Home & Garden Columns

At Home in Northbrae

By Marta Yamamoto, Special to the Planet
Friday June 23, 2006

Morning dawns on a Berkeley summer day. Gray light filters into bungalow-style rooms, a shawl of mist moistens stately plane trees and palettes of roses. Knowing the sun will soon make its presence felt, this is a good time to set out with a plan for the day. Within walking distance are specialty food shops, cozy eateries, an inspiring nursery, a comfortable park and a wonderful neighborhood library. Welcome to Northbrae. 

Snappy morning air signals “get going” to this peripatetic biophile, the perfect time to recharge batteries with heart-elevating activity. At the King School Park, the running track is already busy with walkers, joggers and a tot-sized soccer game on the center turf. More tots are lost in their own world among slides and swings shaded by towering eucalyptus; older kids attempt the tire obstacle course. Wimbledon fans with varying skills pop and lob balls across the net while gleeful sounds reverberate off the surface at the Public Swim Center. Something for everyone. 

The temperature fits for a neighborhood stroll, especially with the dangling carrot of coffee and accoutrements. Down quiet side streets, bucolic in nature, I pass well- 

maintained homes amid flourishing yards. One- and two-story California bungalows in stucco and brick border tree-lined streets. Handsome in colors of gray, puce and café au lait, their roofs peak above small porches or larger verandas and multi-paned windows. Pink evening primrose and magenta bougainvillea glow as light diffuses down through trees whose height reveals their longevity. 

I think back to 1841 when this area was the first in Berkeley to be settled by Europeans. On the south side of Cordonices Creek is the site of Jose Peralta’s adobe dwelling and nearby the wood-frame house he later added. 

Although it’s still early, the tables and benches at Espresso Roma are quickly filling up, this being a popular local meeting place. With coffee and bagel, I grab a table, content to absorb the pulse of this family neighborhood. I watch mom and dad distribute Mexican scrambled eggs and oven potatoes to a young girl, aglow in summer pink, and her stroller-enclosed brother. The young miss is also enjoying hot oatmeal, while her final course is a huge M&M studded cookie. An older couple, sitting in filtered sun, seems totally engrossed in books. Each lost in their own world, they barely notice as gentle breezes alter leaf patterns above their pages. 

It’s hard to see the former gas station in this lovely outside café sheltered from street traffic by salvia hedges. At the service island, the corrugated roof is almost hidden by thickly growing honeysuckle. Small trees and umbrellas offer sun and shade options for catching up on the news or the latest gossip. Some linger, reluctant to leave this relaxing refuge. For others, like myself, shopping calls. 

Anchoring the south end of this neighborhood is Monterey Market. Founded by Tom and Mary Fujimoto in 1961, this village-based business “provides good fruits and vegetables in season” supporting local farmers and the community. It was originally across the street. I remember squeezing sardine-like around a single lap, filling my basket as I waited in line.  

Though today’s space seems hundreds of times larger than the original market, laden carts still fill the aisles. What better way to celebrate summer than with an array of fresh produce? Blushing apricots and plump cherries, a cornucopia of berries from golden raspberries to long stemmed strawberries, glistening spring onions in purple and white and enough fungi for a mushroom festival, from toadstool-like trumpet royale morels to velvety brown porcinis.  

Magnani Poultry adds to my basket with free-range chicken and Muscovy duck legs. The Deliza bar provides squirt-your-own dispensers of vinegars and olive oils. Yum, white balsamic and Phoenician extra virgin olive oil vinaigrette over roasted asparagus and beets. In the deli case I see a picnic ready to be sampled—pork loin with proscuitto and apricots and a red potato and herb salad. 

At my next stop I vicariously travel the world as I sample cheeses: smokey bleu from Oregon, Humboldt Fog’s Chevre, Italian Taleggio, French Chaunces, Spanish goat milk Cabra, English Stilton, grilling cheese from Cypress and Swiss raclette. Along with the cheeses, the bulk spice and herb selection is unbeatable: at pennies an ounce, they’re the best bargain around. 

The catchword at Monterey Fish is sustainability, taking into account the environment, fishing industry and community. 

Everything on offer is of the freshest quality, not the lowest prices. Staffed by a hip, knowledgeable crew and backed by classic rock, Monterey Fish gleams and tantalizes. There’s eco-farmed salmon on offer from Scotland but the bright wild Atlantic salmon makes my mouth water. For appetizers, the Oyster Bar holds a choice of Humboldt’s Kumamoto and Tomales Bay’s Hog Island. 

Can’t say “fini” until the sweet tooth has been satisfied. A summer fete needs cake and I can’t improve on Mango Mousse Torte or Italian Cream Cake from Hopkins Street Bakery. Then there’s that chocolate cupcake bedecked in sprinkles and the cranberry cinnamon Breakfast Bun, both tempting mouthfuls. Can’t forget the bread on my list. Many Grain or Dill Parmesan Baguette—I’ll take both. 

With nutritional needs met I now seek “food for the soul”. In the 1920s George Budgen of Berkeley Horticultural Nursery stated, “It’s not a home until it’s planted”. This worthy goal is easily satisfied with the oasis of greenery on hand at Northbrae’s Berkeley Hort.  

Not for the indecisive, myriad choices will make your head spin. Inspired by Monterey Market, I check out the vegetable six-packs ready to drop in the ground. Just in zucchini I must decide between green, black, costata romanesco, magda and ronde de nice. Tomatoes occupy three entire shelves, but are well sorted by ripening season. 

Below arched room size areas topped by shade-giving screens, paved paths delineate specific plant varieties. Light and air freely circulate under the high peaked central structure and mature specimen plants line the walkway. Fallopia japonica’s variegated leaves appear sprayed with white paint and the huge pink-tinged white flowers of Patricia Marie Rhododendron are strikingly lovely. More than just a nursery, Berkeley Hort is a wondrous botanical garden, except I get to take the plants home with me. 

As the sun reaches its zenith the northern neighborhood anchor beckons. Like a heartbeat, the North Branch Berkeley Public Library maintains a steady rhythm. Within its triangular, park setting of wide lawns and circling trees, the Spanish revival building with central tower, tiled roof and deeply inset arched windows serves as a gateway to this mellow neighborhood. 

Each morning patrons patiently wait until doors open. Computers are quickly put to use. At reading tables, study materials spread out and the latest newspapers are perused; open windows framed in foliage keep interiors cool. In the children’s wing the tables and chairs are smaller and joyful voices display appreciation of weekly Picture Book and Family Story Times. As with a dear friend, I find myself visiting several times a week.  

In the golden slant of afternoon light, I head down Hopkins under the tree-tunnel of far reaching sycamores. Satisfied with my excursion and purchases I’m ready to savour my feast of local bounty—food, plant life and books. Steady, without pretense, Northbrae fits my needs, is home. 


Espresso Roma Cafe, 1549 Hopkins St, 528-8010 

Monterey Market, 1550 Hopkins St, 526-6042, www.montereymarket.com 

Magnani Poultry, 1576 Hopkins St, 528 6370 

Monterey Fish, 1582 Hopkins St, 525-5600, www.montereyfish.com 

Hopkins Street Bakery, 1584 Hopkins St, 526-8188 

Berkeley Horticultural Nursery, 1310 McGee St, 526-4704, www.berkeleyhort.com  

North Branch Berkeley Public Library, 1170 The Alameda (at Hopkins), 981-6250