Author’s Note: This article “San Francisco’s Neighbor: The Oakland Berkeley East Bay” is also a chapter in my travel guidebook/ebook Northern California Travel: The Best Options. That book is available in English as a book/ebook and also as an ebook in Chinese. Parallel coverage on Northern California occurs in my latest travel guidebook/ebook Northern California History Travel Adventures: 35 Suggested Trips. All my travel guidebooks/ebooks on California can be seen on my Amazon Author Page.
By Lee Foster
East across San Francisco 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, the Brawny Port City
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.
Berkeley, the Cerebral Counterpart
Neighboring Berkeley is the intellectual and liberal political mecca of Northern California, 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.
East Bay Regional Parks in the Oakland Berkeley East Bay
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.
Oakland’s Accessible Airport OAK is AOK
When locals want to travel far, far, away, they use the relatively less-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 2012 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. See a life-size sculpture of him at the waterfront in Jack London Square. Near 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.
Attractions at Jack London Square
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 permanently berthed at Jack London Square. The public can tour the 165-foot boat, a Coast Guard 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.
Dining Jack London Square
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. Try the signature Maple Fennel Ribs as a dinner entrée. Alaska king crab legs are part of the 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 and residential high-rise 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. These 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 other performance events.
Oakland’s Preservation Park
West toward the 980 Freeway is another intriguing Oakland development, Preservation Park, located 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. In that year 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 occur on selected days.
Asiatown and Lake Merritt
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 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. 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.
Two major pleasures at Lake Merritt are the Oakland Museum of California and the Lakeside Park and Garden Center.
Oakland Museum of California and Lakeside Park
The Oakland Museum of California, 1000 Oak Street, is a major cultural force in the Bay Area, known 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. Lakeside Park covers 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 the bonsai show in autumn or the dahlia root sale in spring.
Emeryville: The Small City in Between in the Oakland Berkeley East Bay
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 BBQ Texas Ribs a favorite.
Berkeley’s University Legacy
Berkeley had its start as a modest land grant university in the 19th century. Although officials subdivided the city in 1862, the early scene was bucolic. A big population influx occurred, however, after the San Francisco Earthquake of 1906. In short, about 20,000 escapees 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. Sather Gate was the original entrance to the University, recalling an earlier trolley-car era. Tours of this thousand-acre landscaped campus, with its 20 libraries, are possible. Tours start at 10 a.m. on selected mornings from the Visitor Center.
Most importantly, tours include landmarks such as the Bancroft Library, with its 9 million books. Moreover, for an impressive view of the East Bay, ride the elevator 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 honor famous people with more purposefulness than in most cities. Streets running east-west recall men of arts (such as Blake, the poet). On the other hand, streets running north-south celebrate 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 drifters. The street originally honored the transcontinental telegraph, which terminated here. Certainly, if you browse around, you will find 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. Moreover, there’s an out-of-the-60s “head” shop, Annapurna, full of marijuana smoking paraphernalia. Smoking marijuana became legal as of 2017. Likewise, the huge Moe’s used book store is a major intellectual force. A patch of greenery named People’s Park, one block off Telegraph, remains a contentious area. In 1969, when the University tried to build dorms i the site, the local populace protested and Ronald Reagan called out the National Guard.
Downtown Berkeley Culture
A few blocks west of the University, running north and south, is Shattuck Avenue, the center of “downtown” Berkeley. Downtown flourishes as a cultural force. Here you will find the Addison Street Arts District, anchored by the highly respected Berkeley Repertory Theatre. The Rep has two large performance stages. Berkeley Rep won its reputation as one of the vital regional theaters in the U.S. Moreover, next door is the innovative Aurora Theatre, a more intimate scene.
Music lovers appreciate the Freight & Salvage Coffeehouse, 2020 Addison, a nonprofit musical performance venue. Freight presents a robust range of Americana and world music acts, almost nightly, year around.
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. You will find me there lap swimming (then soaking in the hot spa pool) at 9 p.m. on many nights.
The brilliant new cultural presence 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. However, this newly built home, at 2155 Center Street, is a handsome showcase for the modern art and movie legacy holdings of the institution. BAMPFA also hosts inventive contemporary shows.
Oakland Berkeley East Bay Culinary Diversity
Meanwhile, if you were to walk north on Shattuck from downtown to between Cedar and Rose, you would be at the heart of trendy culinary Berkeley. For example, Alice Waters’s landmark Chez Panisse restaurant is at 1517 Shattuck. The restaurant still manages to excite the palate with the fresh ingredients and imaginative cooking. Certainly, those aspects were its hallmark when founded in the 1970s. One aspect of the magic is that Alice Waters encourages her offspring to flourish on their own. As a result, many waiters and chefs do a journeyman phase here on the path to his or her own establishment.
Next door is her more casual restaurant, Cesar. In short, tapas and a glass of wine can be enjoyed, perhaps at a table facing the street when the weather is inviting.
Across the street is the legendary cheese and bread shop, the Cheese Board, where career cheese enthusiasts sell their wares. In addition, next door is Cheeseboard Pizza, one of the most popular restaurant scenes in Berkeley. Music at lunch and dinner complement the vegetarian-only pizza of the day. In conclusion, pizzas here show sufficient craftsmanship that the line of buyers sometimes extends down the block.
Oakland and Berkeley nurture many restaurant entrepreneurs. This is a lively subject, worthy of its own detailed article. So I am going to send you over to my parallel coverage, which is
There you’ll find a list and brief description of my current favorites, which are
Virtually every neighborhood in Oakland and Berkeley has its special restaurants. For example, 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. For instance, at the corner of College and Ashby, you might pause for a coffee at the Espresso Roma Cafe. Perhaps half the patrons will be lounging about with their laptops.
The Elmwood and the Claremont
The Elmwood also happens to boast one of the most distinctive lodgings in the East Bay. That would be the Claremont Resort & Spa, which rests in the hills a few blocks up Ashby. This white fin de siecle palace of gentility has been recycled and repositioned by its owners. Claremont is now an “urban resort” with a spa. On a clear day you can enjoy a drink and a view at the Claremont’s Paragon Bar. You can watch a panorama of San Francisco, the Golden Gate, and Berkeley unfold in front of you.
Walking farther down Ashby to College Avenue, there is a lively College Avenue scene. Proceed down College Avenue to the BART station and you’ll find another cluster of interesting small shops around College and Claremont.
In the single block of College south of Alcatraz is Ver Brugge Foods, where you can procure the finest seafood and meats. Adjacent is La Farine, where they bake all their baguettes and pastries on the premise. On the other side of Ver Brugge is the wine merchant, Vino, where you could pick out a good Merlot or Chardonnay. Likewise, two doors down, a Burmese clan runs the Yasai Market, where the freshest produce and herbs are an easy pick. Wood Tavern is the contemporary dining spot to consider.
Conclusions About San Francisco’s Neighbor: The Oakland Berkeley East Bay
From Jack London Square to my neighborhood, Northern Berkeley, 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. However, to the locals, and to many visitors, the easy-going East Bay is highly 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.