The first real surge of Berkeley’s energy hit me while listening to a trombone player. I was sitting outside the Cheese Board Collective, a worker-owned co-op on Shattuck Avenue that opened in the early 1970s. Sunlight slanted off a blue sky, scents of basil and bread intermingled, and I was savoring my first bite into a melty cheese- and pesto-enhanced pizza. Somehow, I thought, Berkeley combines both social concern and delight in the senses.

We’d arrived a few days earlier, checking in to the Berkeley City Club before heading out to Musical Offering, a café-bistro and shop selling classical CDs, around the corner from our hotel. “Great salads. And it’s so Berkeley,” the two women at check-in had both agreed when we asked about a lunch recommendation, one that offered more than typical college student grub. “And free chamber music on Sundays, too!” one of them added as we left.

Many folks who visit Berkeley are parents on campus tours with their kids, but many are here, like Rosemary and me, simply to experience the iconic vibe of this city shaped in parts by its setting, its atmosphere and its food.

Much has changed since Berkeley’s Free Speech Movement and war protest days. Homes in some neighborhoods now can run more than a million dollars, for one thing. But it doesn’t take long to discover that much has remained the same. Almost the first thing I noticed after arriving was a placard outside Revolution Books promoting a discussion that night: “Reform or Revolution.” Farther up the street, young folks were still queuing up at Top Dog, a popular hot dog joint, serving hungry and budget-minded UC Berkeley students since 1966, according to its sign.

The University of California, Berkeley campus, referred to as “Cal” by the locals, and founded in 1868, continues to be the city’s keystone. Even if you’re not a parent with a prospective student, a walking tour of the college grounds and an elevator ride to the top of the landmark 1914 Sather Tower, also referred to as the Campanile, are worth the time. At the top — at more than 300 feet high, it is one of the tallest clock-and-bell towers in the world — a 360-degree view includes vistas of the San Francisco Bay as well as the Berkeley hills, while immediately below you get a bird’s-eye view of the campus that lies between the two.

But what I couldn’t see from the top of the tower was the small boxy-looking thing on four wheels that swerved past me as we walked on the sidewalk later. “What is that?” I asked our guide as we watched it head uphill, its little blue flag waving above it like a tail.

“It’s a robot,” he answered in all seriousness. Part of a fleet of “Kiwibots” to be exact, and they’re used to deliver … what else? Food. It served hungry UC Berkeley students within a one-mile radius around campus. Hardly the street life we had expected to see when we booked our tickets to Berkeley.

Birth of California cuisine

UC Berkeley may be the heart of the city, but it’s much more than a college town. Numerous tree-lined neighborhoods are fun to walk through (check out the book “Berkeley Walks”), filled with architectural styles that include flamboyant Victorian, Craftsman bungalows and beautiful Berkeley brown-shingle houses.

The more business-centric area around Shattuck Avenue in North Berkeley is often considered the birthplace of California cuisine and sometimes referred to as the “Gourmet Ghetto.” We were curious to explore it, as well. Booking one of Lisa Rogovin’s Edible Excursions walking tours had us eating and drinking — up, down and around some four blocks there the next day. In a few hours, we managed to polish off a slice of pizza and a warm-from-the-oven cheese roll from the Cheese Board, sample California’s version of a proper pastrami sandwich from Saul’s deli, taste crispy potato puffs at the tiny Gregoire’s and down a quick espresso at Peet’s flagship coffeehouse, which now also includes a tiny coffee museum. In between, we indulged in wine and chocolate tastings, and made a pilgrimage pass by Alice Waters’ restaurant, Chez Panisse, opened in 1971.

When we took a peek at the menu outside, Ron Seger, a Cal student from 1970 to 1974 who was on the tour, said, “All I knew about food back when I was a student here was mediocre Italian at a place where drinks were a quarter.”

Rogovin responded with a smile; “Today, food in Berkeley is a political statement,” she said.

Rogovin pointed out that Waters is often credited with spearheading the original farm-to-table concept. The chef’s belief in and passion for using organic and locally produced ingredients on her seasonally inspired menus jump-started the whole movement that is so embraced today.

From music to book stores

Later, on a shopping jaunt along Telegraph Avenue, farm-to-table took on another meaning: We saw our first dispensary for cannabis. Next door to a tattoo and piercing salon, a well-dressed young man was by its door, checking IDs and welcoming passersby. It felt like we were entering an exclusive cocktail club. Instead, we found products for pets and people inside. Showcases held infused gummi squares, packs of cookies and lavender-scented bath bombs.

On Telegraph, we also perused the old music establishments like Amoeba Music and Rasputin Music’s flagship shop, both primo spots for vinyl collectors. At Amoeba — which claims to be the world’s largest independent record store — a Bob Dylan cover caught my eye (a little too pricey, sorry, son). The bins that stretched down the aisles at Rasputin held an array of new and used CDs, DVDs and vinyl records; I couldn’t resist checking out its “Incredibly Strange” genre, which included “The Dog Kids Love to Bite,” the Armour Hot Dog song.

Live music in Berkeley can be found everywhere — and it’s as diverse as the city. At breakfast in downtown Berkeley in the Provencal-inspired La Note (try the crème fraîche pancakes) a small sign promoted accordion music there on Friday night. While sharing a pre-lunch espresso milkshake (don’t judge us) at Le Bateau Ivre (the Drunken Boat), a cool 1898 converted French home on Telegraph, we spied the lineup of music to come. Celtic harp, bluegrass, flamenco and opera were all in the offing.

Still, nowhere is Berkeley’s iconic spirit more in evidence than at its many independent bookstores: Mrs. Dalloway’s Literary & Garden Arts Bookstore, Revolution Books, University Press Books and Sleepy Cat Books, to name a few.

No. 1 on my list to browse was Moe’s Books. A veritable institution with four floors’ worth of books on Telegraph Avenue, it was founded in 1959. Fans of the 1967 movie “The Graduate” can’t miss the large photo on one of its walls of the storefront seen in the movie. Remember Benjamin (Dustin Hoffman) furtively watching for Elaine (Katharine Ross) to emerge?

Doris, the daughter of the colorful and opinionated Moe Moskowitz, who passed away in 1997, runs the place these days. When we stopped in, she was behind the register, recommending the recently published “The Annotated Big Sleep.”

“Amazon is out of it. But we’ve got it,” she was telling a customer, with some pride.

Later, when she found out we were planning a visit to Mrs. Dalloway’s Bookstore in Berkeley’s Elmwood neighborhood, she recommended a stop at Nabolom Bakery and Pizzeria. “Great eggplant pizza,” she said, then added that she was going to sing there that night, something she did on the side.

As it turned out, we already had tickets to see the world premiere of the “King of Cuba” the same evening, a play from the Central Works Writers Workshop staged at their unique 50-seat theater in the Berkeley City Club.

Opened in 1930 as the Berkeley Women’s City Club, and designed by famed San Francisco architect Julia Morgan, the Berkeley City Club is one of the city’s architectural jewels. Today, a hotel and private club, the exterior only hints at the interior. Once inside, visitors get its full blown medieval-fantasy-like effect: elegant archways, leaded glass, sculptures, hidden courtyards, luxurious reading room, spectacular swimming pool.

But that night arriving at the Berkeley City Club, we didn’t have much time to linger. We got to the theater just as the doors were closing and the lights were dimming.

The intimate room was more like someone’s home than a theater. No stage with a curtain drew our attention. Instead, the performance took place in the middle of the room with our seats surrounding it. The French doors to one of the club’s enclosed courtyards were used to strategically stage several effective entrances and exits. It was unexpected, and fun.

The entire evening turned out to be a delight. The play was loaded with dark humor, satire, politics, eccentric characters and live music. Quintessential Berkeley, I couldn’t help thinking.

At intermission, everyone nibbled on delicious cookies and sipped California wine. After the play, the applause was genuine and prolonged.

By the time we walked out into the warm California night, the strong sense of community we had felt in the theater seemed to encompass the city as well: scholarly, sensual and entirely sustainable.


Donna Tabbert Long (@tabbertlong) of Minneapolis writes about food and travel.