Food Tales

24 Hours in Berkeley's Gourmet Ghetto

by Lanee Lee
Chez Panisse, the restaurant that kick-started it all. All photos by Lanee Lee.

With such a high concentration of gourmet shops and farm-to-table deliciousness, your waistband might not survive the day. Lanee Lee heads to Berkeley and tries one of everything.

"One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well." – Virginia Woolf

BERKELEY, California – Nowhere else have I understood this sentiment more than in the ghetto. , that is, of Berkeley, California, the birthplace of the American slow food movement spearheaded by Alice Waters and her pals.

The Gourmet Ghetto is the nickname for the Berkeley neighborhood that runs along Shattuck Avenue from Rose Street to Hearst Avenue that has a high concentration of restaurants and food shops committed to serving organic, non-GMO, peak, in-season food. It's also a state of mind, given the community that this type of place attracts. Started in the late 1960s when , , and were opened, these were the pioneers who gave Americans a shocking (and much tastier) alternative to the canned food, Velveeta, and Folgers coffee that was the order of the day. Nearly a half of a century later, the Ghetto remains a hallowed pilgrimage for foodies around the world.

Gourmet Ghetto

Snacking and hanging in Berkeley.

I spent a mere 24 hours in the epicurean Mecca, but managed to eat my way through it nearly every waking minute.

Why only a day? Because I'm an efficient and sophisticated traveler and I thought a one-day excursion during a San Francisco trip would be more than enough. I thought wrong.

I could have spent a week exploring the town, from coffee shops to couture boutiques. But if you have to cram it all in, here's how to lap up every precious moment.

9 a.m.:
I'm a coffee snob, and I thought I'd died and gone to java heaven. They brew by the cup, on demand, with five or six bean choices depending on how you like it (light, medium or dark roast). Yes, it may take ten minutes to get a cup of coffee, but it's so worth it. If you ask for half-and-half, you'll get — wait for it — heavy whipping cream. I'm not sure what they use (my best guess is condensed milk), but it was the silkiest, most glorious cup of coffee I ever laid my lips on.

Saul's

Emunah Hauser, the tour guide from , at Saul's Deli.

Butcher/cheese

Monica and Aaron Rocchino, owners and butchers of The Local Butcher Shop.

Pizza

The Cheese Board's pizza of the day: lime, cheese, and potato.

10 a.m.:
I'm usually the last person to join a tour group, but due to time constraints and the guarantee of no more than fourteen people per tour, I conceded and was glad I did. Led by local Berkeley foodie expert Emunah Hauser, Edible Excursions was fun, informative, and, of course, laden with lots of tasty treats. Highlights included , where they still make their own pastrami and celery seed soda; chocolates made with cocoa beans from his plantation in West Africa; and hipster couple-owned-and-operated and the , which serves only one kind of wacky, vegetarian pizza (think lime, cheese, and potato!) per day. ($75 per person, three hours, roughly eight stops.)

Wildcat Canyon

The view from Wildcat Canyon.

1 p.m.:
Despite wearing stretchy yoga pants, I was waving the white flag in terms of consuming more. What better way to eat more than to take a hike? Roughly an hour's huff up the mountain on Laurel Canyon or Wildcat Canyon trail affords a dreamy panoramic view of San Francisco Bay and, more importantly, calories burned to allow more dining to come. It's about a fifteen-minute drive from the Gourmet Ghetto to the entrance of the trailhead.

Chez Panisse

The ultimate symbol of Berkeley's slow food culture.

4 p.m.:
If there ever was a sacred temple to the farm-to-table movement, Alice Waters' Chez Pannise would be it. I gingerly crossed the threshold, wondering if I'd be kicked out for my grubby workout gear. Peeking my head into a place I'd only seen in glossy cookbooks, I notice a woman futzing about with flowers on the host stand. OMG, it was the Alice Waters! Spinning on my heels to restrain myself from falling prostrate and pronouncing my undying devotion to her cause, I dashed upstairs to the casual dining restaurant. To my surprise, as reservations are suggested well in advance, the friendly maitre d' offered to seat me right away — no reservations (Bourdain, you would have been proud). Light appetizers, like a garden salad and seared scallops, were all I could fit in my already bulging belly. The café looked like something Frank Lloyd Wright would have designed, and, combined with the flawless bites and service, I was once again reeling in the ghetto's goodness.

6 p.m.:
With a giant peace sign gracing the lobby floor, it's one of Berkeley's most upscale, hip hotels, centrally located off hopping Shattuck Avenue. I was happy for a comfortable bed to flop into, although the Dionysian feasting was far from over.

Comal

Slow food meets Mexican cuisine at Comal.

7:30 p.m.: If you cross farm-to-table with trendy Mexicana-Oaxacan, you've got a sense of what Comal is about. The place was packed, especially around the bar where the expert bartenders spin out wickedly good creations. My favorite drinks were Abuelo Sucio, aka "Dirty Grandpa," made with Siete Leguas reposado, Mina Real reposado mezcal, Jarabe de Grenada, and house bitters and Joaquin Murrieta, made with Tres Agaves reposado, Carpano Antica, Amaro Montenegro, orange bitters, and lemon zest. Dinner consisted of beer-marinated carne asada tacos with nopales and quesadillas stuffed with rabbit stew, pea shoots, and mole.

FIVE

The knowledgeable bartender at Five in the Hotel Shattuck.

Rib-eye hotel restaurant

Grilled ribeye at the hotel's restaurant.

9:30 p.m.:
Flying high on dopamine, I got my second wind. No way I was missing the four-time Bib Gourmand Michelin award-winner located inside Hotel Shattuck. Technically, it's not in the Gourmet Ghetto, but Five's commitment to organic, farmers' market produce was evident. Saddling up to the marble-topped bar, I ordered a Manhattan and quizzed the bartender for recommendations. I finished off the food marathon with grilled ribeye steak with shishito peppers, white cheddar biscuits, and blackberry/rhubarb cobbler — all spot on.

Brown Sugar

Brown Sugar Kitchen for Southern specialties.

Shrimp & grits

BBQ shrimp and grits at Brown Sugar Kitchen. Photo: Lindsay Taub.

Sunday, 9 a.m.:
Recommended several times by Berkeley locals, Brown Sugar Kitchen is well worth the trek into Oakland's industrial neighborhood. Chef Tanya Holland churns out soulful renditions of Southern favorites in an old-timey diner setting. Beignets, BBQ shrimp and grits, fried chicken and waffles slathered with brown sugar butter and apple cider syrup. Breakfast doesn't get any better than this. Local know-how: If you go on the weekend, go early (before 8 a.m.) or expect up to an hour wait.

Cocktail\

The Joaquin Murrieta cocktail at Comal.

FOR YOUR BEDSIDE TABLE

, by Alice Waters
, by L. John Harris

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