Beyond its premier university, Berkeley brims with colorful boutiques, haute cuisine, and a sense of humor.
On a recent summer evening, with the sun hanging low over the Golden Gate Bridge, Anthony Sandberg stepped aboard a 36-foot yacht and eased it into San Francisco Bay. Salt spray licked the bow and a cool breeze puffed across the water. Another day in Berkeley was coming to a close. Wait. Drop anchor. Not Berkeley, Calif., aka Berserkeley, renowned epicenter for all things offbeat? Where were the anti- Styrofoam activists? The eccentric artists? They— and the rest of Berkeley's 100,000 residents—were milling about onshore somewhere, just across the bay from San Francisco, enjoying a vibrant place that exists beyond the realm of clunky stereotypes. "Everyone seems to have an image of Berkeley," says Sandberg, founder of the OCSC Sailing school. "They'll tell me, ‘Hey, whoa! There's yachting in Berkeley? I never would have thought that.' Sure, there's yachting, and a whole lot more." That much becomes clear when you take time to explore the city, from its scenic marina through its vibrant commercial districts to the forested hills of Tilden Regional Park. Only then does Berkeley emerge in its full dimension as a destination brimming with outdoor beauty and activities, cultural attractions, and some of the West's finest cuisine. For visitors, the challenge of Berkeley isn't finding points of interest but deciding where to start. One solution is to think like a local and regard Berkeley as two entities: the university and everything else. The world-renowned University of California invigorates much of Berkeley's cultural life. Among the institutions rising from its campus are the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, each of which serves as a vital center for the visual arts. Exhibits spotlight works by established masters (Gauguin and Pollock, for example) and by rising stars of the avant-garde; digital artist Jim Campbell says his recently displayed mural-size installations "use chilly technology to capture fleeting moments of human warmth." Screening rooms showcase films by household names (Hitchcock, Welles) and lesser known personalities such as video pioneer Joan Jonas.Two other UC-run venues, plush Zellerbach Hall and the outdoor Greek Theatre, provide contrasting settings for some of the biggest draws in the performing arts—the Alvin Ailey dance company, say, or the Berkeley-born band Counting Crows.
Retail shops along the edge of campus appeal to student tastes and budgets: inexpensive ethnic eateries and trade-inyour-old-jeans clothing stores. Cafes abound, as do community gardens and compelling bookstores; both Black Oak Books and Moe's stock a broad selection of new and used titles.
"The independent bookstore isn't exactly a flourishing business model these days, but it's still alive in Berkeley," says Moe's manager, Gene Barone. "And having the university here doesn't hurt."
Just as the school has shaped the city, so has the city helped shape the school. Take August Vollmer, Berkeley's original police chief. Though he lacked a formal higher education, Vollmer established the nation's first criminal justice program at UC-Berkeley in 1916.
Another first: Berkeley is considered the birthplace of California cuisine. Credit goes largely to Alice Waters, whose Chez Panisse opened here in 1971 and remains a kind of culinary icon, known for its emphasis on local and seasonal ingredients. Other standouts, such as Lalime's and Rivoli, bolster the notion that Berkeley has one of the finest dining scenes in the West.
"In Berkeley you have people who are willing to put their money where their mouth is," says Bruce Aidells, cookbook author and founder of a gourmet sausage company bearing his name. "In other places, people spend their disposable income on an RV or motorboat. Here, we don't think twice about spending $4 on an heirloom tomato."
Ground zero for this mind-set is the neighborhood surrounding Chez Panisse. It's known as the Gourmet Ghetto, an apt name for a district that blends the bohemian with the bourgeois. Here you'll find the Cheeseboard Collective, a worker-owned cooperative that sells a staggering variety of cheeses and baked goods at reasonable prices. It's also where you'll come across Epicurious Garden, an upscale culinary mall that features takeout sushi, chocolate truffles, and champagne sorbetto.
When shopping for ingredients to use in their own kitchens, locals often go straight to the source. Berkeley farmers' markets, held year-round in three different locations, teem with the Bay Area's natural bounty. Customers can track the change in seasons through the markets' shifting wares, from the satsuma mandarins of early winter to the asparagus that signals spring.
At any time of year, a couple of snarky nicknames for the city get tossed around. The People's Republic of Berkeley. Cambridge of the West. The monikers have their roots in 1960s campus activism. Berkeley, after all, was home to the historic Free Speech Movement, a precursor to student protests across the country, and People's Park, a counterculture landmark that has been the staging ground for countless rallies.
Today, though, the free market is alive and well in the People's Republic. Look towards Fourth Street. This chic shopping strip is lined with fine restaurants such as Eccolo, serving spit-roasted chicken and handmade ricotta ravioli in rustic Cal-Italian dishes, and O Chame, where delicate salads and soba noodle soups stand out on a menu of subtle Japanese cuisine. These restaurants rub elbows with specialty shops including Erica Tanov (women's designer clothing) and the Gardener, purveyor of beautiful, functional home accessories. If an albino python is what you're after, try the East Bay Vivarium. Note: That 90-pound Asian water monitor lizard is named Taz, and he's not for sale.
Just west of Fourth Street, Berkeley's breezy waterfront and elongated pier allow for stellar views of San Francisco and the Golden Gate Bridge.
University Avenue, the broad thoroughfare stretching up from the bay, reflects the city's varied international flavors, with Pakistani, Thai, and West African restaurants, taco stands, and jewelry stores glistening with Indian gold. At Sari Palace, the cloth wraps are available in kaleidoscopic colors. Just off University on San Pablo Avenue, Indus Village cooks up lively curries including achaar murgh, a simmered chicken and spicy pickle dish that nearly melts your teeth, though in a pleasant way.
University Avenue dead-ends at the UC-Berkeley campus, which gives way to Tilden Regional Park in the hills to the east. The park's merry-go-round and scaled-down steam train make sweet diversions, as does Little Farm, where kids can pet calves and feed celery and lettuce (organic or not) to goats. Anyone possessing a green thumb will enjoy the Regional Parks Botanic Garden, which features the most complete collection of native California plants you're likely to find anywhere.
Berkeley, for its part, features a fairly complete collection of Californians, as evidenced by the annual "How Berkeley Can You Be?" celebration. Participants have included nudists, animal rights parodists, and Buddhist monks. Though nudity has been banned (the city does have its limits), the event retains a very local spirit. How Berkeley can you be? Good luck trying to count the ways.
Photography by Robert Holmes
This article was first published in September 2008. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.