By Lee Foster
Downtown Berkeley ranks as an exciting cultural force in modern California. Proximity to one of the great universities in the world, UC Berkeley, helps. Location within the aura of San Francisco assists. Silicon Valley-inspired creativity and prosperity contributes. Location on the dependable public transport line, the BART, with a stop at the Downtown Berkeley station, makes it easy. If you land here, Downtown Berkeley California’s Arts District Culture offers three main venues. And there is an equally compelling progressive restaurant to celebrate.
Here they are:
BAMPFA, the Berkeley Art Museum
Letters in the complex acronym name require some explanation. To clarify, they stand for Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive. The building is the official visual arts center of the University of California, Berkeley, arguably the nation’s leading public research university. Above all, the goal of the facility is to inspire imagination and critical dialogue through art and film. One special asset is the Pacific Film Archive, a huge repository of historic films. BAMPFA offers exhibits and often features programs, such as performances, film showings, and lectures. For example, about 450 films get screened each year. All the details showing options for your visit are on their website at https://bampfa.org/. The dynamic and innovative new building, which opened in 2016, is itself a major architectural artifact. BAMPFA is at 2155 Center Street, 510-642-0808.
I’ve enjoyed exhibits here over the years. For instance, there was one in which the artist inspired spiders to create webs in foot-square glass cubes. The webs were caught forever and were exhibited with appealing lighting. In short, the wondrous world of the spider web as an aspect of nature remains in my consciousness.
Theater at the Berkeley Rep
Berkeley Repertory Theatre began at a movie-theater venue in the Elmwood area. I remember attending shows there in the 1970s. However, the theater migrated to its handsome downtown Berkeley venue, now with two major stages, the 400-seat Peet’s Theatre and the 600-seat Roda Theatre. Above all, theater is an intensely religious experience, calling everything into question. Berkeley Rep has been known for its ambition, relevance, and sense of adventure. Consequently, it has attracted over 5.5 million people to its nearly 500 shows. As a result, awards have been numerous, including five Tony Awards, seven Obie Awards, nine Drama Desk Awards, and one Grammy Award. Review the website to see what’s playing at https://www.berkeleyrep.org. Berkeley Rep is at 2025 Addison Street, 510-647–2949, in Berkeley’s Downtown Arts District.
Shows I have enjoyed in the recent period (see Shows on the website) suggest the range of the theater’s repertoire.
The musical Paradise Square is a brilliant performance portraying free blacks and Irish immigrant whites living together in a hopeful world in an area of New York City called Seven Points in 1863. They have their own ethnic survival needs and the Civil War causes them extra stress. But they also have each other, bound together in their hope for a brighter future. I wish everyone could see this touching musical. The singing, the dancing. and the set design all present a magnificent show. The musical is also the story of Stephen Foster, my distant spiritual ancestor, as he lived among these people and recorded their voices in song. He was the first professional American songwriter, beloved for many of his songs, such as Oh! Susanna.
A daring one-person tour-de-force performance called Pike Street was Nilja Sun’s multi-persona presentation of a New York Puerto Rican family, with all the tribulations and redemptions possible in any human family. A Doll’s House Part 2 was an adaptation of Norwegian Henrik Ibsen’s 1879 classic play. It portrayed the changing mores of the time, men and women caught in a restrained but evolving European sensibility, with real-life dramas both tragic and comic.
Music at Freight & Salvage
The diverse joy of world music has inspired Freight & Salvage Coffeehouse since 1968. I remember going to the original San Pablo Avenue location of Freight, as it is called. An eclectic mix of folk, acoustic, Irish, African, and open mic music occurred in a building that had housed used furniture. Consequently, the music venue became known as Freight & Salvage, However, in 2009 Freight moved to its luxurious 490-seat location on Addison Street in Berkeley’s Downtown Arts District. View what’s playing at https://www.thefreight.org/. Freight is at 2020 Addison Street, 510-644-2020.
I enjoyed a recent appearance by legendary singer Arlo Guthrie. He performed, with his children, his protest songs and those of his father, Woody Guthrie. Beyond protest, there were touching songs of loving, living, and dying, all of which are inevitable beyond protest. Moreover, the scene at Freight is loose and comfortable, with adult beverages and food available. The fans aren’t rushing the stage to show performer-love, as in Nashville. But, similarly, there is a little hootin’ and hollerin’.
An Urban Design Wildcard: The New Parking Garage
Perhaps only in downtown Berkeley will you find a parking garage celebrated as urban design art. It may even threaten to steal the show from the performance venues with its architectural grandeur. Rising over Freight and across the street from the Berkeley Rep is a new (2018) 720 car parking high-rise. It presents a pixelated colorful façade at night that delights even the car-haters. In other words, a parking garage is often a deadening and unimaginative exercise in poured concrete. The garage serves dutifully its pedestrian purpose of parking cars. As a result, rarely does a parking garage rise to this lyrical excellence. You enter the block-wide garage, called the Center Street Garage, one street over from the Arts District Addison Street at 2025 Center Street.
Gather: A Restaurant as Culinary Art
It might seem risky to rank a restaurant in the same artistic constellation as these three celebrated art institutions. However, for culinary art, Gather restaurant would be worth the risk. To clarify, Michelin, the New York Times, and Amex food critics praise the place. Moreover, 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 Street, corner of Allston Way, https://www.gatherrestaurant.com/, 510-809-0400.
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, humanely raised meats. What to try? Firstly, for starters, try the Crispy Brussel Sprouts (smoked squash, chevre, pomegranate, pepitas, maple) and the Thai Butternut Squash Soup (with thai basil and chili oil). Secondly, among main dishes, possibilities are Pierogi Stroganoff (shimeji mushroom, spinach, cultured cream, sherry) and Mt. Lassen Trout (parsnip puree, sunchoke, broccoli de ciccio, blood orange, sauce vert). As a result, your flavor-profile palate may conclude it has experienced a range of culinary palette colors at Gather.
Berkeley: If You Go
The tourism authority for Berkeley is Visit Berkeley at https://visitberkeley.com/. Their walk-in office is at 2030 Addison Street, 510-549-7040.