Berkeley eats: where global flavors meet eclectic culture

by May 29, 2024California

El Patio Berkeley Cecilia Cover

Berkeley California’s world-class gastronomic scene makes the city a perfect base camp for Bay Area explorations. Come for eclectic culture, stay for great food and drink.

In Berkeley, you can go from rubbing elbows with Thai monks over brunch on folding chairs to smoothing out a white napkin on your lap at a candlelit table. Everything goes – which has always been what Berkeley’s all about.

Open, welcoming and adventurous, Berkeley cut its teeth in the 1960s as counter-culture haven. Today, however, you may come for eclectic culture, but you’ll end up falling in love with never-ending gastronomic delights that have placed Berkeley’s food scene square on the map of must-do foodie adventures.

No food story about Berkeley can leave out at least a mention of Chez Panisse, founded there in 1971 by fabled Alice Waters. The legendary eatery helped spawn the farm-to-table movement, and it was the training grounds for so many other chefs, in Berkeley, San Francisco and beyond. Another Berkeley legend is Alfred Peet, who started – yes – Peet’s Coffee in 1966 (just around the corner from Chez Panisse, in fact). I used to make special treks to Peet’s when I was in college in San Francisco. Both Chez Panisse and Peet’s Coffee are still open, but for our Berkeley food explorations we turned to smaller, less-known restaurants and food-makers.

Third Culture Berkeley Bur Stir Matcha

Making matcha drinks at Third Culture bakery.

The food scene offerings are so plentiful in Berkeley that we picked one evening for a “progressive dinner,” which allowed us to click off three places in one evening. That was just a topper to the wine we tasted, the other dinners we indulged in, and the premium chocolates and crackers we sampled straight from craft kitchens. Oh, and the Thai monks we brunched with on paper plates in the garden.

Yes, monks. But you’ll have to wait to hear that part of the Berkeley food story.

Early happy hour at Donkey & Goat in Gilman wine district

A Dogs Life Berkeley

Hobbes, a rescue, enjoying a dog’s life resting in the sun at Donkey & Goat winery. The wine is named after him of course — Hobbes Merlot+Cabernet Sauvignon.

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Ok, so it wasn’t really an early happy hour. And it was a tasting, thus not really part of our progressive dinner. But with wine now such a huge part of Berkeley’s gastronomic scene, it can’t be sidestepped. Donkey & Goat was the first winery in the Gilman District under the leadership of Jared Brandt, who then recruited other wineries, he told us, to build a community. Today there are eight wineries and three breweries in the Gilman District. You can bounce between them or settle in at one. And don’t forget the First Friday gad-about in the Gilman Wine Block with music and food, too.

Onward to our real appetizer happy hour at Jupiter beer garden

Jupiter Beer Garden Berkeley

The outdoor patio at Jupiter beer garden.

Jupiter isn’t Chez Panisse, but it exudes Berkeley flair. Michael quite enjoyed his Hazy IPA. I often skip beer in the United States but when I saw Hefeweizen on the menu, I had to get over my snobby self and have one (which was refreshingly lovely, thank you). We also eyed the pizza menu and for a moment debated staying or moving on to our next stop. Don’t miss this Berkeley landmark, especially on a nice day.

Dinner at Gather in a classic wood-paneled space

Berkeley Food Scene Gather Restaurant

The dining room at Gather restaurant.

From Jupiter, we sauntered around the corner to Gather. Formerly a Michelin Bib Gourmand restaurant, Gather has leaned hard in recent years to a more casual, local, organic, seasonal, nearly comfort food menu – yes, that’s so very Berkeley. Look for everything from steak dinners to pizzas and burgers on the menu. I had a yummy but certainly basic Harvest Grain Bowl with tons of fresh veggies and quinoa. Having missed a pizza at Jupiter, Michael opted for spicy tomato pizza, which he raved about.

Spicy Tomato Pizza Gather Restaurant Berkeley

Spicy tomato pizza at Gather is absolutely yummy!

Gather formerly had a Michelin Bib Gourmand, which just meant the eatery offered “good cuisine at reasonable prices.”  It still does, despite no Michelin to brag about. What is so attractive at Gather Berkeley is the warmth of the space and its background – much of the wood and beams are reclaimed from various structures, from a former high school gym to an old water tank.

Almare Gelato Berkeley Food

Looking through the glass at all the delicious flavors at Almare Gelato.

Dessert at Almare Gelato — such a line outside!

Although it was tough to turn down a sweet ending at Gather, we meandered off around the corner to BART Plaza on Shattuck Avenue. Since it was such a pleasant early spring evening, the streets and plaza were full of those enjoying the clear, cool air – with a little of Almare’s homemade Italian gelato. Crafted “by Italians,” as the website declares, means it has the Italian stamp of approval.

After our first bites, Almare had ours, too. Fresh fruit, roasted nuts, local ingredients all get prepped and churned each morning. Michael can’t ever turn down a dark chocolate, while I tried a Limoncello Sorbet. We joined the Berkeley tradition of licking our cones while hanging out on the plaza watching people go by.

Almare Plaza Scene Berkeley

The BART plaza in Berkeley

But wait there’s more to the food in Berkeley than dinner

Our progressive dinner in Berkeley (the center of town is so walkable, why not?) wasn’t the end of our gastronomic experience. All our other foodie adventures also embraced that eclectic Berkeley flair – sometimes different, always special, often a bohemian entrepreneurial spirit, a little quirky perhaps, and simply creative.

El Patio Berkeley Arepa Sandwich

An Arepa sandwich at El Patio.

El Patio – This is definitely not where the tourists hang out, but visitors to Berkeley need to discover this place beloved by locals. Cooks at El Patio combine Mexican and Venezuelan specialties and feature more than 170 different kinds of Mezcal – com’ on have a little drink! We also indulged in something called an Arepa, which is a kind of flatbread made of ground maize then stuffed with various fillings.

And, yes, as the name suggests, there is a delightful patio in the back for hanging out. Which you may want to do after a Mezcal margarita,..or two.

Third Culture Berkeley Case Of Goodies

Mochi donuts at Third Culture.

Third Culture Bakery – I’d been in Japan and already knew I loved mochi anything, but a mochi muffin? A mochi donut? No, really? So we were surprised down to our socks that we so totally fell in love with not only the place but its products (we even had to go back and get some Third Culture goodies to go before we left Berkeley!).  There is a dense moistness to the muffins as well as the so-called donuts (they aren’t your typical greasy fare, but more just shaped like what we know as donuts and baked) that is truly addictive.

The ownership duo started the Third Culture mochi donut concept in 2016, working night and day, but its cult following allowed them by 2018 to grow to more than 20 employees and 60 wholesale locations. On the Saturday we were there the line extended out the door – but everybody waited so patiently for their mochi fix and various matcha drinks, each prepared by hand.

Standard Fare Kitchen Berkeley

Chef and founder Kelsie Kerr all smiles (middle) in the kitchen at Standard Fare.

Standard Fare – The name says standard, but Standard Fare is nothing but. At lunch the line can extend down the block for its coveted, organic, unique sandwiches and salads. In 2024, chef and founder Kelsie Kerr celebrated a decade treating Berkeley to her take on breakfast and lunch. She supervises it all – we watched her take delivery of a large salmon in the middle of lunch service!

It feels like a family picnic outside at the island of tables with folks picking seats, dogs hanging out, and people saying “hello” to each other.

Oceanview Diner Berkeley 4th Street

Darryl Kimble plating one of his creations.

Oceanview Diner – Originally called Bette’s Oceanview Diner, it has been part of childhood for so many kids who grew up smashing down its pancakes, then came back as parents and grandparents. But after 40 years the tradition nearly came to an end in 2022 when the owner decided to retire and close it. A group of employees stepped in to save the 4th street, ‘50s-style legend, and the rest is history. Now just Oceanview Diner, the beat goes on with its traditional yet surprisingly elevated breakfast and lunches.

From our booth conveniently located across from the kitchen, we watched kitchen manager and co-owner Darryl Kimble flip potatoes and dress omelets. Said one patron to us as he walked past, “That guy has been making my pancakes since I was a kid.”

Fish And Bird Berkeley Restaurant

Some of the many creative dishes served at Fish & Bird.

Fish & Bird Sousaku Izakaya – You don’t know Japanese food until you have experienced an original izakaya style café. This is a casual locale that typically served more tapas-style food. The suggestion to head to Fish & Bird was intriguing, being izakaya newbies. We sampled a list of items, with each and every one surprising our eyes and tastebuds.

Petite LaFleur Berkeley Kitchens

Suzanne LaFleur sprinkling sea salt on her dark chocolate-covered honeycomb candies.

The Berkeley KitchensThe Berkeley Kitchens themselves aren’t open to the public (although Standard Fare, Third Culture and Las Noisette bakery are street-facing tenants.) The kitchens themselves is a collective home to small- to medium-size food businesses and artists. With fully outfitted kitchen rentals, The Berkeley kitchens are coveted spaces for crafts food manufacturers. OK, so we got a special insider tour, with stops at Cult Crackers and Petite LaFleur, among others. It felt like a big happy family in there, with cooks sometimes heading down the hall to ask for something they had run out of.

Cult Crackers Berkeley Kitchens

Dianna Dar, founder of Cult Crackers.

Remember, we are talking Berkeley, the home to prestigious UC Berkeley: Dianna Dar, founder of Cult Crackers, is a third-generation UC graduate who majored in politics and Russian history. Forget that, how about her crackers? They are thick, crunchy, full of seeds, and oh-so-addictive. Suzanne LaFleur, yes, the founder of Petite LaFleur, makes a salted dark chocolate-covered honeycomb that is reminiscent of British Cadbury Crunchie bars (but better!). “Food is in our DNA” in Berkeley, LaFleur said.

Thai Brunch Berkeley Food Scene

Serving up a steaming bowl of soup at the Mongkolratanaram Thai Temple Sunday brunch.

Wat Mongkolratanaram Thai Temple Sunday brunch – Brunch at a Thai Temple? How so very Berkeley. That morning, I put on comfy pants, kind of assuming I’d be sitting cross-legged on the floor of a temple. I couldn’t have been more wrong. This is a ginormous affair with long tables and folding chairs lined up in a garden. We were told to be there promptly at 10 in the morning when it opens since “it gets busy quick.” At 9:45, the lines were already forming.

People were obviously devout regulars, rushing to get in their chosen lines for their faves: Think steaming bowls of fresh noodle soup, fried chicken, curries over rice, tofu dishes, and a sweet mango rice that flew off the counters. Here, he who hesitates is lost. You had to buy tokens then make the rounds of serving stations to pick your food.

The brunch at the Mongkolratanaram Thai Temple may not be for everyone, but it made us smile ear-to-ear with its friendly, only-in-Berkeley experience – and was a great way to top off our Northern California weekend of food adventures in Berkeley.

 

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