Gourmet Ghetto: More Delicious Than It Sounds
A tasting tour through Berkeley, California’s iconic foodie destination.
Story and photos by Julie Tremaine
If you know only one thing about the food that comes out of Berkeley, California, just across the bay from San Francisco, you probably know about Chez Panisse. There Alice Waters opened her iconic restaurant in 1971 and, effectively, introduced farm-to-table dining to middle-class America. Thousands upon thousands of diners still make a pilgrimage to Chez Panisse every year to dine at the altar of the slow food movement.
Even though the restaurant is known around the world, it’s far from the only notable dining in Berkeley. The area around Chez Panisse is known as Berkeley’s Gourmet Ghetto—a stretch of food experiences from fine dining to delis that has created the city’s reputation as not just an extension of San Francisco’s food culture, but as a dining destination in its own right. The Gourmet Ghetto was an early definer of sustainable, farm-to-fork California cuisine. On a dining tour of Berkeley’s most delicious street with Edible Excursions, here’s what I found:
We meet our guide for the day, Rebecca, at The Cheese Board Collective on Shattuck Avenue. The worker-owned co-op has been in operation since 1967, and is one of the state’s first examples of a gourmet cheese shop. Proximity to The Cheese Board, Rebecca explains, is why Alice Waters chose Shattuck Avenue for Chez Panisse, which is just across the street. We’re there on a Friday afternoon, and there’s live music and a line out the door for the pizza of the day. The place only makes one type of pizza each day and today’s is asparagus, mozzarella and Ossau-Iraty cheese with arugula and sugar snap peas with lemon vinaigrette. I’d never had pea pods on a pizza before, or Ossau-Iraty, which is a semi-firm French sheep’s milk cheese that’s been made in the same method for 5,000 years. The pizza has a freshness and unexpected complexity that makes me think any pizza coming out of that kitchen would be just as good.
Across the street, our next stop is Saul’s Restaurant & Delicatessen. The location has housed a deli since the 1950s, and Saul’s has been serving up its homemade pastrami and traditional deli fare since 1986. We share a sandwich, plus four kinds of house pickles (dill, sour, half-sour and Turkish). The celery soda, made by macerating toasted celery seeds in vodka and then adding cane syrup and seltzer, is a real surprise: savory flavor, not too sugary, and a perfect complement to the pastrami, which can hold up against Katz’s or any other deli you think has the best pastrami you’ve ever had.
We stop in at Peet’s Coffee, which I wasn’t excited about until I learned that it was Alfred Peet’s first location of what has become an enormous chain. Peet is credited with introducing the American palate to darker roasts like French as well as specialty beans from around the world. He’s also known for opening, in 1966, the anchor business in what became the Gourmet Ghetto. The Dutch-born Peet insisted that his customers only prepare his beans in the exacting European method, which became a nationwide phenomenon. We share a pot of French press, and it’s as robust as any good shot of espresso.
Next is Epicurious Garden, a food hall showcasing artisan producers that all use local products. It’s a running theme on this tour, but also for my entire stay in the Bay Area: Northern California has an abundance of farms that grow year-round, and everyone who talks about food here talks about the 150-mile-radius, which is where nearly all their food comes from. We stop in at Lush Gelato to sample some sweets, which are made from raw milk pasteurized in-house and turned into flavors like vanilla salted chocolate chip and whiskey walnut praline. The standouts: malted milk, and ricotta lemon zest. (We also took a detour for remarkable mushroom cheesecakes from another tenant, CheeseQuakes.)
Gregoire, which is thankfully a few blocks away (giving us an excuse to walk off some calories), is a tiny French restaurant that mostly offers takeout, unless you’re lucky enough to grab one of the two outdoor tables or three stools at the counter. Sandwiches are served by day and inventive California-meets-French food at night, like sautéed rock cod in brick leaf with basil & oven dried tomato, garlic and manchego jus. We sample the signature crispy potato puffs, which are so light that I think this must be what potato croquettes taste like in heaven.
Our last food stop is at The Local Butcher Shop, which is maybe the best example of Berkeley’s commitment to sustainability. The shop only deals in antibiotic- and hormone-free meats, and sells every piece of every animal (and prices things to encourage people to try lesser-loved cuts). What doesn’t work as a meal gets dehydrated as dog treats or becomes bone broth. We try a Lone Willow Ranch smoked pork roast sandwich with charred onions, toasted pistachios, and rosemary aioli, served on Acme Bakery ciabatta, which grew out of Chez Panisse and is the standard bearer for Bay Area bread. Even 300 miles away at another food event a month later, I hear people talking about how good Acme’s bread is. The sandwich is good, but I’m so full that I can’t fully enjoy it.
We move onto wine tasting at Vintage Berkeley, a wine shop that focuses on affordable, small production wines, and sits in a renovated 1930s water pumping station. It’s hot, and we’ve been walking, so I ask for sparkling rose. What I get is Bermejo Listan Negro Rosado from Lanzarote, one of the Canary Islands. It challenges my palate, because the herbal and peppery notes aren’t what I’m expecting from fizzy pink wine, but it’s also a great example of what Berkeley is: unusual, quirky, and totally delicious.