Berkeley, California is a fantastic place to fall in love with food. I should know—over five years of study at the University of California, I left the collegiate confines of canned chili, terrible pizza, and too many trips to the "Asian Ghetto" for the greener pastures of one of the best food towns in the state.
Berkeley's flavor quotient isn't necessarily a measure of diversity or "authenticity." Its advantage is accessibility. Even when a Berkeley restaurant isn't stellar, it's likely to offer good value with few frills. The community's appreciation for quality ingredients and affordable dining options makes Berkeley a comfortable spot for serious eating, even if it's not a destination as vast or storied as Los Angeles, Chicago or New York.
For a solid Americano, an occasionally available patio seat and one of the nicer places for an off-campus chat, the south side's Strada is tried and true. Au Coquelet, just a short walk from the West Gate and open later than any other cafe in the city, has made vast improvements over the years—namely, the addition of outlets, free wifi, and a Trumer Pils tap with stupid-good happy hour prices.
For serious cafe time, take a short bus ride to Local 123 on San Pablo. It's a great place to get some work done with the aid of single-origin beans, snacks, ample seating, and wifi. On the north stretch of Shattuck, the Berkeley outpost of Philz offers much of the same, plus a dizzying variety of house blends.
Berkeley-bound pizza lovers are advised to read from the pages of Slice's own David Kover for up-to-date reporting on the slice situation. As long as I've been acquainted with both pizza and Berkeley, they've shared two essential intersections.
The Cheeseboard Collective serves the best California pizza I've tasted, devoting each day of operation to a different blend of cheeses and seasonal ingredients. The workers regularly give customers "mini slices" with their pizza for free, and sitting on the median with your Cheeseboard slices is a time-honored Berkeley tradition.
Downtown Berkeley's Arinell, on the other hand, offers the Bay Area's essential thin-crust slice. Not quite New York but quintessentially no-nonsense, this is pizza for any occasion. And if you get as excited as I do about folding a slice to Hüsker Dü's "New Day Rising," get your ass downtown. Avoid Arinell's toppings, unless you like undercooked everything on your pizza.
If you feel like making the trek, Gioia meets our criteria for a slice worth the trouble.
I admittedly have very little at stake in the burger wars of America, and have a hard time remembering a single burger near campus that still exists. The pub burger at Triple Rock will do well in a pinch. If you have the time for an expedition, the Shake Shack tribute/clone known as True Burger near downtown Oakland is AHT-approved. Wherever you do your burgin', don't be fooled into eating at Smokehouse or Oscar's. They look like vintage winners from the outside, but aren't worth your time.
Two of the more memorable lunch breaks in my life have involved sandwiches near the University campus. The first is a stroll to Gregoire, a single-table takeout just north of campus with a rotating menu of Franco-Californian sandwiches. Always order a side of "potato puffs," deep-fried, bite-sized scoops of buttered mashed potato that are good enough to be their own meal.
The other is a between-classes rush to Cheese n Stuff. The deli-stuffed-into-a-corridor serves a Thanksgiving sandwich called the "Turkey Delight": gravy-smothered, roasted turkey, cranberry sauce, avocado, mustard and mayo on your choice of roll.
Also recommended: the weekly sandwich selection at The Local Butcher, along with a stop for falafel or chicken shawarma at Sunrise Deli. If you've got the time to take a longer bus ride down telegraph, Genova Deli in Temescal is well worth the trip.
A relative newcomer, Hamro Aangan on San Pablo has some of the best Indian food I've tasted—it's technically in Albany, but the bus to its door is a straight shot from campus. Aangan has a mostly northern bent, with filling, flavorful vindaloo and curry choices and one massive plate of biryani. The must-order dish, though, is sev batata puri—a vegetarian dish that gets everything about Indian snacks right in a single bite.
Much closer to campus, House of Curries is a fine go-to for Indo-Pakistani food.
Look away from the exotic fixtures of Thai House, and you'll find three affordable and dependable alternatives near campus. The best near-campus venue is Thai Noodle on Shattuck—be sure to try the duck noodle soup. Racha Cafe on Telegraph and Lucky House on University are also good go-tos with short waits and solid cooking. (warning: while Lucky House was one of my favorite Berkeley restaurants from 2003-2008, I've heard it may have gone downhill in recent years).
Chinese food options in Berkeley proper aren't much to write about, but there are two excellent options accessible by public transit. In Oakland Chinatown, the East Bay extension of San Fransisco's Spices! offers a no-holds-barred Sichuan menu. Try any of the hot pots—it's perfectly acceptable to choose purely based on decorative title, but good luck deciding between the "Cumin Spice Nomad Style" and "Gangsta Casserole Murder Style."
For Shanghai-style dim sum (including a solid xiaolongbao, excellent fried noodles, and wonderful bean sheet noodles), head to Shanghai Cafe in Oakland's Chinatown.
Closer to home, bookmark the URL for China Village, a North Berkeley favorite that recently caught on fire. Once it's up and running again, catch the bus over with a group of friends for the best family-style meal in town.
Conversations involving the words "best taco" or "best burrito" aren't a good match for "near UC Berkeley." But Taqueria Monte Cristo makes the best carnitas in Berkeley, by a fatty mile. Order anything with carnitas here (I'm a fan of the burrito), and you'll receive a payload of roast pork, given an extra fry to turn out a high ratio of crunchy bits. The flavor can be inconsistent, but the portion is always satisfying. If you're serious about Mexican food, catch a BART train out to Fruitvale and start exploring the taco trucks and shops of International Blvd.
The perennial local favorite for brunch is La Note, the downtown restaurant that epitomizes the meal with dishes like "Lemon Gingerbread Pancakes With Poached Pears," a full spread of egg dishes and omeletes with your choice of cheeses and sausages, and a side of "Provencales Tomatoes." Just as nice, albeit not as rustic, is Sunnyside Cafe, the Solano Ave. brunch destination that recently opened a branch in downtown Berkeley. Try one of the cafe's four types of eggs benedict, for starters.
For a truly memorable brunch, make the trek to Jodie's Restaurant, which I've repeatedly gone on record describing as my favorite place to eat in the world. On weekends the wait can be extreme (typically 30-40 minutes), but bring a friend, order Jodie's "Something Different" or "Charles' Grillled Cheese." You'll be a regular in minutes.
Everett & Jones on San Pablo. Racks of ribs in spicy sauce. Extra slices of white bread. Don't even think about getting sanctimonious on the "real" definition of barbecue—in the Bay Area, this is as true as it gets. E&J's Jack London Square location is better for a night out, but as long as it stands, the Berkeley smokehouse will be synonymous with the words, "rib run.:
This is a category best vetted by you Serious Eaters, but I'll put in a good word for "Beat the Clock Friday" at the Bear's Lair. I wouldn't normally tell anybody to set foot in this overcrowded and generally noxious campus pub, but the craft beer selection at the Lair (curated by the owners of Triple Rock and Jupiter) is impressive.
More importantly: If you show up at 4pm on Friday, pitchers are ludicrously cheap. With each hour that passes, the price goes up, and your Friday night becomes significantly harder to remember.
The wisdom of the crowd wins when it comes to Berkeley's late night eats. For a savory bite, head straight to Top Dog on Durant, the only gourmet sausage shop I can think of whose employees are simultaneously obsessed with Libertarianism and Star Trek: The Next Generation. You're likely to fight your way through a drunken mob, but for a butterflied Calebrese at 2:00 a.m., you should be prepared to overcome any obstacle. Pro-tip: all Top Dog sausages are available raw, at a discount price. Take home an armful of sausages if you're in a grilling mood, and don't forget to try the joint's unfiltered apple juice.
For dessert (or late breakfast), cross the street and get in line at Kingpin Donuts. The shop tends to do a lot of its cooking in the wee hours of the night, and its delivery requirements are everyone's gain. Show up past midnight and ask for whatever's fresh. Especially if the answer is "buttermilk," arguably Kingpin's best contribution to gluttony.
For a reasonably priced, fairly tasteful dinner date, catch a bus to Elmwood, one of Berkeley's nicest residential enclaves. Enjoy anything wrapped in phyllo at La Mediterranee, or share a couple of generous Italian dishes at Trattoria La Siciliana. After dinner, you can stop off for a pricey but tasty treat at Ici, or one of several million varieties of tea at A 'Cuppa Tea.
For date night in the City, make a point of trying the $20 tasting menu at Mr. Pollo, a Latin-American hole-in-the-wall whose chef serves these four-course California cooking showcases at such an absurdly low price that I wonder how much longer it'll be possible to nab a table.
Wat Mongkolratanaram, referred to by English speakers as "Thai Temple Brunch," takes place every Sunday morning from 10:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. It's the perfect sunshine date for two serious eaters: buy tokens with cash, then use them to feast on a variety of home-cooked Thai dishes in the garden of a Buddhist temple in South Berkeley.
Considerably further from campus, the Trumer Pils Brewery offers a free tour every weekday at 3:15pm. Learn about beer, try one of the best pilsners in the world at its source, and stumble over to the Berkeley Marina (or to the Pyramid Brewery) to keep the good times going.
Dive Bars (and Other Watering Holes)
The East Bay has no shortage of bars with personality, but try skipping past the downtown and near-campus standbys. Try heading to the Albatross(not really a dive), where the popcorn is free, the pub trivia is lively, board games are plentiful, and dogs are welcome. Further down San Pablo, the Hotsy Totsy is a classic dive that comes with the added bonus of a decent taco truck that regularly parks behind the bar.
Literally a house wedged between businesses on Solano is Pub. It's not a dive, but it's one of the best bars in Berkeley for buzzed lounging. Board games, a tobacco bar, and coffee make this an all-in-one favorite for the leisurely.
If you want to dive deep, BART over to Rockridge for a visit to The Kingfish, a near-centenarian Oakland bar on its way to landmark status. Good people, free popcorn, a ramshackle mini-shuffleboard table, bar food in house, and Ethiopian food across the street make this one a winner.
The Morning After the Dive Bar
To understand the true meaning of "home fries" (and for Berkeley's best hangover helper) bring five bucks and change to Ann's Ktichen on Telegraph. This constantly buzzing, no-frills breakfast-and-lunch spot churns out diner breakfasts with the crustiest, crunchiest, most golden-brown home fries I've ever had. There's no hair of the dog to speak of, but if you show up enough times the owners are sure to remember your favorite order. Don't forget the fresh-squeezed O.J.
When the Parents Are in Town
If your folks want to empty the bank, take 'em to town at the legendary Chez Panisse. My parents have never been in favor of emptying the bank, so you'll have to tell me how the food is— at the very least, lunch is a good compromise on cost for a fancy meal with the family.
On the other side of town, Kirala is the place to drag your parents for sushi and sashimi. There's typically a line when doors open for dinner, so show up early if you want to avoid a wait.
When Someone Has a Car
Hercules Pinole. I recommend the hamburgers.
When Someone Has a Car, but for Some Reason You Aren't Using It to Drive to In-N-Out
Grab a bundle of your favorite antacids and drive down to Vik's Chaat Corner for a feast of Indian snacks.
In the factory district of Berkeley, a car will give you access to an excellent brunch at 900 Grayson—try the "Demon Lover," a gussied-up plate of fried chicken tenders and waffles that is downright delicious. A few blocks away, Juan's Place serves a variety of large-portion Gringo-Mex fare, but the main reason for stopping in is to feed recklessly from the free bowls of freshly made flour tortilla chips that precede every meal.
Just past the Berkeley-Oakland boarder, you can pay a visit to Lois the Pie Queen; while their breakfasts are just fine, what really sets this place apart (aside from its history and amazing name) are the diner's sweet breakfast biscuits with fresh strawberry jam, and one mighty fine slice of lemon icebox pie.
Driving to San Francisco unlocks the Richmond and all of its Chinese food. You could also go on a Burmese food tour, or scarf down some excellent black bread, Russian dishes, and house-made kvass at the recently renovated Cinderella Cafe.
Further afield, the automotively enabled Berkeley student can make a ramen pilgrimage to San Jose's Ramen Halu. On the way back to Berkeley, double down on your food road trip with a meal at Fijian-Indian restaurant Curry Corner Takeaway in Hayward.
I'll never forget the time I schlepped over to Berkeley Bowl for pumpkins on the morning of Halloween. 10 minutes before opening, the supermarket that carries just about everything was already blockading a crowd of shoppers ambling out front, anxiously waiting for first crack at the bounty of cheap, fresh produce and international goods inside. When the doors opened for business, an old man pushed forcefully past me with a shopping cart and ran wildly down the first aisle, never to be seen again. Needless to say, the pumpkin selection was outstanding. Make your own trip for all kinds of delectable fruits and some truly terrible burritos.
Public goodbyes for notable Berkeley and Oakland eateries that are no longer with us:
Goodbye, The Patio. Your lamb burger, afternoon pitchers of craft beer, and eponymous patio will be missed. Your knack for attracting and retaining obnoxious gutter punks in the corner of said patio will not.
Goodbye, Pie in the Sky. You descended from Jersey to give Berkeley the best mom-and-pop pizzeria I've ever seen. May you continue to serve California-thin-crust of the highest order wherever you land.
Goodbye, Mario's La Fiesta. Every time I pass the Chipotle sandwiched between two American Apparels on Telegraph, I'll tear up about the sensible spot for chips, salsa, and Mexican comfort food that was once just a few blocks away.
Goodbye, The Parkway. Your child speakeasy theater in El Cerrito will never replace the rugged, historic, Lake Merritt theater where last season's movies, pitchers of beer, bowling alley pizza, and couches whose histories I probably don't want to think too hard about coalesced over the laziest of Saturday afternoons.
Goodbye, Chef Edwards. You gave me my first taste of serious barbecue, more Piggly Wiggly sandwiches than I deserved, and the worst food news I've ever received when I heard your doors had closed.
Goodbye, Cafe Intermezzo. I can't say a good word about sandwiches with sprouts in them, but having you in the neighborhood at least made me feel like I could, someday, pretend to be in the gravity field of a healthy lifestyle.
Goodbye, Scharffen Berger Chocolate Factory. Thanks for nothing, jerks at Hershey.
In recalling some of my favorite Berkeley eats, I've harped on one strategy: For the love of all things tasty, do not limit yourself to a a few blocks from campus. With a few exceptions, eating directly near the university tends to be a joyless exercise, so grab a bus map, budget some extra time, bring a friend, and do whatever's needed to explore.
What about you, Serious Eaters? What does the community have to say about where to find good grub in the People's Republic of Berkeley? Add your thoughts in the comments!
About the author: James Boo has been a Serious Eats contributor since 2010. Working as a freelance journalist, he is also the founder of Real Cheap Eats and a documentarian. Check out his food-and-travel blog, The Eaten Path, for more journeys to the real meal.