Exploring Berkeley's Food Scene

Farmers' Market

Beginning in the 1970s with Alice Waters and Chez Panisse, Berkeley has influenced how people eat by introducing the concepts of organic and sustainable agriculture and the principles of the Slow Food movement to Berkeley residents and visitors. Berkeley is home to institutions such as the Edible Schoolyard at Martin Luther King Junior Intermediate School, which was started by Alice Waters in the mid-1990s with the intention of educating children about sustainable agriculture and slow food.

Transportation

Berkeley is easily accessible by public transportation. Bart (Bay Area Rapid Transit) stops in three locations around the small city: Downtown, on Shattuck Avenue; Ashby, which is south of Downtown Berkeley, but near Berkley Bowl and a great Sunday flea market; and North Berkeley, which is near the stretch of Shattuck Avenue that is home to much of Berkeley’s “Gourmet Ghetto.” Buses are also readily available from many points in the Bay Area.

Restaurants

In the center of Berkeley, Shattuck Avenue is filled with dozens of cafes and restaurants. Each café has its own style and clientele. Most are filled with University students, quietly studying or playing computer games. Fertile Grounds, a tiny place, not only has excellent coffee, but an assortment of Mediterranean dishes that are both inexpensive and quite delicious. The hummus is one of the lightest around, with hints of lemon and garlic, served with heated pita.

Oscars, just a mere block away, is locally famous for gratifyingly greasy burgers, hot dogs, and fries. If you’re in the mood for this kind of fare, Oscars is your man. A few blocks north you’ll find the renowned Chez Panisse. Alice Waters opened Chez Panisse in the 1970’s, serving one three-course prix fixe a night, for about $30. Today, a single prix fixe menu is still served, priced between $60 and $95. The menu changes daily, and is still lovingly crafted with great regard for guests’ hearts, souls, and taste buds. A typical menu might consist of heirloom tomato salad with hand-stretched mozzarella, fried calamari with lemon and marjoram, grilled Becker Ranch pork loin with wild fennel and fresh shell beans, and an Apple and blackberry tart with blackberry ice cream. The more recently opened Chez Panisse Café offers a-la-carte choices and is open for lunch as well as dinner.

If you’re just looking for a light lunch, try the newly opened Epicurious Garden, just a few doors down on Shattuck. This thin corridor of a gourmet food mall offers a choice of food stalls. Soop offers homemade soups, with a variety that changes daily; Kiralo(2) offers sushi and more unusual Japanese options like pounded pork cutlets; Picoso Taqueria offers tacos and burritos; and for dessert, there’s Chocolate Alegio. If you keep going through the hallway, you spill into a small garden, where you can take your purchases and make a picnic from your bounty.

Markets

Berkeley boasts numerous venues where shoppers can buy fresh fruit and vegetables, not to mention other delectable goods like tofu noodles, cheese rolls, organic meat, and fish.

Berkeley Bowl is the largest independent market in the area. The market opened in 1977 as a small neighborhood place and moved into its current 40,000 square foot space in 1999, which is only a few blocks from the Ashby Bart station. Much of the space is devoted to fruits and vegetables. You can find dozens of varieties of tomatoes, cucumbers, peaches, and melons, all at very reasonable prices ($2.99 a pound for organic tomatoes!). Their bulk section also offers quite an assortment, with goods as diverse as oats, cashews, and chocolate covered ginger. With a meat counter, fish counter, bakery, and cold cut counter, the only thing missing is wine. Oh, wait - there’s wine too.

Residents of North Berkeley are devoted to Monterey Market.  Produce is at the heart of this market, and the owners are committed to sustainable agriculture: they know their farmers and you can tell. Every variety of produce is accompanied by a sign displaying the place from where it came—most of the produce is local.  The array of fruits and veggies is as beautiful as it is bountiful. Monterey Market also has a small selection of canned goods, and a large variety of wine.

A worker-owned co-op, the Cheeseboard is always an adventure.  The cheese counter offers hundreds of options, and you can taste as many samples as you like! Be warned though, there is almost always a line, and while the workers won’t rush you, the baby-boomers behind you might. It’s worth a trip to Berkeley simply for a taste of the Cheeseboards’s cheese roll--crispy on the outside and chewy inside, filled with chunks of Asiago cheese--these rolls are a meal in themselves. For dessert, try one of the Chocolate Things (a brioche roll studded with chocolate chunks). Right next door is the Cheese Board Pizza, serving delicious thin-crust pies. The vegetarian toppings change daily--goat cheese, corn, artichokes one day; feta, red onions, and spinach another.

Berkeley’s Farmers’ Markets are famed from coast to coast: even the New York Times has extolled their virtues. Since the Bay Area is warm enough to generate fruit and vegetables all year round, residents can buy just-picked lunch and dinner every day of the year.  Farmers’ Markets are village affairs, and Berkeley’s are no exception. While the produce changes depending on the season, the sense of community remains the same. The Thursday market on Shattuck, an all-organic market, brings together mostly North Berkeley residents, while the Tuesday and Saturday markets attract the locals as well as tourists, University workers, and the more itinerant residents that make up the Berkeley of today and of yesterday.

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