Berkeley: Cali cuisine at its finest

By Jesse Mulligan

The discovery of the Bay Area's vast foodie haven lights a fire in Jesse Mulligan.
Comal restaurant in Berkeley. Photo / Charlie Villyard
Comal restaurant in Berkeley. Photo / Charlie Villyard

It's Sunday morning, and the city of Berkeley is hungover. The university clock tower just rang nine times but the students living nearby have clearly learned to block out the sound of the bell. The streets are almost empty. My Uber app shows only one driver working the whole city.

Yesterday was a home game for the university football team and things were quite different. We checked in at the normally quiet Hotel Durant and the lobby was full of happy, noisy people wearing blue and yellow in support of the home team, the California Bears. The streets were filling quickly too.

I'd arrived, as always, to write about the food but on a whim got tickets for the football, and it was incredible: all the fun of a 60,000-seat stadium fixture enriched with the tradition, ceremony and team loyalty often missing from Kiwi (particularly Auckland) sport.

I saw frat houses heaving with daytime balcony parties, a 200-piece marching band play the Game of Thrones theme, and an entire block of the stadium - maybe 1500 people - acting as one costumed cheer team, on their feet for the entire three-hour contest.

And then there was the game, much more thrilling that you might expect if you've only ever browsed the Super Bowl on television.

Football or not, it's well worth adding a couple of nights in Berkeley the next time you fly into San Francisco. A clean, safe, college town with a proud history of ideas, protest and dissent, the Berkeley of today has shaken off some of the hippie but remains a friendly and beautiful place to visit. Their slogan is "come for the culture, stay for the food".

So how about that food? Well, I'll start you off with hotdogs from Top Dog, right next to the Durant with a special pop-up tent and table full of condiments on game day so you can get stuffed for $5.30 on the way to the match.

California is known for great Mexican but you should aim to eat where the quality of produce has caught up with other cuisines. Comal is truly incredible, a busy, buzzy room with a huge back patio and an open kitchen serving some of the best food I ate in the Bay Area. The whole menu is great, but don't miss the sikil pak dip, a moreish combo of toasted pumpkin seeds and eggplant. This restaurant should be high on your list, especially if you like tequila-based cocktails.

Sister restaurant The Advocate is also exceptional. Try the incredible woodfired flatbread, our one topped with squash flowers and feta. The skillet-squashed chicken was a thing of beauty, served with late-summer vegetables, harissa and young ginger-grapefruit relish. The restaurant is in the upmarket Elmswood suburb - you can browse shops before and sometimes after dinner, or join the locals queuing for late-night Ici icecream.

The Mission Heirloom does good brunch, despite heavy use of the dreaded "paleo" word. Ingredients are whole, intelligent, but hardly worthy - their specialty is chicken with waffles, and it's worth a visit for that dish alone, eaten in a light, quiet courtyard among the greenery.

No Berkeley food guide is complete without an ode to Alice Waters' Chez Panisse, the restaurant that changed American cooking forever with its emphasis on seasonal produce and ingredient-led cooking. The restaurant is traditionally difficult to get a reservation for but, as one ageing local said to me, "it's easier to get a table now that they've opened the cafe upstairs as well".

That cafe opened in 1980.

The food is still very good at Chez Panisse but if you screw up your booking you may want to lick your wounds at Tiger Lily next door, where the Indian-spiced menu of North Californian seasonal ingredients is refreshingly different from anything else in town. They have a ceiling-high stack of brining vegetables near the kitchen: "for next year's pickle plate", says the waiter.

Outside of the restaurants there are many inspiring food and drink businesses in the city, a lot of them on and around Fourth St in West Berkeley. Artis is the best place to buy New Zealand-standard coffee, and Takara Sake offers tastings at its factory door, as do a couple of local beer brewers.

But the most inspiring discovery for me was Cultured Pickle Shop.

I dropped in and talked with the owner for almost an hour as he took me through their pioneering range of pickles, ferments and cultured drinks, all handmade with love in an up-and-coming part of town (they even upcycle discarded lees from the sake factory).

The political fire may have died down in Berkeley over the past 40 years, but there's still plenty of passion elsewhere, so long as you know where to look.



Hawaiian Airlines flies three times a week from Auckland to San Francisco with regular Economy Class return fares starting from $1795.


Hotel Durant is at 2600 Durant Ave, Berkeley.


- NZ Herald

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