By Lee Foster
It is helpful to pause from time to time and assess the best restaurants in our own neighborhoods. To clarify, for me that means a list of Best Restaurants Berkeley, Oakland, East Bay California. Some of these establishments illustrate national trends. Certainly, all exhibit the richness of life in modern California.
A moment of culinary reflection allows us to appreciate the joy of restaurants. Let us salute both the creativity and the brutal repetitive hard work required to succeed in the modern restaurant scene.
Culinary Cultural Diversity in California
The restaurant/food scene in Northern California remains vital and alive, with newcomers and visionaries creating their food/art dreams. Moreover, quality and purity of ingredients seem to improve. In short, the situation pleases consumers.
The Bay Area of California is also a triumphant example of culinary America’s benefit from our immigrant heritage. We are all immigrants, except for our Native Americans. Consequently, the palate of America is immensely enriched by the food traditions from each immigrant group. I remember how my son Bart went to an Oakland middle school with students from 23 countries, mainly newcomers for Asia. In other words, every flavor has added to the flavor profile.
A Salute to Restaurant Chefs and Servers
As we dine out, it is worth pausing to mention and celebrate the considerable skills required to actually run a successful restaurant. The chef and servers need to create and serve us a beautiful art object, our food, day in and day out, year in and year out. In short, they replicate the art object one at a time. However, flavor profile nuances and ingredient variations keep the offering slightly variable. All professions require tedious repetition to achieve the limelight for a momentary recognition. Likewise, restaurant folks need to achieve excellence with food creations every day. To sum up, that is not an easy task.
The Concept of Best
The concept of “Best” is bound to be controversial. Some will limit Best just to those restaurants aiming at Michelin stars and charging $150 for a dinner. I see best in a broader sense. For Indian food, best choice is Ajanta on Solano in Berkeley. When desiring best casual and popular restaurant, it’s hard to beat the Cheeseboard Pizza, with their music at lunch and dinner. For a gala Sunday Brunch with a view, Eve’s on the Oakland waterfront would be my recommendation. If seeking a hearty omelet breakfast, I’d go to Homemade in central Berkeley. Best can mean best in several ways.
An Obituary for Four Restaurants
Talking about restaurants also involves an obituary task. Two new restaurants that opened in recent years, and were going into this post, are now closed. They are the Oakland eateries known as Urbano Latino and Izzy’s.
Gone in recent times in Berkeley also is Spenger’s, after 128 years. Spenger’s was one of the great seafood restaurants in the West. See my memorial note on Spenger’s here. Gone also is Brennan’s, a cafeteria-style place where I could take my grandson, Charlie. He’s a train fan. He could watch the trains whiz by as we ate. It is not easy for some traditional restaurants to keep up with the changing time and how the dining audience makes its choices.
These restaurants, which I have eaten at and recommend, are listed, alphabetically, by territory. Firstly, there is Berkeley, Secondly, there is Oakland.
The List of Restaurants
The restaurant list will grow. Currently, in the alphabetical order below, you will find:
Arguably the most knowledgeable restaurant regarding Indian cuisine in the East Bay is Ajanta, on Solano Avenue in Berkeley. The proprietor sends out a monthly newsletter (sign up for it) to “patrons,” informing about a new dish or two that he is swapping in or out on the ever-changing menu. In conclusion, if the mysteries of curries and turmeric are something you want to leave to an expert, this is the place. Ajanta is at 1888 Solano Ave, Berkeley, 510-526-4373, http://www.ajantarestaurant.com/.
Try for appetizers the Tandoori Scallops and the Chicken Samosa. For the main dishes, consider the Lamb Rib Chops and the Green Fish Curry.
Cheese Board Pizza
Perhaps the most popular restaurant in current Berkeley is The Cheese Board Pizza, an adjunct to fabled The Cheese Board Collective. Most importantly, the career cheese specialists here are the owners. Consequently, they know how to guide you to the world’s best cheeses. These owners/proprietors will spend an infinite amount of time educating your palate with tastes before you purchase. In the same vein, Cheese Board Pizza has a definite perspective, serving a vegetarian-only product with some taste variations every day. Review the website for the one-and-only pizza of the day. Eat your pizza in the “parklet” along the street. The parket is a delightful innovation in urban design. Enjoy the live music. The Cheese Board Pizza is at 1512 Shattuck Ave, Berkeley, 510-549-3183, http://cheeseboardcollective.coop/pizza/.
Try the daily pizza and salad. Preview them on the website, along with the live music of the day. A typical recent menu read as follows. The pizza has green and red cabbage, yellow onion, mozzarella cheese, and walnut. It is garnished with Dunbarton blue cheese, garlic olive oil and Italian parsley. In addition, the salad has roasted organic red beet (Tomatero Farm), toasted pistachio, organic salad mix, and goat cheese dressing. In addition, gluten-free and vegan pizza options are available, along with wine and beer.
Chez Panisse Restaurant and Café
Alice Waters’s legendary restaurant, right in my neighborhood, pioneered from the 1970s on a return to simple tastes with straightforward organic food. She championed the ideal of fresh ingredients locally sourced. Alice went on to support a schoolyard food garden environment in our neighborhood at Martin Luther King Middle School. With her ally, Gavin Newsom, now California governor, this concept of fresh and wholesome food in schools may expand. The upstairs café is accessible and affordable, while downstairs dinners are a bigger commitment. Chez Panisse is at 1517 Shattuck Ave, Berkeley, 510-548-5049 for café, 510-548-5525 for downstairs dinner, http://www.chezpanisse.com/.
The menu changes daily in the café and for the downstairs dinner. On a typical recent café menu, good choices for starters were Roasted Cauliflower and beet salad with gribiche sauce and Baked Andante Dairy Goat Cheese with garden lettuces. Main courses included Butternut Squash Caramelle Pasta with sage and wild mushrooms or Grilled Devil’s Gulch Ranch Rabbit with celery root purée, spinach, and mustard sauce.
Gather may be the most media-celebrated restaurant in Berkeley. Michelin, the New York Times, and Amex food critics praise the place. Gather is a fine-dining experience favored by both omnivores and vegetarians. That is to say, chef Adam Pechal checks off all the boxes. He serves food locally sourced, farm to table, sustainable seafood, and humanely raised meats. Gather is also in the David Brower Center, a few blocks east from downtown on Allston Way at Oxford Street. The David Brower building is a distinctive architectural statement honoring a great man in the California environmental movement. Ground floor at the corner on the building is Gather restaurant, 2200 Oxford St, corner of Allston Way, 510-809-0400, https://www.gatherrestaurant.com/.
What to try? For starters, sample the Crispy Brussel Sprouts, with smoked squash, chevre, pomegranate, pepitas, and maple. Another temptation is the Thai Butternut Squash Soup, with Thai basil and chili oil. Among main dishes, possibilities are Pierogi Stroganoff, flavored with shimeji mushroom, spinach, cultured cream, and sherry. For fish, a good choice is the Mt. Lassen Trout, enhanced with parsnip puree, sunchoke, broccoli de ciccio, blood orange, and sauce vert.
For a down-home breakfast or lunch, one place to try in central Berkeley is Homemade Café, open 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. and for occasional pop-up celebration dinners. Homemade Café is a sweet story about previous owners Norm Berzon and Janet Hintze, who trekked across country to open their dream, a local diner in sunny California. A teen growing up in Berkeley, Collin Doran, worked as a busboy and went on to apprentice at other major restaurants. Eventually, about 35 years later, Collin bought the place in 2011 from Norm and Janet. Hearty breakfasts and substantial lunch sandwiches are the specialty. Homemade Café is at 2454 Sacramento St, Berkeley, corner of Dwight Way, 510-845-1940, http://www.homemade-cafe.com/.
For breakfast, try one of the Eggs and Omelettes, maybe with choices of bacon, housemade sausage patties, chicken apple sausages, or ham. Another option is one of the Scrambles, such as bacon or turkey, with home fries, grits, black beans, and wheat toast. At lunch, the fare is Sandwiches, such as bacon, lettuce and tomato with sliced turkey breast and guacamole on toasted sourdough or maybe pastrami, with coleslaw and provolone, on grilled rye.
Nico’s 1508 (the number refers to the street address on Walnut) is a relatively new player in Berkeley’s celebrated Gourmet Ghetto, about a block from Chez Panisse. The restaurant serves American Farm-Fresh cuisine from mostly locally sourced and seasonal ingredients. Chef Munther Massarweh is a culinary influencer affecting many Bay Area dining venues. He has worked at McCormick & Kuleto’s, Perry’s Restaurant, The Fillmore Bar & Grill, and Club Eleven. He currently owns Wildfox, The Speakeasy Sports Bar and The Speakeasy Barbeque, all in Novato. Nico’s 1508 is at 1508 Walnut Street, near Vine St, Berkeley, 510-280-5920, http://nicos1508.net/.
The emphasis is on farm-fresh local ingredients and what can be successfully added, especially seafood. Chef Massarweh brings some of his Hawaii chef experience to the establishment. Good choices for starters are the Ahi Tuna Poke and the Steamed Mediterranean Mussels with red curry kaffir lime broth. Among the entrées, consider the Braised Short Rib of Beef and the Pan Roasted Hawaiian White Walu.
Benchmark Oakland presents Italian-Californian Cuisine in the Old Oakland historic district. The building housing Benchmark Oakland is an historic structure erected in 1876. Portions of the restaurant’s mosaic and tile flooring has been in place for the better part of a century. Executive Chef and co-owner Peter Swanson offers a menu of naturally leavened wood-fired pizza, housemade pastas, locally sourced meat and fish, antipasti, and salads. Co-owner wife Melissa Swanson manages the operation and has headed also a family organic baby food company. The word “benchmark” refers to Peter’s fond memory of his geologist father pointing out to him the round surveyor markers, which remind him of round pizzas. Benchmark Oakland is at 499 9th St, corner of Washington St, 510-488-6677, http://benchmarkpizzeria.com/oakland/.
Consider the thick Winter Squash Soup and the Clams & Mussels From The Wood Oven among the starters. A side dish of Marinated Olives is tasty. Among the pizzas, the Fried Sage with fresh mozzarella and shaved garlic is distinctive. From the housemade pasta list, a good choice is the Rigatoni with Broccoli Di Ciccio, which has intriguing flavors from urfa pepper and Pecorino cheese.
As you look at the menu, you may note with amusement the colorful names of some local suppliers, including Riverdog, Star Route, Full Belly, and Dirty Girl. Large TV screens give the place a “sports bar” feel.
Copper Spoon embodies an intriguing evolution of culinary entrepreneurs switching from a food truck to a sit-down location. Proprietors Vita Simone and Carmen Anderson originally operated their Sassafras Seagrass food truck. Eventually they made the decision to go stationary rather than mobile. However, they kept their popular raw specialty starter, Sassy’s Original Salmon Hand Roll. They brought in chef Andre Hall, who added flare with his Beets by Dre, featuring an under-appreciated vegetable. Copper Spoon is at 4031 Broadway, Oakland, 510-897-7061, http://www.copperspoonoakland.com/.
Try for starters the signature hand roll, now called King Salmon Hand Roll, with salmon, wasabi aioli and daikon sprouts. Another option is the Fried Brussel Sprouts in citrus sherry vinaigrette and olive oil. Among main dishes, an appealing option is the Mussels and Gulf Shrimp, with jalapeno, fennel, and leek. A carnivore will appreciate the 12-oz Ribeye Steak, with brown rice and sweet pepper pilaf.
For a Saturday or Sunday brunch option, Eve’s Waterfront Restaurant is an engaging Oakland estuary option with an elevated view in the Jack London Square area. The restaurant, a couple of blocks south of the Square, offers waterway panoramic views from both indoor and outdoor locations. A Sunday brunch could be combined with a promenade along the waterfront to the robust year-round Farmers Market at Jack London Square. Eve’s is at 15 Embarcadero West, south of Jack London Square, Oakland, 510-817-4477, https://www.eveswaterfront.com/.
The brunch offerings are extensive, a la carte on Saturday and lavish buffet on Sunday. Choices include Grilled Little Gems Salad and Maple Fennel Ribs. Seafood possibilities are Mussels with garlic and shallots or House Made Smoke Salmon Toast, using grilled olive bread.
Mockingbird flourishes as a newer, contemporary downtown Oakland eatery on 13th Street, presenting a good lunch option. Consider the entree salads, such at the Oregon Pink Bay Shrimp and Avocado Salad or the Roasted Chicken and Kale Salad. In short, the salads have a base of arugula or kale, plus an interesting range of other ingredients, such as pickled red onions and sheep milk cheese. On the other hand, robust entree choices could be the Risotto Verde or the Lamb and Pork Meatballs. In addition, try their tasty artisan bread and a glass of wine to complete lunch. Mockingbird is at 416 13th Street, Oakland, 510-290-0331, https://www.mockingbirdoakland.com/.
Mockingbird locates you in the midst of the bustling Oakland downtown construction scene. A lot of new buildings now rise up. Arrive by BART if you can. To clarify, check with the restaurant about available nearby parking garages if you drive in. Street parking is chancy.
Everyone who dines out in my neighborhood will have their favored opinion on Best Restaurants Berkeley, Oakland, East Bay California.
Feel welcome to leave your suggested restaurant. I hope to sample it and consider it for this evolving list.