Weekend Escape: Berkeley : Food Quest : A mini-mall crawl through some of the city’s best eateries
At a party a few years ago, a couple cornered me and excitedly told me of their upcoming vacation plans. They were going to that huge Mall of America in Minnesota. I asked questions and listened, all the while thinking how pitiful it was. All the great places in the world to vacation--New York, Paris, Yosemite--and they were going to a mall.
Still, I have to admit, there is one mall of sorts that I would center my vacation around. It is America’s greatest mini-mall: the three-store complex in Berkeley that houses the Acme Bakery, Cafe Fanny and Kermit Lynch Wine Merchant. Recently, my girlfriend, Carmen, and I spent a weekend in Berkeley, and much of it centered around this grand trio of a mini-mall.
We took off from Los Angeles on a Friday and buzzed up the convenient monotony of Interstate 5. Six hours later we pulled into the parking lot of my favorite Berkeley digs: the Golden Bear Motel, which is ideally located across the street from the mini-mall.
I stumbled upon the Golden Bear four years ago when I needed a place to crash for the night and noticed it in the American Automobile Assn. travel guide. I was informed then that the motel was booked up, yet when I turned to leave, the clerk said they did have a cottage in the back available. I took a look and wound up staying a week.
The cottages, actually small 1930’s era homes with two bedrooms, carpeted living room, full, albeit linoleum-covered kitchen, dining room and bath, rent for $69 a night. The furnishings are very simple, nothing fancy, mind you, but they have a certain quaintness and the price is right. Be sure to reserve in advance, because there are just two and they are often booked. A third, modernized cottage rents for $125.
We unpacked, relaxed for a while, then took a spin through town. First stop was Andronico’s market on Shattuck Avenue, where tops on the shopping list was a quart of the Castle Creamery’s bottled milk with an inch of real cream on top. The store stocks Acme bread, but I like to buy it at the bakery and because I planned to be first in line the next morning, I didn’t buy any. This would prove to be my worst decision of the trip.
Next, we went to the Cheese Board, the Bay Area’s premier cheese stop with over 300 varieties. The friendly and knowledgeable staff insist on customers trying samples before buying. Reject 10 samples? No problem. We picked up a few, the highlight being a luscious L’Edel de Cleron, a very runny, creamy, flavorful cow’s milk cheese aged in fruit tree bark. A quick stop at Kermit Lynch for a bottle of Gigondas, a red from the southern Rho^ne, and we headed to our cottage for a delightful repast. The first thing I tried was the milk, getting a delicious mixture of milk and rich globs of pure cream on that first glorious sip.
A while later, we walked across the street to the mini-mall for a closer look at the selections at Kermit Lynch. Lynch, who spends six months a year in France, is renowned for seeking out small producers of unfiltered wines with gobs of character. He also carries big name wines too, most notably those of the legendary Alsatian winery Domaine Zind-Humbrecht.
Friday night’s dinner was at Rivoli on Solano Avenue, two miles from our cottage.
My interest in fine dining was sparked at age 12 when I began reading travel books to find the top restaurants for my father to dine in during his business trips. My girlfriend shares my passion for food and wine, and we’ve been fortunate to have dined at most of the Bay Area’s best restaurants, but on this trip we planned to eat at places we’d never been before.
Rivoli’s main dining room looks out onto a charming garden. We started with duck rillette and portabello fritters with lemon aioli, and moved on to grilled pork tenderloin and a outstanding Moroccan-influenced braised lamb stew with figs, olives, preserved lemons and chickpeas. From the interesting wine list, we chose a Bandol from Domaine Tempier in Provence.
Saturday morning, we were in the parking lot of the mini-mall by 7:30, and though Acme and Fanny don’t open until 8, the place still seemed eerily quiet. We took a walk up a block and into Erfani Floral Studio. The shop was full of exotic flowers, and the door was open, but it was dark inside. The owner explained there was a small power failure in the area.
Back at the mini-mall, I didn’t want to believe what I saw on the door of the bakery. A sign on the closed front door: “No electricity, no bread.” Evidently, an inconsiderate driver had slammed into a utility pole, causing a dent in my vacation plans. Since Acme is closed on Sunday, the trip would not have the densely textured, delicious breads of the Acme Bakery, which to me, is the only rival in the state to L.A.'s La Brea Bakery. Fortunately, Cafe Fanny, Alice Waters’ breakfast and lunch spot named for her daughter, was functioning. We savoured big bowls of cafe au lait and two farm fresh eggs on toast.
Back at home, we plotted the day’s activities, much of which would center around our own walking tour of the university. Before that, we had lunch at Vik’s Chaat House. To get to the Chaat House, one enters Allston Way through a small warehouse (Vik’s Distributors) full of Indian food stuffs: aromatic Indian spices, bags of basmati rice, tins of exotic teas and lit incense. In the back is the tiny restaurant, with a few card tables and chairs. The place was teaming with people ordering a variety of Indian snacks. We had lentil dumplings covered with yogurt, tamarind and mint chutney; potato patties with a garbanzo curry, and a large, savory pastry filled with ground lamb and onions. Total bill: $8.66.
That evening we drove over to 4th Street, where between Hearst Avenue and Virginia Street is a shining example of urban renewal. Where empty warehouses once stood are restaurants, coffee shops and clothing stores. Ginger Island, a popular Southeast Asian restaurant, was a little too noisy, and though the food was interesting, especially a salmon satay with a lime vinegrette, the highlight was the bottle of Gewurztraminer we brought along.
The next morning, we walked a mile back to 4th Street for breakfast at the popular Bette’s Ocean View Diner (no ocean view). It is the classic little diner: shiny chrome, jukebox, checkerboard floor, and red booths and stools with miniature trains circling above. As is the norm, we waited half an hour, mingling with tourists and locals who pack Bette’s daily for the high-quality breakfasts.
We walked leisurely back along San Pablo Avenue, pausing a block from the mini-mall to browse through Erica Tanov, a boutique that sells exquisite robes and pajamas. I wished I had $600 to buy my girlfriend the most sumptuous silk-charmeuse-lined black velvet robe I have ever seen.
Before we left town, it was time for one last taste, at Picante, a large, upscale taqueria run by the man who manages Cafe Fanny. We split an order of good homemade chorizo tacos.
As you can see, this trip consisted primarily of eating, drinking, walking, relaxing, and a touch of culture and history. To us, that’s a good vacation.
Hey, anyone wanna go to the mall?
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Budget for Two
Golden Bear Motel,2 nights: $138.00
Dinner, Rivoli: $92.63
Breakfast, Cafe Fanny: $10.30
Lunch, Chaat House: $8.66
Dinner, Ginger Island: $74.00
Breakfast, Bette’s Ocean View: $16.00
Lunch, Picante: $4.06
2 bottles wine, Kermit Lynch: $42.52
FINAL TAB: $478.44
Golden Bear Motel, 1620 San Pablo Ave., Berkeley 90402; tel. (510) 525-6770.