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Pick Your Berkeley Vibe & We'll Tell You Where to Find It

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Every week we'll be asking you to come with us to some of our favorite small towns and cities—and we'll show you the places, secret spots, and nooks we love. 

Today: Where to experience the collegiate, classy, culinary, and co-op sides of Berkeley.

Berkeley was a big deal in the 1960s. Berkeley has one of the top universities in the country. Berkeley is next to San Francisco—and Oakland. Berkeley is a lot of things, and to soak it in is to experience all its parts; they may seem disparate at first, but you'll find they do play off each other. Even the college spots revel in fresh produce, and even the libraries welcome the sunshine. 

There are certainly parts of Berkeley I would've liked to know better during my time there. The once-sleepy Gilman District in northwest Berkeley is abuzz since new coffee shops and restaurants (and a Whole Foods) have moved in, but studies were happening and a car was not. There are other new spots that I've heard good things about that've opened since I've been gone, like Tupper & Reed, but this list will give you a good start to know the city. Add to it in the comments—I'll be using your tips next time I visit.

For Berkeley’s free spirit:

(9/1/15 update: Sadly, after 40 years, Nabalom has closed.) Nabalom Collective Bakery: This collective isn’t afraid of butter (especially in their cheese danishes), but they also have really excellent vegan morning buns. And their chai is the best I’ve ever had. Its charm, though, is in how homespun everything feels: It has a beat-up piano and a hodge podge of furniture, and the person you're ordering from likely baked the pastry you're about to be very happy with.

The Cheese Board Collective: No trip to Berkeley is complete without a visit to Cheese Board, which serves one type of pizza and salad each day. While some days’ flavors are simple—tomato, cheese, pesto—others throw on in-season veg that’ll make you forget about margarita: Corn, pasilla chile, red onion, cilantro, and lime is one of the regulars. There’s a green sauce you’ll pour over each slice, and each order comes with a little extra sliver of pizza. Eat your pie in the parklet (a park that takes up part of the street) or the street median. It’s Berkeley, being its friendly, sunny self. Oh, and if that wasn't enough, their cheese shop and bakery next door is pretty great, too. 

More: The official cooperative bakery pastry of the Bay Area, according to Nicholas Day.

Urban Ore: This salvage yard (right across the street from Berkeley Bowl) has second-hand home goods and furniture that, on good days, are very good finds, but where the fun starts is with the stuff you may not immediately think you need: There are bits of building materials (think barn doors and windows, pieces of metal maybe from cars or signs) that get your DIY muscles flexing.

Lhasa Karnak Herb Company: The friendly staff helps you navigate the endless variety of bulk teas, herbs, and spices. And their tea blends are divine—especially the mint blend Northern Lights and the hibiscus-heavy Midnight Sun.


The Big Game bonfire at the Greek Theatre.

For soaking up sun (and midcentury architecture):

Greek TheatreThis amphitheater is set amongst trees towards the top of campus. You can catch good shows here, and, if the show sells out or you’re a college kid, you can hike above the amphitheater and sit on the hill near the parking lot for the free, “nosebleed” seats.

Maybeck's Rose Walk: Steps away from the Berkeley Rose Garden is a stairway lush with flora, benches, and cottages. It’s a 1910s urban planning project designed by Bernard Maybeck (a prolific Bay Area architect whose disciples included Julia Morgan and William Wurster; see below) for residents to walk through a landscaped pathway to get to their cable cars.

Greenwood Common: This private enclave of midcentury modern homes was envisioned by William Wurster, who co-founded the university’s college of Environmental Design as an experiment in building communities. There’s an open green space in the center of the homes that’s meant to provide privacy but also be functional for the collection of homes, each of which is designed by a noted modernist architect. The last two of the ten homes were never built, which means a stunning view of the bay can be found towards the west.

Common sights on the Berkeley campus.

UC Berkeley Campus: I’m going to refrain from giving you a route that you should follow through campus—because you should find your own. The campus is large and varied—from a eucalyptus grove to a grassy knoll with views of the bay to a walkway of people flyering and protesting. To experience the campus is to see it all, which is doable and encouraged. Go get lost and let me know what fascinating person or thing or view you find.


To pretend you’re a college kid again: 

SconehengeYou know when you're about to order breakfast and you can't decide if it's more of a pancake or omelet day? This is the place where you should order all of the things you're debating—that's what I always did, because each dish was the best version of itself—and then take a nap for the rest of the day. You must get the scones, their namesake, but their English muffins (and hash browns, bacon, and eggs) pulled me through many a soggy Saturday and Sunday.

Sliver: Some folks from Cheese Board decided to open their own pizza spot closer to campus. They also have one flavor a day; they also give you an extra sliver; they also have green sauce; their pizza is also very good (and very similar to Cheese Board’s). The experiential difference is there is a bar, a television playing a sports game, and pleather booths instead of a sunny parklet. Take your pick.

Inside this building (Doe Library), you'll find Morrison Library and North Reading Room.

Morrison Library and North Reading Room: Yes, go to the library. It’s beautiful! The Morrison Library, which opened in 1928 and is located inside Doe library, is full of overstuffed leather chairs and couches and walls lined with books. You’ll see some students reading and sleeping, and you’ll be able to imagine what school was like before computers. While you’re in Doe, head to the North Reading Room, which has all the grandeur you’d want from a long-established university, one you might find on the East Coast. You may forget you’re in California for a moment.


To be a little more posh, like going to San Francisco without crossing the bay:

Smitten Ice Cream: Before I tried Smitten, I thought their use of liquid nitrogen was a gimmick: It can’t possibly make ice cream that creamy. I was wrong. Each ice cream is made to order—billows of smoke coming from metal bowls—and the ice cream is the ideal consistency. Smitten isn’t resting on their nitrogen thing, either: The flavors are all well developed, with standbys like vanilla and salted caramel as well as a monthly special that highlights in-season fruit.

Comal: This might be the only place I traveled to from Oakland to grab a drink. The upscale Mexican restaurant has a spacious patio with fire pits and drinks that range from tequila flights to a spot-on margarita and riffs on a Paloma. There is food, too, but the cocktails are more memorable.

James Rowland: This tiny shop right off the more collegiate part of the iconic Berkeley street Telegraph has a well-curated selection of clothing, shoes, and jewelry—both new and vintage. I would often rummage through their $10 bin on the street on my way home from school and find some gems.


When you’re jazzed about everything you ate and ready to get in the kitchen:

Berkeley Bowl: This is unabashedly my favorite place in Berkeley—the Heinz location specifically. Berkeley Bowl is like the farmers market, Whole Foods, and Smart & Final rolled into one. Did you want an apple? Choose from fifteen kinds, both organic and non-organic. Scoop up a bunch of arugula from the bulk greens section and it might cost you $2. Did you want some obscure, Asian ingredient? It's there. Along with a whole kombucha section, butcher counter, fresh bread, and an olive bar, too. Whenever I went, which got to be daily at one point, I had to have a list to make sure I stayed on target and budget.

Vik’s Chaat: This Indian food hall’s menu is completely overwhelming, but even if you stick to the lunch specials, you’ll be happy and sated. The lunch specials come with vegetables, pickles, rice, and roti. Then, once you’re inspired to try your hand (again) at cooking Indian food, head to the grocery next store to pick up exotic produce, spices, and other Indian staples.

See all of our picks on the map below, and let us know what we missed in the comments! 

Photos courtesy of Creative Commons and Maryam Shamlou