A Bar-Hopping Guide to Berkeley’s Gourmet Pubs

By Barbara Quick Special to the Planet
Friday June 04, 2004

For the longest time, I felt sure that a romantic dinner out meant sitting across from your companion at a candlelit table in a great restaurant. It is only recently that I’ve been won over to the charms of bellying up to the bar in those very same restaurants and eating side by side. 

Sitting at the bar allows you and your sweetie to speak to each other in a normal tone of voice rather than holler your wit and wisdom across the table. Plus you are in a larger social arena than you would be able to enjoy if exiled to a table of your own.  

Whether you’re dining alone at the bar or with a friend, you can broaden the scope of your interactions by socializing with other patrons, if they interest you, as well as with the bartender. 

Bartenders at such places, as far as I’ve been able to tell, are rather like yoga teachers: It’s rare that I find one I don’t like. The best ones give you the sense that they both know and appreciate you, oddities and all. They are sensitive to your needs without ever intruding themselves on your privacy. They are not just your servers at dinner—they are part of the social ambiance of your meal. 

Now, mind you—the bars I’m talking about are every bit as much about food as they are about alcohol. I myself am completely hopeless as a drinker—one martini is to me as a fifth of Chivas Regal would be to someone better schooled in the art of drinking. Two glasses of good red wine in the course of an entire evening are more than enough to make me feel that I am celebrating. 

Berkeley, with its high standards for both food and conversation, is an ideal venue for a gourmet pub crawl. Normally I would at most go to two of these places in the course of an evening out. But, for the purposes of this article, I left a trail of lipstick-stained wineglasses all across Berkeley. Please, if you follow in my path, drink moderately and/or take taxis as you move about town. 

Start with oysters at Café Rouge on Fourth Street. They’re my standard for what is good and fresh and plump and tasty. I love it that Robbie the oysterman always smiles like a beaming schoolteacher as he points to the various mollusks and tells us where they come from. Someone who loves martinis would have one at this point, perhaps served by Darin, who tends the bar on mid-week evenings and exudes such an air of generosity, solicitude and goodwill. 

You could easily spend an entire festive evening at Café Rouge. Ask Darin for his recommendations about what’s best on the menu, which changes every other Wednesday. He’s never wrong. 

Wave goodbye and drive up to San Pablo Avenue and turn north until you get to Nizza la Bella, where chef-owners Eleanor Triboletti and Evelyne Slomon recreate the Italian-inspired tastes and smells of southeastern France. Sit at the bar and order the beignet de “Fiouretta de Cougourda,” delicate zucchini-blossom fritters stuffed with herbs and goat cheese—a veritable mouthful of summer. If you decide to end your evening here, be sure not to miss the individual apple tarts baked in the wood-fired oven imported from Provence. 

For your main course, if you’re still on the move, I would suggest avoiding a main course altogether with a stop at Richard Mazzera’s César, the beloved tapas bar next to Chez Panisse on Shattuck Avenue. Everything is delectable and the menu changes at least a little bit every day. My dining partner and I always prefer sharing two small plates. I love the bocadillo with smoked salmon and queso fresco, the stuffed piquillo peppers and all of the salads. The shoestring potatoes with fried rosemary and aioli on the side are enough to make a carb-counter like myself tremble with desire.  

César can get very crowded, especially on Friday and Saturday nights. If you go either very early or very late, you’ll have a better chance of getting a seat at the bar (but getting a seat at the bar is easier than getting a table). You can stand with a glass of wine, chatting with Cate and her boyfriend Dylan, if they’re working that night, and keeping a weather eye on the crowd, prepared to pounce when a place at the bar becomes available. 

Return to Fourth Street, if you’ve saved some room, and finish up at the bar of O Chame with a bowl of their balsamic gelato. I love this dessert. Not too sweet or filling, it nonetheless gives your palate a wonderfully grownup goodnight kiss. Share a glass of one of the delicious dessert wines on the menu—and vow to come back for a complete meal at this restaurant, where everything that comes out of the kitchen is exquisite and original while maintaining a laudable simplicity.  

If you feel that you’ve imbibed too much to drive safely, you can always sleep in the car and have breakfast at Betty’s the next morning. 


Barbara Quick’s latest book, Even More/Todavía Más, is a bi-lingual mother-daughter gift book co-written with artist Liz McGrath.