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North Berkeley’s Epicurean Delights

By MARTA YAMAMOTOSpecial to the Planet
Friday April 21, 2006

One century ago the Bay Area was rocked off its foundations. Every year around this time we’re reminded that the next “big one” is just around the corner. For weeks we’ve heard survivor stories of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and received advice abou t how to be prepared when the ground again rattles beneath our feet. 

Our earthquake survival kit requires food supplies for several days. While many might access Costco, I am here to suggest a much more civilized, European experience. Stroll through Nor t h Berkeley’s epicurean groaning board. Alert your senses, revisit the past and fill your basket with enough treats to ease your way through any disaster. 

North Berkeley’s origins can be traced to 1878 with the extension of the steam railroad from downt ow n to a new terminus at Shattuck and Vine. The first settlers to this neighborhood were railroad men and their families. Over the years the area developed into quiet middle-class. In Brown Shingles, many with Arts and Crafts accents, Victorians and Califor nia bungalows, it became a desirable place to live and raise a family.  

Metamorphosis began in 1966. The quietly pretty cabbage moth took on the brilliant markings of the Monarch butterfly. With the opening of Peet’s Coffee, the Cheeseboard and Chez Pani sse, a unique upscale commercial entity focusing on quality was born, revolutionizing American cooking and taste. Berkeley’s spirit of “power to the people” spoke in the collective organization of several businesses, including the Cheeseboard and its Juice Bar and Pizza offshoots.  

Today Berkeley’s gourmet ghetto travels the length of Shattuck offering an eclectic assortment of sense-tingling stimuli, for eyes, nose and taste buds. Being in the memories- mode of contemplation, I combined my prepared ness foray with thoughts of how businesses have survived and flourished throughout the years. One of Berkeley’s oldest, Virginia Bakery has excelled since 1924. 

Upon entering I’m surrounded by the fragrance of butter, sugar and vanilla and immediately se lect an Almond Wreath for my kit. Composed of pull-apart rolls topped with sugar frosting and sliced almonds this will ease my way into any morning. Packages of dainty, melt-in-your-mouth decorated cookies are next. These cookies were rewards in my family for every trip to Berkeley Pediatrics up the street. Pain from any shot dissolved upon tasting a sprinkle-coated bite. 

Roasting chicken evokes a warm hearth feeling and Poulet’s farmhouse atmosphere lures you in. Bright and cheerful is the theme both inside and out with attractive seating and décor. Cheerful chicken tablecloths, pale yellow walls and leg-dangling poultry figurines are the ideal setting for sampling Grecian quinoa salad, roasted beets with orange or adobo chicken. 

Baubles and Beads has just the cure for idle fingers. With beads from the Czech Republic, India, Africa and Bali, hours cut off from our electronic alter egos will seem like minutes. Walls of colored vials and strung beads present a rainbow palette, as do small plastic boxes a top e asy-browsing waist high cabinets. There’s no need to memorize price tags from 10 cents to $5 using convenient trays sorted by cost. Earrings, necklaces and bracelets in glass, metal and stone are projects awaiting your touch. 

At the ACCI Gallery, t he cur rent exhibit presents artistic interpretations of transformation, easily fitting into this earthquake theme. In “Remake/Remodel: Rebound,” unique materials provide outlets for personal experiences. In this handsome brick building, recently retrofit ted, th rowaway items are reborn. Books become tilting towers atop tree stumps; used tea bags, labels attached, form bed quilts; maxi pads and adult diapers are combined into wedding cakes; and Salvation Army socks and gloves are felted into fuzzy, gray o rganic w all sculptures, proving that almost any discard can be reincarnated. Lovely hand painted ceramic tableware by Paula Ross in warm spring pastels may not survive a temblor but still finds room in my earthquake kit. 

Sidewalk tables and roasting espresso sig nal time for a break. At the French Hotel, a brick building that once steamed with laundry now wafts the distinct aroma of the best Cappuccino in town. Rain or shine, outside tables are full and the line snakes out the door. Lines are always on order at C heesboard Pizza but no one seems to care. 

Listening to jazz and not needing to decide which pizza to select allows time to enjoy the bouquets on offer at Emilia’s flower stand. Sweet scent from color-saturated roses and tulips wafts with the c heese and g arlic emanating from next door, a true Berkeley experience. Only Cheeseboard Pizza can create a “kitchen sink” of fresh fennel, roasted onions, feta, mozzarella, calamata olives and gremolata exploding with flavor. 

How can any more be written about the Cheeseboard’s selection of cheeses, breads and pastries? Or their strong collective spirit? Needing to choose among 23 varieties of “blue cheese,” read the chalkboard so crammed that it appears solid white, decide between asiago and simple whea t loaves or a chocolate thing versus a cherry corn scone explains why multiple visits are required. 

At the Juice Bar Collective you’ll marvel that so much hearty fare can be created in this narrow boxcar space. Every bit of counter and stovetop is put into use to cr eate smoothies, soup, black bean polenta and spinach lasagna, guaranteed to warm body and soul on heater-less nights. 

Forty years ago the original Peet’s Coffee occupied a small space on the corner of Walnut and Vine serving incredibly rich coffee to mos tly inexperienced palettes. I remember being waited on by Alfred Peet himself, setting the standard of quality that continues to this day. His appearance and manner spoke of European traditions. Today the Peet’s franchise has spread, offerings have increa sed and brown-coated Alfred Peet is here in spirit only, but Peet’s still serves the strongest coffee around. 

There’s still room for additional survival supplies. Black Oak Books offers Politics and Current Events across from Cookbooks as you enter the s tore, perfect complements for lively discussions. Author photographs atop wooden bookshelves line the walls. Whatever your need or fancy, choices abound at this independent bookshop known for weekly book readings. 

At Saul’s Delicatessen the take-out coun ter tempts with tabouleh, hummus, chopped liver and herring. Cozy red leather booths contrast with the black and white theme carried out in decor and photos lining the walls. Generous sandwiches, bowls of crispy, savory pickles and matzo ball soup indulge your taste buds. 

Indulgence is the key at Masse’s and chocolate is its name. Truffles, made fresh daily, cakes almost too pretty to eat and assorted cookies, each a single delicious bite, are everyday fare. European in style and service, the simplest cu p of coffee and treat is served on white china at small, cozy tables, both inside and out. Not convinced that the passion fruit torte is what you want for your next party? Try the exact copy in miniature form, just to be sure. 

With bask et and senses groaning, you’ve merely sampled one slice of this epicurean neighborhood. Amble up the street to Live Oak Park, maybe join a basketball pick-up game, follow the paths across Codornices Creek beneath towering redwoods or see what’s on view at the Berkeley Art Center. Tucked amid its forest setting, this avant-garde gallery specializes in the work of local artists. 

Then head back for more. Try a wander into newly opened Epicurious Garden, on Shattuck Avenue near Vine Street, where passion for food transforms t ake-out into a gourmet experience. 

Earthquake preparation is no joke. Everyone needs to plan for safety, but there’s no reason we can’t do it with style. North Berkeley has more than enough style to go around. 


Virginia Bakery 

1690 Sha ttuck Ave., 848-6711 



1685 Shattuck Ave., 845-5932 


Baubles and Beads 

1676 Shattuck Ave., 644-BEAD 


ACCI Gallery 

1652 Shattuck Ave., 843-2527 


French Hotel 

1538 Shattuck Ave., 548-9930 



1504 Shattuck Ave., 549-3183 


Juice Bar Collective 

2114 Vine St., 548-8473 


Peet’s Coffee & Tea 

2124 Vine St., 841-0564 


Black Oak Books 

1491 Shattuck Ave., 486-0698 


Saul’s Deli 

1475 Shattuck Ave., 848-DELI 


Masse’s Pastries 

1469 Shattuck Ave., 649-1004 


Berkeley Art Center 

1275 Walnut St., 644-6893 


Ep icurious Garden 

1509-1513 Shattuck Ave. 


Photo Caption: Marta Yamamoto 

The lunch crowd overflows the sidewalk and ignores the median strip sign outside the Cheeseboard.