Home & Garden Columns

Berkeley’s Best Unkept Secrets

By Marta Yamamoto, Special to the Planet
Friday September 01, 2006

Feeling at home in a new location requires time, effort and a little luck. Where to go for quality foods, reasonable eats and outdoor pursuits? To minimize time and effort and maximize pleasure, take the advice of every travel guide writer and look for the locals. Patrons eagerly waiting for doors to open, long lines and a mixed bag of clientele are sure signs that Berkeley’s favorites are poorly kept secrets. 

Berkeley Bowl has been serving its fans since 1977, moving from a former bowling alley to the major space it occupies today. While a full service grocery in every sense of the word, its produce and Asian departments are beyond compare. Choose among organic, pesticide-free and heirloom for stone fruits, cherries and tomatoes. Products abound for Japanese, Chinese and Thai specialties. Harris Ranch meats, Straus Family Creamery, bulk grains—all combine to present the highest quality at the lowest prices. 

For al-fresco marketing experiences you can’t beat Berkeley Farmers Market where strolling the aisles emulates travel through Northern California. Produce from Watsonville’s Happy Boy Farms and Yolo County’s River Dog Farm; Bennett Valley Breads from Santa Rosa and wood fired Morell’s Breads on the Marin Headlands; Cedar Creek Salmon, Highland Hills lamb, Tunitas Creek wildflower honey. Serenaded by music in blue-grass and Andean mode and surrounded by shoppers with bicycles, strollers, backpacks, wagons and wicker baskets attached to luggage carriers. The people watching value equals the quality of the goods. 

The Cheeseboard Collective will draw you like a magnet six days a week, offering specialties you can’t resist. Though only one pizza choice is offered daily—roasted bell-goat cheese, tomato-caper, zucchini-corn—Berkeleyans seem to love them all. The bakery selections are more varied, requiring serious decisions among scones, muffins, sweet rolls and breads. While baguettes, both seeded and plain, are baked daily, Cheese Curry Onion Bread only appears on Tuesday, Sesame Sunflower on Wednesday and Provolone Olive on Saturday. Their selection of cheeses, too numerous to count are sold daily, with samples offered before purchase.  

The need for good food that doesn’t need to be cooked occurs on a regular basis and choices are as numerous as Netflix offerings. Often described as ‘blue-collar comfort food’, Brennan’s Restaurant has been a Berkeley institution since 1959. Dark green walls, wood tables and a long central bar allow long escapes from everyday responsibilities. Sliding your tray past steam table pans of entire turkeys, hams, roast and corned beef, you can order sandwiches, dipped au jus, and plates, enjoying Thanksgiving dinner any day of the year. Soups are hardy, salads fresh, deserts are worthy of their calories and the servings are substantial. Come once for the food and return often for the Irish coffee and the laid-back ambience. 

Neither Tex-Mex, new-Mex nor fresh-Mex, Juan’s Place is family-style Mexican food at its best. A place where you’d expect to see a multi-generational family celebrating ‘feliz cumpleanos’. Though almost always full, the service is efficient and the plates are hot. Many would be happy to make a meal of the freshly made chips, both flour and corn, and the red and green salsa that appear on your table. Try to save room for plate-size burritos, chicken mole enchiladas, chile rellenos and guacamole tostadas. What you can’t finish will make a great lunch. 

To experience the great food and atmosphere of an Indian Bazaar, you can’t beat Viks Chaat Corner. Traditionally a roadside snack served on a leaf, Viks chaat offerings are so good you’ll want to lick your fingers. On weekdays full plate curry meals are offered for vegetarians and meat eaters accompanied by naan and lentil stew. Weekends give center stage to an enticing assortment of chaats—spiced lamb, puffed puris, lentil dumplings, crepes stuffed with potatoes, served with chutney or raita. Since the servings are hearty and the prices low, the two large rooms are usually full. At lunch time, don’t let the lines scare you away; the food and experience are worth the wait. 

Every Sunday the Thai Buddhist Temple puts on a party and everyone’s invited. Prepared by monks and donated by area restaurants, a Thai smorgasbord perfumes the air. Tables are fitted in wherever there’s room, between buildings, under a funky Plexiglas patio roof, around the parking lot. Patrons exchange dollars for tokens and feast on sweet mango rice, coconut milk fried pancakes, spicy green beans and tofu, green, red and yellow curries, pad thai, green papaya salad, fried chicken and more. Curry at 9am may dislodge your timing for the day, but the lines grow as the hours tick toward noon. 

When the need for activity beckons three locations stand out, with enough on board for a multitude of outings. One visit can’t do them justice. The UC Botanical Garden invites you to get lost in the world of plants, literally. With areas devoted to Australasia, Mexico, South America and Eastern North America, your senses can travel miles. Follow pathways to the Garden of Old Roses and look out at the bay, and then wander through monkey puzzle trees, gigantic bromeliads and wild fuchsias from Argentina and Chile. Walk downhill to the California natives bordering Strawberry Creek. Find a bench and contemplate the m’s: manzanita, mahonia, mountain mahogany and mesquite. Seasonal specials will call you back. 

Two expansive recreational facilities border Berkeley on the east and west. In the East Bay Hills lies Tilden Regional Park, encompassing over two thousand acres and endless miles of trails for hiking, horseback riding, bicycling and observing nature. Cool off or cast your line in the waters of Lake Anza; tour the Nature Study Area stopping at the Little Farm, the Environmental Education Center and Jewel Lake; enjoy a family cook-out at Lone Oak or Indian Camp; revisit childhood riding the Hershell Spillman merry-go-round; join the engineers on the miniature Steam Train. 

Hugging the coastline of San Francisco Bay is the Berkeley Marina, home to a cornucopia of water-related activities. At Shorebird Park you can tour the ‘green’ Straw Bale Nature Center, create fantasies at Adventure Playground or join the Cal Sailing Club. Out on the Public Fishing Pier, catch dinner or stroll the length savoring brisk winds and expansive views, wander paved paths admiring water craft, then pop into the Marina Deli for a hot dog. On the northern boundary run your dog and watch the kites soar at Cesar Chavez Park. 

Follow the locals and sample their favorites, make them your own. You may soon find yourself a repeat customer, at home in Berkeley. 




UC Botanical Garden has plants native to different areas of the world. Photograph by Marta Yamamoto. 


Berkeley Bowl 

2020 Oregon St., 843-6929. 

9 a.m.–8 p.m.Monday–Saturday; 10 a.m.–6 p.m. Sunday. 


Berkeley Farmers Market 

Saturdays: 10 a.m.–2 p.m., Center Street above Martin Luther King. 

Tuesdays: 1–7 p.m., Derby at Martin Luther King. 

Thursdays: 3–7 p.m., Shattuck at Rose. 


The Cheeseboard 

1512 Shattuck Ave., 549-3055.  

Open Monday through Saturday. 


Brennan’s Restaurant 

720 University Ave., 841-0960. 

11 a.m.–9:30 p.m. Sunday– 

Wednesday; 11 a.m.–10:30 p.m. Thursday–Saturday. 


Juan’s Place 

941 Carleton St., 845-6904. 

11 a.m.–10 p.m. Monday–Friday; 2–10 p.m. Saturday, Sunday.  


Viks Chaat Corner 

724 Allston Way, 644-4412. 

11 a.m.–6 p.m. Tuesday–Sunday. 


Thai Buddhist Temple 

1911 Russell St, 849-3419. 

Sunday brunch, 9 a.m.–2 p.m. 


UC Botanical Garden 

200 Centennial Drive, 643-2755. 

Open every day, 9 a.m.–5 p.m. http://botanicalgarden.berkeley.edu. 


Tilden Regional Park 

Entrances off Wildcat Canyon Road and Grizzly Peak Blvd, 562-PARK. www.ebparks.org/parks/tilden.  


Berkeley Marina  

201 University Ave, 981-6740. www.ci.berkeley.ca.us/marina.