by Lee Foster
(Author’s Note: This updated article is one of thirty chapters in my book/ebook Northern California Travel: The Best Options. The book is available on Amazon and from all other bookstore/ebook vendors. An ebook version is also available in Chinese.)
East across the Bay from the grand tourism capital of San Francisco stretches her sunnier neighbor, the Oakland-Berkeley East Bay. Those of us who live in the East Bay area are quite content to let San Francisco carry the heavy burdens of tourism fame. We enjoy the many amenities and good life of the less pretentious East Bay, which we also delight in sharing with visitors.
Oakland, a brawny port city, and one of the largest container freight ports on the West Coast, is home to the salt-of-the-earth laborer and the rapping, streetwise citizen. However, Oakland also has large numbers of resident artists and writers because it is one of the few places in the Bay Area where people in the arts can survive financially. The East Bay, especially Oakland, also includes one of the largest U.S. concentrations of immigrants from diverse Asian and Pacific Island regions.
Neighboring Berkeley is the intellectual and liberal political mecca of Northern California, and home of the University of California Berkeley, the state’s most prestigious public university. Berkeley is Oakland’s cerebral counterpart, whether the revolution is 1960s politics or contemporary cuisine. An observer might think of Berkeley as the whiz kid scholar and trendy culinary explorer. It is no accident that some observers call the city Berserkeley, shaking their heads over Berkeley’s apparent need to proclaim its own foreign policy or to take other eccentric actions. The city has one of the most-used libraries in the state, but you have to check out your books yourself because the librarians don’t want to get carpel tunnel. Berkeley is an easy target to bash.
Rising above Oakland and Berkeley are the East Bay hills, which include 53,300 acres set aside for recreational use as part of the East Bay Regional Parks District. It is easy to steal away from the urban area to Tilden Park in the Berkeley Hills, epitome of these public spaces. Few walks exceed the pleasure of a stroll on the spine of the hills at Inspiration Point in Tilden Park.
When locals want to travel far, far, away, they use the relatively un-congested Oakland Airport, a few miles south of downtown Oakland along the Bay. This is one of the easiest airports to use in the Bay Area and is actually quite close to San Francisco, only a BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) train ride away. Those who live in the East Bay make heavy use of the convenient BART trains to get around the area and into San Francisco. Those who drive into San Francisco cross on the Bay Bridge, which was completed in 1936, the same year as the Golden Gate Bridge. The Golden Gate was always be seen as the more beautiful sister of the two bridges, until the Bay Bridge received a facelift with a dynamic new eastern span and signature tower. This elegant new tower became logo-worthy for the Golden State Warriors, the pro-basketball team, which wisely avoided a city reference in its title. The Bay Bridge is definitely the workhorse of the two bridges, when one considers the number of cars that cross per day.
Oakland’s Waterfront Origins
The city of Oakland grew up along the bay waterfront, now Jack London Square, a multi-block area of shops and restaurants struggling for recognition, even as the namesake author did.
Jack London is indeed the town’s favorite son and the main luminary around whom one could build a themed waterfront area. At the Square you can view Jack London’s cabin, his Yukon abode from the winter of 1897-98. Next to the cabin, quench your thirst at Heinold’s First and Last Chance Saloon. Built in 1880, Heinold’s was a bunkhouse for the oyster fishermen. At Heinold’s, London acquired some of his self-made literary education. Inside this saloon, you’ll find Jack London photos and memorabilia.
Popular attractions here include shopping at places like Cost Plus and dining at the fish restaurant, Scott’s. A Sunday Farmer’s Market draws large crowds looking for everything from heirloom apples to goat cheese. Franklin Roosevelt’s presidential yacht, the USS Potomac, a National Historic Landmark, is now permanently berthed at Jack London Square. The public can tour the 165-foot boat, a coastguard cutter that became the “floating White House,” and participate in yacht excursions out on the Bay. The Jack London Cinema features nine state-of-the-art theaters. A bright night spot in the Jack London area is the jazz club known as Yoshi’s, which also features Japanese dining. At Jack London Square, you can kayak in the estuary with equipment from California Canoe and Kayak or experience a loft or sailboat overnight with some Airbnb providers. Loft living is popular in the Jack London area. Two-time California governor Jerry Brown had a loft at 2nd and Harrison while he was mayor of Oakland.
Eve’s Waterfront Restaurant is an engaging option with an elevated estuary view in the Jack London Square area of Oakland. The restaurant, a couple of blocks south of the Square at 15 Embarcadero West, offers waterway views from both indoor and outdoor locations. Chef Brandon Peacock works his magic on his signature Maple Fennel Ribs as a dinner entrée and keeps the Alaska king crab legs well supplied for weekend brunch. A Sunday brunch could be combined with a short walk along the waterfront to the nearby robust year-round Farmers Market at Jack London Square.
From Jack London Square, you can walk up Broadway into downtown Oakland. A spirited civic group of volunteers sponsors free architectural walks around downtown Oakland each Saturday. At 9th Street, looking a block west to Washington Street, you’ll see renovation and restoration in progress. This “Old Oakland” restoration consists of shops and restaurants, supplementing the long-lived Ratto’s international market and restaurant, at 821 Washington, a kind of culinary mirror of the city. Around Old Oakland are new office buildings that have changed the face of the downtown.
Within the Old Oakland complex, next door to Rattos, is a contemporary restaurant named The District, 827 Washington, that suggests the liveliness of the area. The District has a friendly bar lounge casualness and an extensive wine and mixed drinks repertoire. What distinguishes The District is its elaborate small plates menu, with dishes such as seared scallops or Moroccan spiced lamb meatballs, which can be paired by the knowledgeable sommelier with specific suggested wines.
Farther up Broadway, at 2025, is the Paramount Theatre, one of the loveliest and most lavishly gilded art deco movie palaces of the 1930s. Fans of Art Deco can participate in guided Saturday tours of the 3000-seat Paramount, which is now used for concerts, ballets, and various performance events.
West toward the 980 Freeway is another intriguing Oakland development, Preservation Park, between 12th and 14th Streets. Preservation Park includes 16 Oakland Victorians, now gathered and restored, all housing non-profit organizations. Adjacent is the Pardee Home Museum, 672 11th, home of George Pardee, a former Oakland mayor and California governor. The house, built in 1868, was kept in the Pardee family until 1981, when the last spinster Pardee sister died, leaving intact all the family belongings, which included obsessive collections. In the mansion you see the objects gathered by three generations of Pardees. Guided tours are offered on selected days.
East from Broadway, between 9th and 12th Streets, you can walk into a thriving Asiatown. It could be called a Chinatown, but there are also Koreans and Vietnamese. The morning scene here is lively, with the selling of produce and wriggling fish. If you indulge in a dim sum lunch at Peony, 388 9th, you will see more insiders than outsiders. Asiatown is a pageant of family cohesiveness and thrifty concentration on getting and spending.
Farther east, beyond Asiatown, is Lake Merritt, a saltwater lake in downtown Oakland. Two major pleasures at Lake Merritt for a traveler are the Oakland Museum of California and the Lakeside Park and Garden Center.
Lake Merritt is a 155-acre body of water and a popular recreation area. On the north shore of the lake lies one of the country’s oldest waterfowl refuges, founded in 1870. You can rent sailboats, rowboats, and canoes at the boathouse on the west shore. Many Oaklanders enjoy walking and jogging around the lake in the usually sunny weather.
The Oakland Museum of California, 1000 Oak Street, is a major cultural force in the Bay Area, both for its permanent collections and its changing shows. The museum was one of the first to present whole environments, possibly “the American kitchen in the 1940s,” rather than static collections, such as seashells of the world. Separate floors cover California art, California history, and nature in California. The museum architecture is noteworthy, with the building sunk into the ground and roof gardens atop each tiered floor.
Along the edge of Lake Merritt, at 666 Bellevue Avenue, you’ll find one of the outstanding public gardens in California, the Lakeside Park and Garden Center, covering 122 acres that are intensely cultivated throughout the year. Permanent displays include a Japanese Garden, Herb and Fragrance Garden, Cactus and Succulent Garden, Polynesian Garden, and a tropical conservatory. The chrysanthemum displays each autumn are famous, but fans of specialized plants might single out a preference for the bonsai show in autumn or the dahlia root sale in spring.
Emeryville: The Small City In Between
Sandwiched between Oakland and Berkeley, adjacent to the Bay, is Emeryville, a small city that seems to epitomize the best aspects of its larger neighbors. Emeryville has big box stores, such as Best Buy and Ikea, plus fashionable boutique shopping on Bay Street, with, typically, an Apple store. Emeryville has numerous modern condos housing the upscale high-tech young. Its renovated brick warehouses host startups, and there are substantial new media companies, such as the Pixar movie animation studios.
For a restaurant that catches the spirit of the place, try the Honor Bar, Grill & Cocktails, 1411 Powell. This is where sociable high tech types come to unwind after work, perhaps with a fancy cocktail or a glass of Merlot. For food, the grill gets the emphasis, with BBQed Texas Ribs a favorite.
Berkeley’s University Legacy
Berkeley had its start as a modest land grant university in the 19th century. Although the city was subdivided in 1862, the early scene was bucolic. A big population influx occurred, however, when twenty thousand escapees from the San Francisco Earthquake of 1906 decided to stay on the east side of the Bay.
A look at the University of California is one of the major pleasures of Berkeley, starting at Sather Gate, the entrance to the University in an earlier trolley-car era. Tours of this thousand-acre landscaped campus, with its 20 libraries, start at 10 a.m. each morning from the Visitor Center. Landmarks include the Bancroft Library, with its nine million books. For an impressive view of the East Bay, ride to the top of the campanile tower on campus. The Robert Lowie Museum of Anthropology on the campus often hosts impressive displays of archaeological finds. The University has a significant influence on the East Bay. About a fifth of the 122,000 people in Berkeley are students, faculty, or staff. It is said that the University has about a billion dollar annual impact.
Around the campus extend vital streets, pulsating with craftspeople, dreamers, and culinary enthusiasts. Many of the streets of Berkeley were named with more purposefulness than in most cities. Streets running east-west were named after men of arts (such as Blake, for the poet) and streets running north-south were named after men of science, such as Bowditch (who made contributions to navigation science).
Telegraph Avenue, which extends south from near Sather Gate, is the most active of these streets, populated by students, artisans, and the homeless. The street was originally named after the transcontinental telegraph, which reached here. A browser will find a lot of interesting places to explore in a three-block stretch. Several coffee shops offer venues at which to sip a cappuccino and watch the daily parade of humanity. There’s an out-of-the-60s “head” shop, Annapurna, full of marijuana smoking paraphernalia, now suddenly legal as of 2017. The huge Moe’s used book store is a major intellectual force. The patch of greenery named People’s Park, one block off Telegraph, has always been a contentious area. In 1969, when the University tried to build dorms, the local populace protested and Ronald Reagan called out the National Guard.
A few blocks west of the University, running north and south, is Shattuck Avenue, the center of “downtown” Berkeley. Downtown is blooming as a cultural force. Here you will find the Addison Street Arts District, anchored by the highly respected Berkeley Repertory Theatre, which has two large performance stages. Berkeley Rep has earned its reputation as one of the vital regional theatres in the U.S. Next door is the innovative Aurora Theatre, a more intimate scene. Also on Addison is Jazzschool (with 600 students). A block away is the lavish YMCA of Berkeley, which has an amazing 11,700 fitness enthusiasts utilizing its facilities.
The brilliant new cultural fountain in downtown Berkeley is BAMPFA, which stands for Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archives. The facilities for both institutions were originally adjacent to UC Berkeley. But this newly built home, at 2155 Center Street, is a handsome showcase for the modern art and movie legacy holdings of the institution, plus inventive contemporary shows.
Oakland/Berkeley’s Culinary Diversity
If you were to walk north on Shattuck to between Cedar and Rose, you would be at the heart of trendy culinary Berkeley. Alice Waters’ landmark Chez Panisse restaurant is at 1517 Shattuck. The restaurant still manages to excite the palate with the fresh ingredients and imaginative cooking that were its hallmark when founded in the 1970s. One aspect of the magic is that Alice Waters seems to encourage her offspring, many waiters and chefs, to do a journeyman phase here on the path to his or her own establishment.
Next door is Alice Waters’ more casual restaurant, Cesar, where tapas and a glass of wine can be enjoyed.
Across the street is the legendary cheese and bread shop, the Cheese Board, with its notable Cheeseboard Pizza, one of the most popular restaurant scenes in Berkeley. Music for lunch and dinner complement the vegetarian-only pizza of the day, crafted with sufficient skill that the line of buyers sometimes extends down the block.
Oakland and Berkeley nurture many restaurant entrepreneurs. Here are a few, beyond those already mentioned.
Copper Spoon, at 4031 Broadway in Oakland, embodies an intriguing evolution of culinary entrepreneurs from a food truck to a sit-down location. Proprietors Vita Simone and Carmen Anderson operated their Sassafras Seagrass food truck until they made the decision to go stationary rather than mobile, but keeping 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. The Creekstone Farms Steak is a tasty entrée choice.
Nico’s 1508, with the 1508 referring to the Walnut Street address, is an innovative newcomer in the Berkeley Gourmet ghetto area. The emphasis is on farm-fresh local ingredients and what can be successfully added, especially seafood. Chef Munther Massarweh brings some of his Hawaii chef experience to the establishment. Good choices include for starters are the Ahi Tuna Poke and the Baby Kale Salad. Among the entrées, consider the Braised Short Rib of Beef and the Pan Roasted Hawaiian White Walu.
Ajanta, 1888 Solano, is a sophisticated Indian cuisine restaurant with a menu that evolves monthly. The various regions of India are featured with their specialties. The proprietor’s monthly newsletter keeps customers abreast of nuanced culinary developments.
Revival Bar & Kitchen is a fine-dining leader in downtown Berkeley, poised at 2102 Shattuck on the edge of the theatre district. Consider the rabbit sausage appetizer, followed by the Long & Bailey Farm pork chop. Revival does its own charcuterie on the premises.
One former landmark restaurant making a comeback is Spengers, a mammoth-sized establishment at 1919 Fourth Street with a venerable fresh fish legacy going back 110 years. Try a grilled catch of the day or indulge in the sumptuous Sunday Brunch.
Virtually every neighborhood in Oakland and Berkeley has its special restaurants. Another neighborhood to browse, running from the University south to Oakland, is College Avenue. If you stroll down College, you pass intermittent cozy apartment/condo and shopping clusters, all part of one of the most livable areas in Berkeley, known as The Elmwood. At the corner of College and Ashby, you might pause for a coffee at the Espresso Roma Cafe where perhaps half the patrons will be lounging about with their laptops.
The Elmwood also happens to boast one of the most distinctive lodgings in the East Bay. That would be the Claremont Resort & Spa, which is tucked into the hills a few blocks up Ashby. This white fin de siecle palace of gentility has been recycled and repositioned by its owners as an “urban resort” with a spa. On a clear day you can enjoy a drink at the Claremont’s Paragon Bar and watch a panorama of San Francisco, the Golden Gate, and Berkeley unfold in front of you.
Walking farther down College Avenue to Claremont, you come upon another cluster of those small shops that Oakland/Berkeley people like so much. In the single block of College south of Alcatraz is VerBrugge Market, where you can procure the finest seafood and meats. Adjacent is La Farine, where they bake all the baguettes and pastries on the premise. On the other side of Verbrugge is the wine merchant, Vino, where you could pick out a good Merlot or Chardonnay. Two doors down, a Burmese clan runs the Yasai Market, where the freshest produce and herbs are an easy pick.
From Jack London Square to The Gourmet Ghetto, there is much to celebrate in the relatively sunny East Bay. Collectively, the area will never be as “famous” or as foggy as San Francisco. But to the locals, and to visitors, the easy-going East Bay is livable and immensely interesting.
Oakland-Berkeley: If You Go
For Oakland information, contact the Oakland Convention and Visitors Authority, www.visitoakland.org.
Berkeley’s tourism source is Visit Berkeley, www.visitberkeley.com.