From Chez Panisse to the best Indonesian food in town.
When I first moved to Berkeley in 2012 as an incoming freshman at the University of California-Berkeley, the area's thriving food scene was what I was most excited to explore. From the iconic Chez Panisse restaurant (the birthplace of the farm-to-table movement) in North Berkeley's Gourmet Ghetto to the cafés and no-frills lunch spots on Telegraph Avenue just off Berkeley's south campus, there was so much to do and eat.
In the beginning, I stayed pretty close to my dorm, only sometimes daring to venture outside the campus' perimeter. But as I grew into a more confident upperclassman (with a car, to boot), I took advantage of every bite (and eventually, sip) that Berkeley had to offer. Yes, I crossed Chez Panisse off of my culinary bucket list (with my parents, obviously), but I also discovered dozens of restaurants, diners, and bakeries that I would come back to far more regularly as a student (and visit every time I make a trip back to Berkeley).
This list is by no means definitive. But it's a good starting point for anyone visiting the area for the first time, be it for a prospective college visit or weekend trip from San Francisco. Here are just 10 of my favorite food destinations in Berkeley, California:
While you won't find an actual view of the ocean at this beloved Berkeley institution, you will find the absolute best breakfast in town. No contest. Every time I go, I order the scrambled eggs (buttery and perfectly runny) with lox, which comes with your choice of bagel (onion, obviously) and crispy fried potatoes doused in sour cream; my boyfriend, a vegetarian, only ever orders the herb and cheese omelet with a doughnut muffin on the side.
This retro-style diner is also known for its fluffy soufflé pancakes and poached eggs served with scrapple (a heavenly blend of pork scraps and trimmings, similar to spam)—both were featured on Guy Fieri's Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives. On the weekends, prepare to put your name down with Manfred, the owner, and wait awhile (it's worth it). In the meantime, stroll down Fourth Street and explore the area's charming shops, like Aiken boutique and the Cactus Jungle Nursery.
Across the street from Berkeley's most famous restaurant, Chez Panisse (more on that in a second), sits another local institution: The Cheese Board Collective. A worker-owned collective since 1971, this bustling cheese shop, bakery, and pizza joint is a favorite of neighborhood residents, students, and visitors alike (it's never not busy).
Their pastries, bread, and cheese selection is excellent, but I go back again and again for their pizza; the ever-changing menu features only one pie per day, and it's always vegetarian. My favorite is the eggplant parmesan, but all of their combos are fresh-tasting and delicious. No matter which pie they're serving that night, don't forget to drizzle their famous spicy "green sauce" (it's kind of like chimichurri, only way better) on top. Oh, and pretty much always expect a line, but don't worry, it moves quickly.
Dinner at Chez Panisse, Alice Waters' famed farm-to-table restaurant, is a Berkeley rite of passage and an absolute must-visit if you're in the area. Everything served at Chez Panisse, which recently made an appearance in Samin Nosrat's new Netflix series, is locally grown, organic, and sustainably harvested. The restaurant's main downstairs dining room offers a pre-fixe menu that changes throughout the week (dinners at the beginning of the week tend to feature more rustic fare, while weekend menus are more elaborate), but I love sitting in the upstairs café; it's somewhat more casual and offers á la carte options that are a bit friendlier to a college student's budget.
Some of my favorite food memories of living in Berkeley were making weekly trips to the farmers market, where I'd scoop up bags of locally grown vegetables, fruits, fresh-baked breads (if you come across a vendor selling olive bread, pick up a loaf), and cheeses. Most of the time, I'd let whatever I'd find at the market inspire dinner—a rustic ratatouille, summer squash pasta, or a simple tomato and herb sandwich—but if you're just stopping through town, it's a great place to grab a snack or light bite.
This no-frills Indonesian spot is located a short walk from campus down University Avenue. Their long and very affordable menu is only part of the reason I loved it so much in college, but I always order the same thing: mie tek-tek, a spicy, veggie-loaded noodle dish toped with a fried egg; and the oseng oseng tempe, crispy tempe fried in a sticky, tangy tomato sauce and tossed with green beans.
If you're not feeling Indonesian, right next door is another student favorite, Platano, which specializes in Salvadoran pupusas (thick corn tortillas stuffed with meats and cheese).
For a fancy dinner spot, Wood Tavern is your best bet. Okay, it's not technically in Berkeley (it's in nearby Oakland's charming Rockridge District) but it's worth the very short drive it takes to get there. The California-inspired menu includes a cheese and charcuterie plate that is to die for (don't skip the whiskey laced chicken liver pate), a rotating selection of seasonal dishes, and a massive, juicy double-grilled pork chop, this quaint-yet-elegant spot is great for a date night or special occasion evening.
Even though California is known for year-round perfect weather, it occasionally does get hot enough for a scoop (or three) of ice cream. If you find yourself craving something sweet and refreshing, make a pit stop at Ici; they have two locations in Berkeley. Each day, this artisanal ice cream shop serves up eight to 10 different flavors of homemade, small-batch ice cream. Flavors change daily, but a few of my favorites include Earl Grey and candied Meyer lemon. Make sure you get yours scooped onto one of their hand-rolled cones, which have a chunk of dark chocolate waiting to bite into at the very bottom.
It's not hard to find a good loaf of bread in this town, but there's a reason people line up around the block for Acme Bread. It supplies loaves to Chez Panisse (so you know it's good). You'll find many offerings here (pan au levain, olive bread, challah, and herb loaves), but you can't miss their San Francisco Sourdough, made with naturally-occurring wild yeast starters. Grab it in a baguette, batard, or round, pick up a few different cheeses from Cheese Board, and have yourself a picnic on the Berkeley campus' Memorial Glade lawn.
Berkeley is a college town (go Bears!), and the area's bars are packed with college students. Whether you're in town for a football game or on vacation, Triple Rock Brewing is a great place to grab beer and bar bites, like burgers and a cheesy artichoke dip.
You can't go wrong with a pick from their list of house beers, which currently includes a Gold Pines IPA and English-style Oatmeal Stout, but this brewpub is most well-known for their Monkey Head beer. Only served on Thursday nights, this classic Arboreal Ale (a whopping 8.5%) is a favorite among students, so if you do happen to swing by on a Thursday, expect crowds and a wait. If you're looking for some more drinking options, a few other solid bars in the area include Henry's, Pacific Standard, and Jupiter.
Berkeley might be best known for its food, but there's no shortage of legit cocktail bars, either. One of my favorites near campus is East Bay Spice Company, a cozy, candlelit restaurant and bar serving up Indian street food and creative cocktails. If you're willing to venture out a bit further, Prizefighteris one of the best bars in the entire East Bay; I'm a sucker for their Tequila Honey Bee cocktail, a sweet-tart mix of tequila, mezcal, lemon, and honey.
Do you have any favorite food spots in Berkeley, CA? Tell us in the comments below!