Ave., downtown.
Named after the Taiwanese word for “someone who enjoys life,” Asha strives to remind customers to enjoy life while drinking tea. Situated in a dramatic high-ceilinged room with a contemporary industrial feel, this small tea house produces high quality tea and a few snacks. Most acclaimed are the hand-whisked stone-ground matcha items (latte, matchaffogato), the fruit teas naturally sweetened with real fruit (blood orange oolong tea has chunks of blood orange in the house-made puree), and the Hong Kong-style milk teas, plus–available after 11:45 a.m.–sweet, chewy Taiwanese boba pearl milk teas. Drinks are brewed to order and include Masala chai and coffee. A few food items are available, but they no longer include the famous matcha mochi and flaky Portuguese egg tart. It is claimed that one serving of matcha has as much caffeine as a cup of coffee, but without the jitteriness and crash. Teas tend to be strong, and condensed milk, fruit purees, and simple syrups are made in house from natural ingredients. Bulk teas are also available.
Acme Bread Company
1603 San Pablo Ave./Cedar St
Join the line here for a take-away baguette fresh from the oven. My favorite Acme baguette is the rustic sweet (it is spectacular spread with peanut butter and jelly or just plain butter), and my favorite bread is the Upstairs—which refers to the bread that was formerly served upstairs at Chez Panisse (it is my favorite for making avocado toast). I also like to get a tasty ham and cheese turnover to share for lunch, and usually also order up a foccacia pizza to take home for dinner. The line is long, but it is usually also cheery and moves fast. At the door it is reminiscent of the Seinfeld soup nazi episode—only two people inside the small space at a time, and you’d better think fast about what you want to order from their vast selection! It is cash and debit cards only here.
Across the way, Kermit Lynch Wine Merchant, which specializes in wine made from small French and Italian wineries, opens at 11a,m, and is closed Sunday and Monday.
Berkeley Bowl Marketplace
2020 Oregon St.
This counter-culture grocery store is legendary for its produce section and also has a large take-out selection. The name comes from the fact that it began life in a former bowling alley.
Berkeley Bowl West
920 Heinz Ave.
This is the newest branch of this popular long-time local counter-culture supermarket with a huge organic produce section.
Located adjacent, Berkeley Bowl Café is open all day. It is a great spot to fuel up before or after shopping. For breakfast try a turmeric latte or organic açaí bowl. Lunch items include the signature Seared Ahi Sandwich as well as several soups and a delicious chicken salad sandwich. A smoothie from the Juice Bar refreshes at any time.
Cupcakin’ Bake Shop
2391 Telegraph Ave./Channing.
This artisan bakery Cupcakin’ Bake Shop specializes in exceptional cupcakes and cakes made from scratch, and the sweet mini cupcakes are particularly popular. More description and images.
2912 Domingo Ave.
The line here is always out the door and around the corner. And for good reasons, among them that the pastry dough is amazingly light and flaky. More description and images.
Mi Tierra Foods
2082 San Pablo Ave./Addison St.
Here since 1996, this relatively large corner grocery specializes in Mexican and South American cooking ingredients but carries plenty of other items as well. More description and images.
1550 Hopkins St./Monterey Ave.
This low-key, much-heralded produce market caters to the sophisticated Berkeley palate with an impressive assortment of produce, including tender baby vegetables, exotic melons, and wild mushrooms. The Monterey Market also supplies the area’s fine restaurants, and prices are unexpectedly low.
Noah’s NY Bagels
1883 Solano Ave./The Alameda.
The very first Noah’s shop opened in nearby Emeryville. This branch was among the first in what has now become a very large chain. Promising “a taste of old New York,” this shop delivers a bagel that is described by the founder as “crusty outside, chewy inside, tasty and big.” They come in many varieties, including “super onion” and “multi-grain” (my favorites are “everything” and “sesame seed”), and a selection of freshly made cream cheese shmears make the perfect topping. Bagel sandwiches are made to order, and plenty of supporting items and cold drinks are available. Noah says, “Protect your bagels . . . put lox on them!” And that is a great idea!
372 Colusa Ave., in Kensington.
Many customers stop by for a fresh baguette and some of the European-style pastries to go (the delicious cinnamon morning muffin is a personal favorite). More description and images.
Sheng Kee Bakery
2307 Telegraph Ave./Bancroft Way.
This bright, spacious bakery is part of a Bay Area chain. It will suck you in when you see the mouth-watering array of pastries both sweet and savory.
Whole Foods Market
3000 Telegraph Ave./Ashby Ave.
This Texas-based natural foods retailer purveys an amazing selection of good-for-you foods, and its bakery, deli, and coffee bar offer the makings for a great picnic. Alternatively, some seating is available inside, more at sheltered tables outside. Special child-size shopping carts are fun for kids. In 2002, this was the nation’s first major food retailer, and the first in the chain, to go solar.
(www.berkeleyandbeyond2.com; copyright Carole Terwilliger Meyers)