Named after the 18th-century Irish bishop and philosopher, George Berkeley, this lovely college town is located on the eastern shore of the San Francisco Bay.
Home to the oldest of the University of California campuses, Berkeley is considered one of the most socially liberal cities in the United States, home to the Civil Rights Movement, the Free Speech Movement, and the Vietnam War protests. All of these needed great food in the area, and the best Berkely restaurants have only gotten better.
Having survived the Great San Francisco earthquake of 1906, Berkeley’s leisurely growth blossomed as it became a refuge to one of the largest art colonies west of Chicago. Rapid growth continued until the Crash of 1929, which hit the city hard but perhaps less so thanks to UC – Berkeley’s presence. Big growth returned with World War II when droves moved to the Bay Area to work in the war industries, including UC Professor, J. Robert Oppenheimer, a long-time Berkeley resident.
The 1960s is, perhaps, the most strongly identified with Berkeley – civic unrest, political upheaval, and the hippie movement.
The number of distinct neighborhoods gives rise to different restaurant areas.
West of UC’s campus in Downtown Berkeley, home to the civic center and the busiest BART station. South of the campus is Southside, known for its student housing. The busiest stretch of Telegraph Avenue traverses this neighborhood. North of the campus is the calmer Northside neighborhood, with parks (especially the expansive Tilden Park) above it. And the Northside is nicknamed “Gourmet Ghetto” because of all the well-known, fine dining restaurants and food-related businesses.
A few miles away, you’ll find collections of restaurants, like these on 4th Street, with shopping and the ever-necessary computer store.
Known as a major food hub with a variety of ethnic restaurants, Berkeley remains a center of art, music, and literature with its festivals, concerts, theaters, and bookstores.
My journeys took me to Berkeley for the Apple Store. So, many of my first foodie experiences were at the Fourth Street Shops. They’re perfectly clustered to allow you to eat tapas-style – a little something for you alone, or to share with a group, in your own personal café crawl.
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The 10 Best Berkeley Restaurants
1782 Fourth St // +15105255160
This taqueria is named after the neighborhood in Mexico City where famed architect Luis Barragan lived. The owners were drawn to the “purity and simplicity, respectful of tradition that Barragan’s modern architecture represented” and they pay respect, if not tribute, to traditional dishes.
The menu is packed with simple, exquisitely tasting items.
Here for breakfast? Check out the Desayuno offerings. From Chorizo and Eggs, served with black beans, or Huevos Divorciados, to Chilaquiles, Torta de Jamon, Revueltos Nortenos, you can even find tripe with hominy if you’re so inclined.
Oh, and for the kids? Quesadillas or a scramble are readily available.
You’ll definitely want to try something from the seasonal menu, especially if you’re able to come back often. When I was there, they had quesadillas, rellena, corn de verdura, ceviche, and plantains. The plantains reminded me very much of what I’d had in Belize – served with their housemade crema … delicious!
But sometimes, you’ll need a little longer to decide on your main meal or want to use this as a stop in your pub crawl, so I jotted down the Bebidas options for you. Their cocktails included a margarita especial, La Dona (tres agave anejo), Strawberry Mezcal Margarita, and Paloma Mezcal, Bloody Maria (tequila instead of vodka), Olla Borracho (hot coffee with tres agave tequila), mimosas, and several options of wine, sangria, and cerveza.
For the non-alcoholic versions, check out the “Refrescos” section of the menu with waters and sodas, iced coffee, coffee, cappuccinos and lattes, a Mexican Hot Chocolate, orange juice, and grapefruit juice, as well as hot tea.
And then, continue to the main event. Served from 11 am to 9 pm daily, their tacos allow you to choose between asada, al pastor, lengua, pescado, pollo, and vegetarian.
Since their fish is battered, I went with the pollo, a crispy taco shell, stuffed with chicken, sufficient cheese, and light cucumber salsa and cilantro that was both refreshing and filling. Utterly delicious.
People nearby had ordered from the Almerzo/ Cena section – the Torta Al Pastor, a roasted pork sandwich with pinto beans, grilled onions, avocado, aioli, cabbage, and toasted bolillo. They said the bolillo, like a Cuban roll, made it the best they’d had.
Other offerings include Torta Vegetariana, Pork Tamale and Mole, Frijoles con todo, Sopa de Tortilla and Ensalada Primavera (in whole or half portions).
Enchiladas (beef or chicken) and Sope de Chorizo y Papas are also available.
As side dishes, your choices include Frijoles Negros, Frijoles Pintos, Arroz, Papas con Crema, Guacomole y Totopos, Salsa y Totopos, Tortillas.
And for dessert (postres), cookies, Mexican Chocolate Cake, Flan or Churros.
With so many options, great service, and so many happy, smiling people around me at this casual counter-service restaurant, I’ll be back my next time to visit this superb Mexican restaurant in Berkeley.
1786 Fourth Street // +15102506004
This eatery reminded me of my time spent in Cork’s English Market. You can find things for right now, or for the next day. The food is made fresh daily, from wholesome ingredients, most locally sourced, and can be ordered in advance or at the counter.
Here, they have a cheese counter with more cheeses than I could count, an incredible selection of fruity, bitter, or pungent olive oils, fresh pasta, and a selection of chocolates if you’re so inclined.
The breakfast pastries, cakes, pies, cookies, bread, and pizzas are all made right here at the on-site bakery. You can’t get fresher than that.
But, on to the eating. Everyday favorites include salads, sandwiches, fresh pasta, soups, cakes, cookies, and other baked treats.
The soups of the day included black bean chili and Hot & Sour soup (too bad my daughter wasn’t with me).
Today, I found the Tuna Melt, Falafel, Cubano, and Italian looking appetizing, but not quite so much as the fried chicken. A fried chicken breast with bacon, provolone, arugula, thyme aioli, avocado, and tomato, it’s served on a sourdough baguette (which you can switch out for a deli sweet roll or ciabatta roll if you’re so inclined).
Other offerings in the sandwich category include Caprese with Prosciutto, Grilled Chicken Pesto, and a Grilled Turkey Club (I want to have that next time I’m here – the person after me ordered it and it smelled divine).
Whether you’re celebrating High Holy Days, trying to control an unruly mob at home, tired of cooking, or need a break from shopping or work, it’s a great place to stop for food you’d be happy to have confused as made by you.
1788 Fourth Street // +15105294548
In the old Market Plaza building, you’ll find the Pizzeria with the entrance to the right, but feel free to go into the Vino section to the left first and find the perfect pairing for what you are about to receive. If you haven’t checked out the menu before you go, you can always order, then go back and choose the wine if you’d like.
They tell you straight away how the COVID-19 pandemic changed their business. They now serve their traditional Roman-style pizza al taglio in a variety of three different sizes; ¼ pie (good for one person), ½ (good for two or three people), or full pie (good for four or five people).
Despite the many offerings, the outlay of choices of squared sections of pizza made this a no-brainer – cheese pizza for me. They warm it fresh or, if you’d like an entire pizza, can make it as you wait.
Having preferred New York-style pizza most of my life, this squared version was an interesting contradiction. The cheese was clearly fresh, the tomato sauce delicious and perfectly spiced, yet the crust was raised, perhaps a half-inch and layers within it delineated – the air bubbles in the dough created a crunch within a crunch with some smoothness in between. I’ve tried (but failed) to explain it any better. The texture is different but definitely pleasing.
Other options on their menu include Suppli Classico and Crocchetta, gem lettuces, arugula, farro, Ceci (chickpea salad)), Porchetta or Mortadello Sandwiches, and Tiramisu for dessert.
Their pizzas include Diavola (spicy salami), Prosciutto, Sausage, Amatriciana, Meatball Parmesan, Nduja (leek, mushroom, straciatella with a spicy spreadable pork salame), Margherita, Cacio e Pepe, Mushroom, the vegan version of the Sundried Tomato, Gorgonzola, Sundried Tomato, Eggplant, Zucchini & Pesto, and a kids’ Cheese pizza (though I’d think the pizza “square” would widen any child’s eyes with pleasure).
I think when I come back, I’ll have to try the Chicken Parmesan; it takes an extra fifteen minutes, but you can always spend the time browsing the wine section, or the kitchen store across the way. If you are looking for excellent pizza in Berkeley, this is your place.
1820 Fourth Street // +15106440444
For a true Berkeley Bistro experience, watching the outside dining customers enjoy their glasses of red wine, Zut! seemed like a good place to stop.
Turns out they have several seating areas to choose from, the heated patio, interior, Parklet, and Sunroom. I liked the Sunroom the best. When the server reviewed the options, the Zut! Burger and Garlic Fries stood out the most. If my daughter were there, though, I think she would have tried the more adventuresome Crab Salad Sandwich or Seared Salmon Nicoise. And she’s a great excuse to go outside my comfort zone for eating, but burger it is. Cooked to my specifications, it was a burger I can understand being a local favorite. Especially since you can get the “Impossible” Burger – the vegetarian option – as well.
In addition to these options, Zut! servers tell me the other local favorites include Penne alla Bolognese, the Roasted Chicken, New York Steak, any of their pizzas, and Pot de Crème. The server’s favorite, beyond this list, included the Moules-Frites, the Roasted Eggplant with Fresh Mozzarella, and the Brussels sprouts.
She laughed. They’re made with lemon and grana, specially sourced, pale yellow, excellent grating cheese that complements (not overpowering) the vegetable.
Plenty to try when back in the area, especially with someone who can truly appreciate their bar program with “expertly hand-crafted classic cocktails.” Their wine list features California wineries as well as those favored by owners from around the world. For an eclectic eating experience, you will want to stop by the Berkely bistro.
1807 Fourth Street // +15105489494
When I was there, both Bette’s establishments were quite busy. They’ll even tell you at the diner, if you’re in a rush, to stop next door for more excellent baked goods. But it’s a worthy establishment in its own right.
One of the first things to catch my eye was a circular hard-boiled (presumably) egg holder by the register. It was a wonder. Like a Ferris wheel for your eggs. Made me seriously consider if I should have one at home. Probably more practical in Europe where the eggs aren’t refrigerated prior to purchase.
The choices at Bette’s to Go would surely tempt any diet. The fresh baked goods are homemade and do smell delicious. But their Mexican Specialties were back the day I visited and it would seem a shame not to try their tacos, burritos, or tostadas. They had them in chicken, pork, and vegetarian – enjoyed by all who had them and “delicious,” “stupendous,” and “Hmmm? Yum!” were the phrases heard as the first bite hit the tastebuds.
Beverages are the first menu you’ll see upon entering, with every coffee I could’ve imagined (including iced), as well as tea, iced tea, chai, and Matcha.
The homemade lemonade was tangy, and the Arnold Palmer wonderfully refreshing on a hot California day.
As we waited in the queue, it was fun to see what else was available. Apparently, the Authentic Bette’s Diner products are in big demand, from postcards to the Pancake Handbook (now in its second edition) clutched in the hands of long-time customers. One fellow customer shared with me that this is her favorite place to get espresso with fresh whipped cream. I’d not heard of this combination and she shared, “It’s like getting twice the caffeine of a coffee and adding enough sugar to make it feel like dessert.”
On the menu (order at the cash register) are pizzas (Margherita, white, and a daily special), hot dogs, soup and chili, the Mexican Specialties, and a long list of sandwiches and salads.
The line didn’t take very long to process, and I barely felt like I’d had the time to go through the list. With everyone around me ordering the Mexican specialties, it didn’t feel quite so bad to try a roast beef sandwich; lean, well-cooked beef that was great from the first bite to the last. I still thought (dreamed?) of jumping into the baked goods counter for a sample of each but remained true to my calorie count and went for another walk instead. For great American and Mexican food in Berkely, stop at Bette’s.
1807 4th Street // +15106443230
While you can’t actually view the ocean from this diner, it feels like it ticks all the other boxes. Fun atmosphere; check. Great choices; check. Great service; check. Fast service? Well, no. Not on a busy day like this, but when you get a table, you don’t mind so much.
Family-owned since 1982, they recognize that they’re most famous for their pancakes, which is why they created the cookbook you can purchase to re-create their recipes. Quips included.
The experience inside the diner is full of fun. The kitsch of it is readily apparent by a big slice of cherry pie hanging over the cash register, the burgundy red Naugahyde booths, and covered bar stools, along with excellent jukebox music adding to the frivolity and feel of 1950s beachside towns.
When I learned more about the story of Sue, Bette, and Manfred, it didn’t surprise me that Bette had been a social worker. Even after her death (2017), her work comforts and cares for people through the goodness radiating out of her establishments.
The menu has two jammed packed pages and a dessert insert. Just like Bette’s to Go, if you’re watching your calories, you’d best be careful.
Breakfast served all day means you can have your most important meal of the day any time at all.
Eggs you desire? Try the omelets, huevos rancheros, Mexican scramble, spicy scrambled eggs, lox scramble, Philadelphia breakfast, Maryland breakfast (being from Maryland originally, I had to check that one out more closely – housemade corned beef hash with poached eggs and choice of muffin, toast, or cream scone), California breakfast, or two eggs any style.
More interested in pancakes and waffles? That’s their specialty – see the cookbook.
You could start with a New York bagel platter, but why not go right for the buttermilk pancakes, a short stack of two, or buttermilk waffle, French toast, or Bette’s deluxe French toast with fresh fruit and yogurt?
I’ve never heard of a souffle pancake before. It’s described as a fluffy pancake, lightened with beaten egg whites and baked in the oven (so it takes a little longer). The flavors include banana rum, apple brandy, seasonal fruit, and chocolate swirl. Hmm… that pancake cookbook is sounding more necessary by the minute.
What I spotted next on the menu, though, made my heart go a flutter; Bette’s potato pancake. Being 25% German, I’d grown up with potato pancakes and love them. It’s difficult with dietary restrictions for me to eat them safely, but, checking with the server, they are typically made with potatoes, egg, and flour, and they can hold the flour to make them celiac friendly. Hooray! I ordered them their usual way – with applesauce and sour cream, wondering if I’d enjoy the sour cream this time.
When they arrived, they filled the plate, the aroma takes me back to my grandmother’s Pittsburgh kitchen without any sense of loss of time or place. That’s what a great dish can do for you. They were glorious! The kind of thing I’d have every day if I lived nearby. For any meal. The texture was perfect, the applesauce fresh and light. Nope, still not a fan of the sour cream, but it is great for people that enjoy it (as in, the sour cream was just fine, I’m not a fan of the combination. Totally a “me” thing, not anything about the diner).
Other items on the menu that other people could get equally passionate about including the scrapple (I had to look it up to remind me it’s a Pennsylvania Dutch dish made of pork, flour, and spices), chorizo, smoky black beans, diner sandwiches, grilled sandwiches or hot lunches.
The fish tacos looked really good – soft corn tortillas with a fiery (I saw the people reach for their water!) chipotle sauce, guacamole, and black beans.
Most everyone could agree they could find a champagne drink or beer to enjoy. Cherry Bellinis, Mimosas, Pomegranate cocktails, Kir Royale, a true Champagne Cocktail, Aperol Spritz, Bloody Mary (with sake), Champagne, or beer (by the pint or the bottle) are all available at Bette’s.
Many would find a harder time choosing just one dessert. It seems like a great place to go for dessert or any celebration.
Their Fruit Pie or Crisp of the day depends on which fresh fruit is in season, and can be served with ice cream if you wish. They have Key Lime Pie, Old Fashioned Bread Pudding (made with Challah), Pate a choux, Lemon Bars, the Cupcake of the Day (Seriously? Could you make it more difficult to stick to a calorie count?) made with fresh buttercream frosting, Biscotti, Ice Cream, Brownie and Ice Cream, Warm Chocolate Chip Cookie, or and Ice Cream Soda or Milkshake. I think I just went into a sugar coma even thinking about them again.
You can’t go wrong – whatever you choose. They’ll take great care of you at Bette’s, a great place to eat in Berkeley.
1830 Fourth Street // +15108458100
Not known for my adventurous eating, I felt obligated to stop at the packed Japanese restaurant to see what I was missing.
Happy faces, contented voices, and postures fitted the patrons inside and out.
Their natsu (summer) menu includes raw items sashimi salad and hanabi, vegetables ichiba salad, little gem miso Caesar, genki salad, yasai yaki, and mekyabetsu.
Their tempura offerings include Iyasare kakiage tempura, agedashi tofu and nasu (my daughter’s choice), tori kara-age, and Sendai hot chicken.
The Sendai hot chicken was recommended to me as one of the more Americanized dishes that might please my undeveloped palate (ever so politely, of course, and much appreciated by me). They assured me it was free-range chicken and the fried thigh meat, tossed in their tasty housemade spicy sauce (have the water ready), with a light arugula salad, ginger, tamari, shichimi fit the bill splendidly. Trying something new without having to be fearful. Check.
Their Maki (rolls) included geisha, spider, dragon, shrimp tempura, California, sake avocado, spicy tuna, rainbow, Elvis (unagi, avocado, cucumber, unagi sauce – somehow, I expected banana and peanut butter), futomaki, pyramid, and lion king. Their description of the lion king roll made me smile: “inside: snow crab, cucumber, avocado. Outside: baked salmon, kaiware, tabiko, unagi sauce, mayo.” A very royal dish indeed. For a taste of Japanese food in Berkely, try lyasare.
If you’re ready for fresh, delicious flavors and crisp waffle cones, this is the ice cream shop for you. When I visited, they offered cones, sundaes, milkshakes, root beer floats, and “cookie monsters.”
The flavors available that day were a lemon cookie, strawberry, cardamom, Chai Spice, Milk Coffee, Brown Sugar Cinnamon, Vanilla, Chocolate, and Vanilla Almond Chip.
Another customer shared with me she thinks their cardamom ice cream is the best flavor she’s ever had. The speckles of cardamom give the ice cream more texture and she recommends everyone try it.
You can tell with the first bite (lick?) that it’s not only creamy but has no artificial taste to it. Very fresh. The worker said it is locally sourced. We do love that.
If you like Chai tea, I think you’ll really like the Chai spice ice cream. It has a subtle cinnamon flavor that doesn’t overpower. It’s a great combination.
Leaving the fourth street shopping and restaurant corridor, I headed to the University of California – Berkeley. Watching the street signs as I went along made me wonder about the history, so I looked it up.
The European origins of the town, the 1776 De Anza Expedition’s establishment of the Presidio at the entrance to San Francisco Bay (the Golden Gate) and its soldier, Luis Peralta, granted by the King of Spain a vast stretch of land on the contralateral coast (Contra Costa), which he named Rancho San Antonio. He ultimately passed it to his son, Domingo, with a smaller portion to his son, Vicente, now immortalized in the street names of Berkeley. The Contra Costa Range, now called the Berkeley Hills, astride Strawberry Creek – easy to navigate when highway traffic is heavy if you’re returning to Oakland.
When you get close to campus, it’s easy to tell the most popular places by the lines of college students. Also, though, reminds me that this isn’t necessarily “fine dining.” I know there are a lot of those in Berkeley that I won’t be able to visit – that will have to wait for another trip.
2300 College Avenue // +15108435282
Sunday morning, this was THE place to be. Crowded with college students, their parents, studious-looking people that could be professors; it had that college energy buzz underlying everything. Or maybe that’s the coffee.
They had the typical coffee fare for the crowd, but really different things too, from Ginger coffee to Ginger Peach Black Tea. Their espresso hits the spot if you need that jolt before you walk the hills toward the campanile or toward Tilden Park.
Small snacks items are available, but it’s really about the coffee here – and having a good place to sit, read, study, or people watch.
2043 Allston Way // +15106440509
The other place with a line out the door was Lox, Stock & Bagel.
My friend had to have everything bagel – which is everything you want, the spice, the salt – everything. And their smoothies are awesome because they’re dairy-free, yet taste good.
The thing is, they’ll make the sandwich for you. Add the lox to the bagel, or have another protein with alfalfa sprouts, tomato, and lettuce. Yum.
Choose from “The Bagel Board.” The simple lox and bagel are called the “Budget.” You can also choose from the Californian, Veggie, Basic, Butter (plain toasted bagel and butter), the Classic (chive cream cheese on an onion bagel), the tuna snack, chicken snack, or the “Lox and Bagel,” which has sliced lox (not a lox spread) on a plain bagel.
The breakfast specials include croissants, muffins, burritos, and bagels. Ask for a hot sandwich – you could get hot pastrami, French Dip, hot roast beef, or hot pastrami.
Finish with the black tea and you’ll have a great start to your morning. This is a great place for sandwiches and bagels in Berkeley; be sure to try it.
Gail Clifford, MD, a physician for more than 25 years, has traveled to five continents and all 50 United States. An avid traveler, she happily goes on new adventures, especially on birthdays. Multi-generational travel remains a treasured pastime. She divides her time between Ireland and the U.S. You can find her on Instagram, LinkedIn and Facebook.