This oft-repeated mantra for Berkeley rings true. As a destination it is sometimes overlooked, but should be on any list of Bay Area getaways. On a recent trip, my husband and I found Berkeley to be just as dynamic, unique and entertaining as ever.
BART is the calm, quick way to get there, especially on a Friday night. From San Francisco, it took 20 minutes to downtown Berkeley and the epicenter of the Arts District. One block from the station is the Hotel Shattuck Plaza.
Five Restaurant inside the Hotel Shattuck Plaza
The landmark property was built in 1910 in the Mission style and boasts being Berkeley’s first hotel. Now after a multimillion-dollar renovation, it is a modern boutique hotel in the middle of a vibrant neighborhood. The lobby leaves no doubt you’re in Berkeley — a marble peace symbol is embedded in the flooring. Just off the lobby, the restaurant Five has high ceilings, beautiful crown moldings and marble columns. Both the lobby and Five have stunning Murano glass chandeliers.
Many of the rooms, though some on the small side, have great views of San Francisco and the bay, the Golden Gate Bridge and the Berkeley hills. All are decked out with the latest high-tech gear including flat screens, high def and docking stations. They even have key-card-activated energy systems (part of a hotel-wide green focus). It’s tempting to kick back and relax, but Five, the happening bistro just an elevator ride away, proved too alluring for us to stay in our room.
The restaurant is named for the five senses. The menu features farm-fresh food, often from the nearby farmers’ markets. We began our culinary experience with a basil gimlet (really a couple — they are delicious). Next up: orzo mac ’n’ cheese. Served with chanterelle mushrooms and tomato jam, it’s easy to see why this is a house specialty. A seasonal salad and grilled halibut served with braised Swiss chard, celery root puree and hazelnut brown butter were full of flavor and texture.
Leaving the hotel, it was two blocks to the Berkeley Repertory Theatre. From its humble beginnings in a storefront, this extraordinary playhouse is now nationally recognized for its pioneering productions — five shows in the last five years alone have made their way to Broadway. Offering numerous plays throughout the season, the Berkeley Rep has helped to revitalize downtown and create a thriving arts district. After a terrific Tony Kushner play, we had a pleasant stroll back to the hotel.
Saul’s Deli is just one of many dining choices in Berkeley’s Gourmet Ghetto
Next morning, we took off for the Gourmet Ghetto. After a 20-minute walk north on Shattuck, you’ll find incredible culinary delights. In the Kitchen with Lisa tours provided an up-close and personal view that began at the original Peet’s Coffee & Tea. Opened in 1966, Peet’s helped start the coffee revolution by promoting quality and sustainable production. It’s a great place to start your day. From there it was cupcakes at Love at First Bite, crispy potato puffs at Gregoire’s, local pastrami with house-made soda at Saul’s Deli, bites of gorgeous chocolate art from Alegio, and a picnic at Epicurious Garden of local cheese from the Cheeseboard Collective. We finished at Vintage Berkeley, a water-pumping plant turned wine shop that caps its prices at $25/bottle.
The majestic Claremont Hotel in the Berkeley hills
Time to leave downtown and head for the Berkeley hills to check out the Claremont Hotel Club & Spa. This grande dame dates from 1915 and sits majestically at the edge of the Claremont Canyon Regional Preserve. The expansive property offers numerous ways to stay busy — or not. The updated rooms combine historic charm with the latest high-tech innovations, and are a comfortable place to hang out and enjoy the knockout bay views.
If activity is your thing, then play a few sets on one of the many tennis courts, join a fitness class, swim laps in one of the three outdoor pools, or take off hiking into the hills. And if pampering is on the agenda, the Spa Claremont has treatments, pools and saunas to help ease the tension of everyday life.
Either way you spend the afternoon, you’re guaranteed to work up an appetite. For dinner, we chose Meritage, the hotel’s inventive restaurant that puts a unique spin on food and wine. Local ingredients are a mainstay of the dinner menu created by executive chef Josh Thomsen. The seasonal fare (available in half and full portions) is creatively listed by wine type — sparklers, light-bodied whites, full-bodied whites, fruity reds, spicy/earthy reds, and full-bodied reds — with suggested wine pairings (available in three- and six-ounce pours).
A delicious pear tart tartin at the Claremont’s Meritage restaurant
In the sparklers category the Dungeness crab cake (chunks of pure crab) is ideal with J Cuvee 20. The seared sea scallop with a butter, white wine and truffle oil sauce is luscious with a 2007 Sanford Chardonnay. Pair both the cider-braised Kurobuta pork belly and the red bluff Kobe beef short ribs with a 2006 Chappellet Mountain Cuvee, and you’ll feel a rush of culinary delight. The Frog Hollow Farm’s market-fresh tart tartin is a must — fruit of the day (pears for us) served with sorbet and gelato (that day it was raspberry, mango and lemon). Revel in the room’s arches, columns, tall ceilings, and spectacular views. Luckily it’s only an elevator ride “home.”
In the morning, we took a five-minute walk down the hill to College Avenue and the Elmwood neighborhood. We headed straight to the novel Summer Kitchen for breakfast. The owners are environmentally responsible, focusing on sustainable ingredients locally sourced and fair-trade coffee; they even turn kitchen grease into biodiesel. Eat in or take out (join their Supper Club and don’t think about what’s for dinner) — either way, you’ll savor some of the best. We chose the herbed egg omelet sandwich with bacon and Blue Bottle coffee.
Time to return to San Francisco — only 12 miles away. With such a fun, interesting and delicious destination so close, don’t even think about staying home.
Berkeley, Calif.: 12 miles from downtown San Francisco — drive time depends on traffic. Via BART, about 20–30 minutes depending on time of day. www.bart.gov. Tourist Information: www.visitberkeley.com
Where to Stay & Eat
Hotel Shattuck Plaza: 2086 Allston Way, 866-466-9199, 510-845-7300, www.hotelshattuckplaza.com. Rooms from $139. Five: 510-225-6055, www.five-berkeley.com. Shares from $10, appetizers from $7, mains from $16.
The Claremont Hotel Club & Spa: 41 Tunnel Road, 888-234-7594, 510-549-8517, www.claremontresort.com. Rooms from $139 plus a $24 resort fee. Dogs under 35 pounds, one-time $99 fee.
Meritage: 510-549-8510, www.meritageclaremont.com. Half portions from $8, full portions from $14, three-ounce pours from $4, six-ounce pours from $8, desserts from $9.
Summer Kitchen + Bake Shop: 2944 College Avenue, 510-981-0538, www.summerkitchenbakeshop.com. Egg sandwich with bacon $6.50, coffee $2.50.
Berkeley Repertory Theater: 2025 Addison Street, 510-647-2900, www.berkeleyrep.org.
Gourmet Ghetto: www.gourmetghetto.org. Four blocks on Shattuck Avenue bordered by Delaware Street on the south and Rose Street on the north, including parts of Vine and Walnut Streets.
In the Kitchen with Lisa Tours: 415-806-5970, www.inthekitchenwithlisa.com. Tour $75.
Decléor Aroma Cleanse Facial Cleansing Wipes: 866-385-7917, www.decleordirect.com. A cleanser and make-up remover in one with natural aromas and ingredients, this is the perfect travel companion. Package of 25: $13.
Patty Burness is the travel writer for Northside San Francisco. E-mail: email@example.com