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Daring Berkeley goes gourmet. University town gaining fame for hustling the latest in up-scale eateries

BERKELEY, the '60s symbol of student revolt, is the '80s cuisine capital of the San Francisco Bay Area and, according to many gastronomes, the style-setter for the entire nation. Young and daring, Berkeley food stylists have changed the face of this university town.

``There's no question that gourmet consciousness has become the big thing,'' says Prof. John Searle, a faculty supporter of the Free Speech Movement and People's Park. ``There's a definite shift in sensibilities. People spend a lot of time arguing about which is the best restaurant and who bakes the best croissants,'' he says.

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Not only croissants. We haven't a count on how many specialty shops offer a dazzling selection of freshly made pasta, how many caf'es wouldn't open their doors without proper espresso equipment. But that's only the beginning.

Betsy van Neys, a graduate student who took time out from writing her dissertation on ``Antigone'' to guide us through the ``Gourmet Ghetto'' of Shattuck Avenue, says only Poulet Delicatessen serves ``short espresso'' as perfect as she found in Rome.

Yet, for the best beans and rarest teas to replenish her larder at home or at her classics department office, she joins the line on the sidewalk in front of Peets Imported Specialties, referred to as ``a Berkeley shrine'' by a University of Wisconsin professor.

Commercial success has also overtaken the collective of former political activists and anti-establishment students who own and operate the Cheese Board. To feel personally responsible for their products, new employees work 40 hours free and then become part-owners.

Ms. van Neys buys a chunk of sweet butter and a crusty three-foot-long baguette with just a trace of fennel and sesame seed. I ask her, ``What if you run out of butter on Monday when the Cheese Board is closed?'' ``Oh,'' she says, ``I squeak by without it until Tuesday morning.''

Here you could be carrying a string bag from shop to shop in Ile St.-Louis inhaling the wondrous aromas. Like a Parisian, a Berkeleyite has his favorite greengrocer, charcuterie, butcher, poultry dealer, and pasta and spice shops. A trusted sausage dealer operates a booth in the Co-Op.

A former graduate engineer sells five sizes of artichokes from nearby Castroville, California-grown apricots, kiwis, figs, pistachios, eight kinds of mushrooms, and, of course, dozens of dewy fresh lettuces and herbs.

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Shoppers know the fish market owner who deals directly with fishermen at Monterey for abalone, at Pigeon Point for oysters, at Sausalito for bay shrimp, Petrale sole, and Pacific snapper. Customers insist upon gray snails raised on California lettuce and spinach, and real grain-fed chickens - no hormones, please.

The wholesome aspect, however, is unabashedly combined with the hedonistic. An order of rich macadamia mousse, baked praline ice cream pie with whipped cream, chocolate decadence, or dacquoise with mocha butter cream makes no one blush. There seems to be no end to the demand for new ice cream shops, chocolatiers, bakeries, theme restaurants.

Prof. Searle says the rapid turnover in theme restaurants, with changing fashion for sushi, then Indonesian, then Creole-Acadian, may be a Berkeley phenomenon. Across the bay, San Francisco establishments seem to go on forever.

Because Alice Waters is firmly rooted here as master chef, teacher, and originator of California Cuisine, one tends to forget that she opened Chez Panisse as recently as the early '70s. From her famous kitchen, Chez Panisse-trained cooks have fanned out to spread the gospel of ``tr'es fresh!'' in their own restaurants and as chefs in the best hotels and caf'es up and down the coast.

One of her prot'eg'es is Chris Chung. At his light and airy Caf'e Christopher, he sits with us as we feast on an appetizer of swordfish wrapped in banana leaf with coriander and chili pepper rice. After he opened his restaurant at 1843 Solano Avenue a few months ago, it was necessary to reserve in advance for his distinctive blend of East and West cooking.

Mr. Chung invents his own specialties, with a solid foundation on Alice Waters's three elements: expertise in cooking techniques, the best ingredients from California's farms and waters, and an urge to create. He brought from his native Hong Kong his love for South Seas, Indian, and Chinese.

``To be tasty,'' he says, ``food flavor should stay on the palate five or 10 minutes after eating.''

I can attest for that after biting into a roasted jalapeno chili in a mixture of cilantro, Chinese black beans, ginger, and soy, served with saut'eed Santa Barbara lobster.

So important is food in Berkeley that hostelries in the East Bay area advertise that they are ``only a short walk to Chez Panisse.'' Gramma's Bed-and-Breakfast Inn, a 1905 mansion and Berkeley's widely heralded first bed-and-breakfast, opened in 1979 to such acclaim that the owner soon added three adjacent houses.

From Gramma's Inn, I began a stroll through the neighborhood. I headed up Telegraph Avenue, still a street of vendors, placards, bookshops, and sandwich stands, through the famous Sather Gate and onto the campus. I sat on the ledge of Sproul Fountain under the university's lovely landmark, the Campanile, for a view of the human race in capsule - every age, color, race, garb, and hairstyle passes here.

The renovations along Fourth Street have lured a new crowd. At Bette's Oceanview Diner (1807 Fourth Street), it's shoulder to shoulder at noon. There is more board-room tailoring and high heels than you'd see in the older gourmet ghettos on Shattuck, Solano, or College Avenue.

Some of these fashion-conscious come from San Francisco for a stand-up lunch at the counter - perhaps a grilled steak and cheese with onion on a baguette. The under-$12 lunch contrasts with the more jeans-clad, laid-back patrons paying $25 at Chez Panisse Caf'e for pizzetta with smoked salmon, cr^eme fra^iche, and garden cress, entree, and a tart.

Fervor for excellent food matches concern for fitness and for the environment in this educated community. There are recycling centers for everything, nonsmoking restaurants, and one wouldn't be surprised to learn of a local ordinance banning convenience foods.

Betsy van Neys says what's current is to be comfortable with financial success. She's not embarrassed by her BMW. Searle counters, ``I don't think the willingness to spend money on pleasure is anything new in Berkeley.''

Which reminds me of the '60s slogan: ``Eating well is the radical's best revenge!''

If you go

For more information, contact the Berkeley Chamber of Commerce, 1834 University Ave., Suite 3, Berkeley, CA 94703; (415) 549-7000.

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