Insider: Berkeley

Insider: Berkeley

William Meppem William Meppem
William Meppem
William Meppem

The last time I was in Berkeley, someone had just lopped the heads off all the downtown parking meters and stuck flowers in the poles. "For a few moments, it brought back the spirit of anarchy," a friend remarked rather wistfully. Wedged between San Francisco Bay and the coastal foothills, this small city still occupies a mythic place in history, synonymous with sixties student activism, flower power, and political correctness so extreme it's rumored that the city council once debated renaming manholes "personholes." But these days the revolution is about lifestyle: eating and shopping are political statements. Co-ops and collectives are thriving, and restaurants assure diners that their food is all environmentally correct. It's tempting to poke fun, but I've rarely eaten so well. The weather is nearly perfect year-round, too. Here are a few favorite places.

The formerly industrial Fourth Street has recently been gentrified with chain stores like Banana Republic and Restoration Hardware, but Telegraph Avenue, which leads to the University of California campus, is still Berkeley's slightly seedy counterculture hub. Marc Weinstein, co-owner of the multigenerational Amoeba Music (2455 Telegraph Ave.; 510/549-1125), plays Donovan records and sports the long, curly hair of an aging hippie.

Across the street are two bookstores, Cody's (2454 Telegraph Ave.; 510/845-7852) and Moe's (2476 Telegraph Ave.; 510/849-2087), whose fervently loyal customers buy and sell everything from cookbooks to manifestos.

Other great shops — and points of view — are all over the map. "Political correctness is all in your head," intones the laid-back clerk at the Bone Room (1569 Solano Ave.; 510/526-5252), where the merchandise includes baboon skulls, emu eggs, and a 10-foot python skin.

More in keeping with the Berkeley vibe are Global Exchange (2840 College Ave.; 510/549-0370), a multicultural craft shop that extols "Building People-to-People Ties Through Alternative Trade," and the Berkeley Potters Guild (731 Jones St.; 510/524-7031; weekends only), whose wares run the gamut from whimsical sculpture to Zen-utilitarian ceramics.

On my first visit to Berkeley in 1970, I slept in a VW van. This time, I upgraded to the sprawling 279-room Claremont Resort & Spa (41 Tunnel Rd.; 800/551-7266 or 510/843-3000, fax 510/848-6208;; doubles from $270). The walk to my room seemed to take longer than the drive from the airport, but the view encompassed massive royal palms, the shimmering bay, two bridges, a mountain, and at least three counties. Though the 1915 Claremont may have the powdered cheeks of a grande dame, she's still a free spirit: the sea bass with tofu and shiitake I had at lunch was dubbed the Energizer, and the newly renovated spa has treatments inspired by the native origins of the multi-ethnic staff. What could be more Berkeley?

The best restaurants here all show the influence of Alice Waters's Chez Panisse (1517 Shattuck Ave.; 510/548-5525; dinner for two $160) — world-class cuisine, neighborly ambience. It would not be hyperbolic to call Chez Panisse a shrine to good and wise eating, or even a way of life.

Also emblematic is Rivoli (1539 Solano Ave.; 510/526-2542; dinner for two $65), whose inventive food (such as portobello fritters and Parmesan soufflé) highlights fresh local ingredients, and whose dining room overlooks a lush garden where skunks and possums scamper about.

Breakfast at Café Fanny (1603 San Pablo Ave.; 510/524-5447; breakfast for two $20) is de rigueur. The tiny, no-nonsense café, owned by Alice Waters and Jim Maser, is tucked nonchalantly into the corner of a parking lot. The milk happens to be organic; the food is hearty and delicious.

Café Rouge (1782 Fourth St.; 510/525-1440; dinner for two $65) makes its own charcuterie, and spit-roasts and grills a variety of meats — all of them hormone-free.

San Franciscans drive across the bridge for hybrid Japanese dishes — like cremino-mushroom and green-onion pancakes, or smoked trout and seaweed on soba noodles — at the stylish O Chamé (1830 Fourth St.; 510/841-8783; dinner for two $60).

There seems to be an artisanal baker and organic grocer on every block here, especially on the streets radiating out from Chez Panisse—an area called, lovingly, the Gourmet Ghetto. Heated arguments frequently erupt over who makes the best pain au levain, and Acme Breads (1601 San Pablo Ave.; 510/524-1327), adjacent to Café Fanny, usually wins.

The Cheeseboard (1504 Shattuck Ave.; 510/549-3183) is a 33-year-old cooperative and gathering place for everyone in town; tasting is encouraged.

Peet's Coffee & Tea (2124 Vine St.; 510/841-0564), Berkeley's own—and, most believe, better—version of Starbucks, has outposts all over town, but this is the original, opened by Alfred Peet in 1966.

The Juice Bar Collective (2114 Vine St.; 510/548-8473) sells sandwiches and, of course, fresh juice.

Phoenix Pastificio (1786 Shattuck Ave.; 510/883-0783) carries organic pastas and sauces, including a rose-petal pasta that's reputed to be an aphrodisiac.

At Far Leaves Tea (2979 College Ave.; 510/665-9409), in the Elmwood district, Peter Christy will teach you about Chinese teas while he brews you a cup to sample.

The Edible Schoolyard at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School is an "organic garden and landscape integrated into the school's curriculum and lunch program," as its mission statement proclaims. Initiated by Alice Waters and maintained by students, it has branch-woven fences, a kiwi-vine-covered lounging structure filled with bales of hay, and a wood-burning pizza oven. Sure beats sloppy joes. Visits by appointment only; 510/558-1335;

The activist spirit is still alive at the University of California at Berkeley. In the plaza just outside the campus entrance at Sather Gate, committees and groups representing every cause under the sun hold court and hand out fliers.

But there's more to do than relive the revolution. Guided architectural tours can be arranged; the school also has a self-guided walking-tour brochure that's easy to follow. Two notable buildings are the Hearst Gymnasium, designed by Bernard Maybeck and Julia Morgan, and the Faculty Club, designed by Maybeck, who taught architecture here.

The Phoebe Apperson Hearst Museum of Anthropology (103 Kroeber Hall, Bancroft Way at College Ave.; 510/643-7648) has acquired major collections, including one associated with Ishi, the last Yahi Indian of northern California.

Sigma Phi members still live in Thorsen House, a 1909 Greene & Greene fraternity house, but if you knock on the door and ask politely, the brothers (and sisters — this is Berkeley) will let you wander through the stunning Arts and Crafts structure.

The Pacific Film Archive at the Berkeley Art Museum (2575 Bancroft Way; 510/642-1412) has an extensive film and video collection and gives regular screenings.

A short stroll west of campus, the award-winning Berkeley Repertory Theatre (2025 Addison St.; 510/845-4700; has expanded, opening a second stage and sparking a small renaissance on this downtown block. Just next door, the Aurora Theatre is also building a new home. And a jazz music school is coming soon on the same block.

Most Berkeley residents have given up hugging trees, but they do enjoy the great outdoors. The U.C. Botanical Garden is one of America's largest and most diverse — with more than 13,000 species of plants, arranged by region — and has astonishing views of the bay.

The 2,000 acres of Tilden Regional Park hold a golf course, a lake, and miles of hiking trails.

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