by Mary Corbin / Illustration by Aaron Alvarez
The Bold Italic – March 2018
My neighborhood feels like a small town some days and a cultural mecca every day. It’s one of the best-known neighborhoods in Berkeley. For 50 years, it was referred to as the Gourmet Ghetto.
As its former name hints, this area is famous for its groundbreakers in the culinary realm. In 1971, Alice Waters opened her iconic restaurant on Shattuck and Cedar, Chez Panisse, the birthplace of the West Coast farm-to-table, slow-food movement. The original Peet’s Coffee is here, too. However, the moniker that became attached to the neighborhood decades ago is no more — in September 2019, the North Shattuck Association moved to drop it due to the insensitive “ghetto” reference. The neighborhood banners came down.
I moved to this neighborhood slightly more than a decade ago, when my husband and I decided we wanted to be in a more walkable neighborhood after living in the hills. We found the perfect unit, located in the most unique building on the block, a cross between a Victorian and the Alamo.
So much lies mere footsteps from our apartment: major bus lines (including a commuter to San Francisco) and BART 15 minutes by foot, but even better: a cinema, grocery stores, the theater district, music venues, shopping, parks, and two libraries. Most important, it’s home to some of the best food in the Bay Area.
It is no longer the Gourmet Ghetto, but this is absolutely a great place for a gourmand. My personal favorite, the Cheeseboard Collective, a worker-owned pizza and pastry operation, has the best baked goods in Berkeley. A hunky loaf of City bread paired with something exotic from its vast cheese counter is bliss. In the evening, the line curls around the block for the pizza of the day and never once deters me. The operation is so efficient that the wait is never long, and with daily live music and curbside seating, it’s the best people-watching corner money can buy.
If the Cheeseboard gets old — though it never does — there are lots of other options. Once a month, my sister meets me for lunch at Saul’s Deli, a historic Jewish delicatessen straight out of Brooklyn. The building was home to a produce depot right off the railroad tracks in the 1930s until it turned into a deli in the 1950s. Later, in 1985, Saul and Ginny Lichtenstein opened up Saul’s, dishing out latkes, blintzes, babkas, brisket, schnitzel, and gefilte fish to locals. A plate of pickles arrives first on the table at lunch, and an occasional live klezmer band has been known to set up during dinner.
While people come from all over the world to dine at Chez Panisse — where reservations must be booked far in advance — the upstairs café is less well-known. More casual and affordable, it’s a great place to sit at the bar and enjoy a glass of wine and a pizza on a slower evening.
A good stretch of Shattuck Avenue through North Berkeley offers up many other options: Spanish tapas at Cesar, a cocktail to wash down Indian fusion at Tigerlily, or a Sicilian meal while an old movie plays at Agrodolce Osteria.
Every Thursday from 2:00 to 7:00, the North Berkeley Farmers Market takes place in the parking strip in front of Saul’s. It’s not as big as the Saturday market in town, but when it bursts forth during peach and strawberry season, I’m in heaven. Vendors selling bread, olives, tamales, and hand-churned ice cream fill out the roster of organic farm stands. Local bluegrass pickers find a spot to busk and serenade shoppers, who include Cal students; moms fresh from school pickup, children in tow, grabbing items for dinner; friends meeting up for a chat; and chefs in aprons from local kitchens culling the goods in earnest.
Even though my neighborhood is most famous for its culinary feats, its best feature is arguably the parks. Climbers hang at Indian Rock, nestled into a slope in the Berkeley Hills. Students and romantics meet at the Rose Garden for sunsets. Codornices Park is heaven for local kids, who line up with sheets of cardboard to head down the one-of-a-kind concrete slide from the upper hillside to the playground. Then there’s Hinkle Park, which offers summer theater productions in an old stone amphitheater surrounded by tiered walkways under a stunning canopy of trees. Live Oak Park is a sweet community gathering spot with an art center, picnic areas, and a gorgeous creek running through it.
Walking in this neighborhood is its own activity. An intricate network of private pathways and staircases tucked in between houses takes you up into the hills under an arbor of flowering trees and birdsong. While strolling up an interminably long staircase one afternoon, I discovered the former home and studio of photographer Dorothea Lange and a hidden gushing waterfall through a nearly invisible gate. For tougher exercise, I bike into the hills for world-class road cycling with mind-blowing views of the bay, or I mountain bike into Tilden Park. I’m out my door and under the shade of redwood, eucalyptus, and oak trees in 20 minutes.
History surrounds me on my block. My neighbors around the corner include movers and shakers Wavy Gravy, Country Joe McDonald, Robert Reich, and Michael Pollan. Over the years, people have offered up tales of my historic building: It was once a boarding house for railroad workers, then an acid-dropping haven for hippies in the 1960s, and a respite for Thich Nhat Hanh during a lecture circuit. Even Alice Waters herself apparently once lived in my very apartment just before opening Chez Panisse.
My building and the neighborhood ooze a soulful goo that is solely and uniquely Berkeley. What makes this neighborhood even more special to me is that my parents lived here for more than a decade before I was born. Both New Yorkers, they moved to California in the 1950s. I know they attended the Mission-style church across the street from my apartment, and when my father passed away unexpectedly in 2012, I wandered in for the first and only time to find solace in a place that once gave him the same.
When I first moved to Berkeley in the early 1980s, this was the neighborhood I always wanted to be in, though it was an impossible get for a struggling art student with not much money and few connections. After living all over the East Bay, it took me 27 years to finally land here, and it will always feel like home.