In any iconic group of three, one thing is bound to get overshadowed by the others. The lettuce in a BLT. The third Franco brother. Newton’s Second Law of Motion. In the trio that is San Francisco, Berkeley, and Oakland, it’s Berkeley that often gets ignored. San Francisco has ’60s counterculture and the tech industry. Oakland has incredible live music and post-’60s counterculture. Berkeley has a university and a reputation for protesting things like Panda Express. Why would you visit Berkeley when you’re so close to one of its bigger, cooler siblings?
But Berkeley actually has a lot going for it. Among other things, it’s home to some of the most famous food in the Bay Area - as well as lesser-known spots that are well worth a visit. Here’s our guide to all the Berkeley places you need to try.
You know how every third restaurant in the Bay Area says it serves “Californian cuisine”? You have Chez Panisse to thank for that. This restaurant started the whole let’s-use-local-produce thing back in the 1970s, and is still going strong. Chez Panisse is a prix-fixe situation that costs between $75 and $125 per person depending on the night, so it’s a great place to celebrate a special occasion. The menu changes a lot, but whatever you have will be fresh, seasonal, and excellent. It might not seem like an original concept anymore, but just remember that this is the place where it all started. And if you don’t want to do the full $100-ish menu, try eating at the cafe upstairs, where you can either order a la carte or do a less expensive daily menu.
When you tell people you’re visiting Berkeley, the first thing they usually say is, “You have to go to Cheese Board.” They’re not wrong. And before you start talking about wherever you’re from that does pizza better than Cheese Board, know that the people at Cheese Board are doing own thing, and they’re doing it very well. That thing is getting a bunch of the freshest vegetables at the farmer’s market every morning, then making one type of pizza with them until they run out of ingredients. Every day you’re getting something new (like lemon pizza, which is super good despite sounding like a sad dessert). The line is usually out the door, so if you don’t want to wait, you can always go to Sliver, their sister restaurant on Oxford. But you should go to Cheese Board at least once. And then, inevitably, many more times.
Some days, you want to feel like you’re in a Julia Roberts movie, stopping at a cute cafe in Bourdeaux on your journey to self-discovery. If you don’t want to travel any further than Berkeley to make that happen, just head to La Note. This traditional French spot on Shattuck does an excellent, fancy breakfast/brunch in a setting that feels like it’s in the middle of the French countryside, not next to an old mattress store. Given all that charm, there’s usually a wait on weekends, so the best plan is to go early - or eat here on a weekday when you don’t have to be fully awake later in the afternoon.
Angeline’s is a slightly fancy neighborhood spot that serves great New Orleans-style food. The menu is on the pricier side for the area, but once you’ve taken a bite of their fried chicken, you’ll understand why. This is a good date night restaurant, as long as you bring someone who won’t be weirded out when you get hot sauce all over your face, which will happen.
Gather is the type of place that’s mocked on Portlandia: everything is from a local farm (and they make sure you know it), they use a lot of recycled materials, and the building is, according to them, the greenest in Berkeley. All that might make you expect some sort of bland health food, but that’s not what’s going on here at all. The main attraction is actually the pizza, which is more like flatbread topped with fresh vegetables and meats. The space is bright and welcoming, and has an upscale but unpretentious feel. Come for dinner with your parents.
“Anarchist hot dog stand” might sound like the name of your college roommate’s punk band, but it’s also an accurate description of Top Dog, and it’s awesome. This place has two locations around the Cal campus, and for the full experience, you want to try the South Side location on Durant at about 1am. It’s the type of hole-in-the-wall spot where you’ll get yelled at if you don’t order quickly enough, so if you’re overwhelmed by the long menu, just get the bockwurst (our favorite). There’s also no line allowed, so just join the crowd of people fighting their way to the front - we were serious about the anarchy thing.
You know that saying, “The most popular person at the picnic is the person who brings the Gregoire potato puffs”? No? Maybe it hasn’t secured its place in our national vocabulary yet, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t true. Gregoire is a tiny, to-go picnic supply spot that does a bunch of great sandwiches, but its stars are the potato puffs, which are like tater tots but infinitely better. They’re crispy on the outside, creamy on the inside, and it’s technically impossible to order enough of them. Order ahead online, pick up as much food as you can carry, and enjoy a picnic with friends at Tilden park. Or in your living room.
This place on the border between Berkeley and Elmwood is the ideal neighborhood cafe: friendly and bright, with lots of seating and great food. It serves sandwiches, salads, and housemade sodas to a mix of students and families, and it’s a good spot to check out when you need to read or get work done and every other coffee shop smells like its inhabitants have been there for a few days now (around finals week, they probably have). It’s also great for brunch on a sunny morning. Sit outside and eat before taking a tour of the shops on College Avenue to walk off those poached eggs.
Between the Paperchase and the Crate and Barrel on 4th Street in West Berkeley is a stretch of town that feels like some kind of utopian experiment. You’ll find knick-knack shops, boutiques, and sidewalk cafes, all filled with happy people. And no matter when you visit, it’s always sunny. Where do people eat breakfast in this dream bubble of a world? Bette’s. The interior looks like Martha Stewart threw a diner-themed party in a beach cottage, so naturally the small space maintains a 45-minute wait right up until it closes at 3pm (the only glitch in 4th Street’s matrix: wait times). If you can be patient, though, you should - the food at Bette’s is stellar across the board, and they have plenty of great breakfast cocktails, too.
If Friends had been set in Berkeley, the patio at Jupiter would have been their Central Perk. This place serves fantastic local beers, pizzas, and bar snacks best consumed under the fairy lights and next to the fire pit in the giant outdoor seating area. There’s usually a band playing jazz or funk, and the crowd is always having a great time - it’s hard not to. Come with a group of friends when you want to have a long, relaxed hangout, and/or figure out which one of you is the Rachel.
Vik’s serves authentic Indian street food in a converted warehouse space in West Berkeley. You order at the counter and then eat at one of the food-court-style metal tables, so it’s a great option for a casual lunch or something to change up your normal dinner routine. Just know that whenever you go, there will probably be a line. Get the masala dosas and the lamb biryani and you’ll be glad you stuck out the wait.
Tomate Cafe is first and foremost a neighborhood spot, so it isn’t a place you’re likely to just stumble upon. It’s in a part of West Berkeley that’s half houses and half warehouses, so if you’re here, you came on purpose. Which you should, because it does one of the best breakfasts in town. Order at the counter (get the Harvest Breakfast, which comes with fried apples and delicious zucchini potato cakes), then sit out on the patio if it’s warm enough, or grab a table inside. You’ll probably end up next to a family and an old guy doing the crossword, which makes for the perfect laid-back breakfast situation.
If you want yakitori in the East Bay, go to Ippuku as soon as it opens at 5pm and order as many of the Japanese grilled skewers as you can. The space is small and casual, and you might smell like smoke for a few days after eating here, but the food is great. You can play things safe and get fried chicken, but you should order some of the more interesting skewers, too - like chicken cartilage or bacon mochi. Take your closest friends and spend three hours drinking sake and trying foods you didn’t even know you could get in Berkeley.
Everyone once in a while you stumble across a band you love, and can’t believe more people aren’t talking about. That’s how we feel about Lalime’s, a neighborhood restaurant in North Berkeley with a cozy atmosphere, a solid wine list, and a constantly changing, mostly French menu. It’s not trying to be trendy at all, it’s filled with locals, and you won’t have trouble making a reservation. We’re not sure why it isn’t more popular, but we’re also not complaining. It’s nice to have a spot you can always get into.
Comal is not the kind of Mexican place you visit to stress-eat a burrito after a bad day. It’s where you take your best friends to throw down for a night of fancy cocktails and excellent food. There’s a big, sunny patio, a huge list of tequilas and mezcals, and some solid, albeit expensive, tacos. The crowd consists mostly of people who are about to go see a show at one of the Berkeley theaters, and groups of friends having a few too many margaritas. If you don’t want to pay $13 for two tacos, it’s still worth a trip for drinks before dinner somewhere else.
Here’s where you go to stress-eat a burrito after a bad day. La Mission is a small, colorful spot on University doing big-plate Mexican food incredibly well. Portions are huge, everything is covered in delicious sauces, and there are enough vegetarian-friendly options to keep everyone in your group happy. Seating is limited and this place can get busy, so taking your meal to-go is always a good option - but if you do want to eat in, try to grab a seat on the patio. Wherever you eat it, get the lamb burrito.
If you’re having a rough morning, do yourself a favor: peel yourself off your bed and make your way to Pho K&K on Telegraph. This very casual pho spot is basically designed for your hangover, serving huge bowls of salty, meaty broth and lots of hot sauce to give you back those electrolytes (or whatever soup does to get rid of that about-to-die feeling). It’s also a great spot for a casual, non-hungover dinner with friends, since there’s rarely a wait, it’s super central, and you can focus even more on the food when you don’t have a pounding headache and a bunch of embarrassing text messages to delete.
There’s a food court on Durant filled with cheap, late-night options mostly aimed at students who have yet to think about things like salt intake or eating vegetables. And among the myriad mediocre options there, you’ll find our favorite Thai restaurant in Berkeley: Thai Basil. It’s super casual, with servers who aren’t interested in questions or special requests, and the food is really good. The space is big, too, and it’s usually easy to get a seat, mostly because everyone is taking their food back to their dorm room. Get the pad thai or the basil fried rice.
It’s not exactly simple to get a pizza from Emilia’s. This tiny, easily-missed spot on Shattuck and Ashby has a whole list of rules for customers to follow (for example, you have to call starting at 4pm to order and reserve your table). Not all complicated, out-of-the-way spots are worth the effort, but the NYC-style pizza here is phenomenal and some of our favorite in the whole Bay Area. Order the margherita.