Berkeley, California is a quirky town I am proud to call home. The mother of the California slow food movement, Alice Waters, put Berkeley on the culinary map with the opening of Chez Panisse in the 1970s. Today Berkeley is more than a quaint, hippie town. It retains its character but now also appeals to savvy connoisseurs who prefer to shop, eat, and support all things local and sustainable. Here are a few of my favorite Berkeley spots.
This is our go-to spot when we have friends and family in town and we want upscale Mexican cuisine with incredible margaritas. Comal’s website describes its cuisine as “earthy, modern interpretations of dishes from throughout Mexico.” Designate a driver (or take BART) so you can enjoy a flight of tequila or mezcal and a couple of margaritas with your dinner.
Favorite features: outdoor patio to enjoy cocktails, chips & guacamole while waiting for a table; watching fresh tortillas being rolled and pressed; the warm glow of the fire from the wood grill.
Recommended dishes: White Shrimp Ceviche; Jicama & Cucumbers with chili arbol + lime; any of the Platos Fuertes from the wood grill which serve 2-3 people (the rotisserie chicken or pork spareribs are wonderful); and my absolute favorite: the grilled corn on the cob with chipotle aioli & queso fresco.
Location tips: Steps from the Downtown Berkeley BART station; near the Berkeley Rep Theater.
Lovely restaurant at the foot of the UC Berkeley campus with a crowd-pleasing menu. Several vegetarian options but great for meat eaters as well. Also another great cocktail program, featuring several cocktails with shrubs from my friends Juan and Deborah at Shrub & Co.
Favorite features: Open kitchen & cocktail program.
Location tips: Perfect spot before seeing a show at the Greek Theater or after a Cal game.
The Peking Duck and other classic dishes are worth the wait at this downtown Berkeley institution.
This is a very traditional Japanese Yakitori restaurant tucked away on Center Street in downtown Berkeley. This is where to take your homesick Japanese friends. Ippuku also serves handmade soba noodles but only on Mondays and Tuesdays.
Favorite dishes: Bacon Mochi (Order Two. Trust me!) Chicken Karaage; and Agedashi Tofu (soft, fresh tofu to please even a self-proclaimed tofu hater).
Traditional Japanese food in a modern setting.
Favorite features: Chic dining room located in the midst of Berkeley’s chic Fourth Street shopping district.
Favorite dishes: Kakiage Tempura with Black Tiger Shrimp.
Location tips: Plan to shop before or after your meal. Some of my favorite boutiques (Jigsaw, Thea, Convert, Rabat, Nest) as well as a Kiehl’s, Sur La Table, and Apple store are nearby.
This place serves the best burrito in Berkeley, in my humble opinion. I haven’t tried anything else at La Mission other than the Mole Burrito. Why would I? It’s so delicious, I actually crave it and can’t imagine trying anything else there. They serve two types of mole: mole poblano and mole guajilla. I prefer the mole poblano with its chocolatey richness, but I like to add extra spicy carrots, pickled onions and jalapenos inside the burrito to achieve a sweet-spicy nirvana.
Favorite features: It’s a joint with an outdoor patio.
Favorite dishes: Mole Poblano Burrito with chicken. Period.
Location tips: It’s on a busy section of University Avenue in West Berkeley, but there is ample street parking if its free lot is full.
This is a bustling restaurant in the heart of downtown Berkeley serving local, organic ingredients that will please vegetarians and carnivores alike. I love going here often to experience peak of the season ingredients prepared with expertise and heart. The cocktails are equally enticing.
Favorite features: Eclectic décor including a wall papered with player piano sheet music.
Favorite dishes: The menu is always changing since it is so seasonally driven. I normally order several dishes from the small plates section of the menu since they always sound great.
Location tips: P erfect location for dinner before or after seeing a show at the Berkeley Repertory Theater or Freight & Salvage.
Arguably the most romantic restaurant in Berkeley, Rivoli will impress even the most discerning of palates with its fine dining fare. It is the perfect place to spend a romantic evening or take your parents when they visit from out of town.
Favorite features: Cozy dining room with a wall of windows facing a beautiful garden; comfortable seats that make you want to linger over dessert and espresso.
Saul's is an authentic Jewish deli in North Berkeley. It's the perfect place to meet old friends to enjoy some good old fashioned comfort food. It's one of my favorite breakfast spots, because I absolutely love their potato latkes and Shakshouka.
When I want a quick bite on a break from shopping Berkeley’s chic Fourth Street, this is where I go. As a sister restaurant of Dona Tomas in Oakland’s Temescal neighborhood, the food is guaranteed to be outstanding but the atmosphere is very casual (i.e., you order at the counter). Although there is an indoor dining room, try to snag a table outside to people watch and enjoy the music from street performers who set up camp at the corner in front of Peet’s coffee shop.
Favorite features: Casual setting in the midst of Berkeley’s chic Fourth Street shopping district.
Favorite dishes: Fish Tacos; Guacamole and Chips.
Location tips: Plan to shop before or after your meal. Some of my favorite boutiques (Jigsaw, Thea, Convert, Rabat, Nest) and a Kiehl’s, Sur La Table, and Apple store are within a block or two.
Free parking in an adjacent lot and across the street.
A family-owned restaurant serving classic Italian food in a very casual atmosphere. Always busy, you may need to wait for a table but it will be worth the wait. With a tiny kitchen and expansive menu, you may also experience staggered service. Just close your eyes and pretend you are in Italy. Appreciate the old world charm of this place and be patient.
Favorite features: No frills atmosphere; the complimentary garlic dipping sauce served with spongy bread (a carb-addict’s dream).
Favorite dishes: Caponata Siciliana (eggplant caponata just like my Sicilian friend Tony’s nonna used to make); Zuppa Di Fagiuoli Con Pasta (soup to cure you of any ailments); Ragu di Maiale (pappardelle with pork and tomato sugo sauce); Linguini Al Nero Di Seppia (squid ink); Spiedini Alla Siciliana (stuffed and grilled beef rolls).
Location tips: Located on College Avenue near Ashby, parking can be difficult. Put your name on the list and enjoy the bustling Elmwood shopping district.