How did we become so interested in food? From out of the Woodstock generation and the freedom of speech movements in Berkeley, a small conscientious community shared a belief that our connections to food could affect our quality of life and bring about social change. This culinary ecosystem of artisans developed the paradigms that have spun off into what so many passionate and concerned consumers follow today. “Going local” from “farm-to-table” began in Berkeley’s Gourmet Ghetto. A food tour of this neighbourhood by Edible Excursions is unlike any other, not merely because of the high expectations of authenticity, but because of the historical significance of the political and cultural milieu that gave rise to it and to which it ultimately gave rise.
The Cheeseboard Collective is the hub of activity. A jazz band plays while patrons line the block for a slice of today’s thin crust sourdough pizza. I can’t hide my gratification while crunching into this steaming hot margarita with fresh local mozzarella, tomatoes and basil. Over seventy breads are listed. How many dozens of cheese varieties? No one seems to know. At Saul’s Delicatessen sandwiches of slow-cooked organic turkey and grass-fed house smoked and brined pastrami hits all the notes, and pairs with house-made celery soda. Soop wows us with a range of flavours in its weekly menu of soups from Kielbasa and Cabbage to East Indian Lentil to White Lightning Chili. Organic and chock full of fresh ingredients, I want to sample them all. Cupcakes mean love. Love at First Bite had me at banana, chocolate chips and peanut butter cream topped with a chocolate peanut butter ball. I also devour a sweet potato and burnt marshmallow cupcake. Made with organic flour and sugar, these are supremely moist. Good ideas begin with good coffee.
When Alfred Peet couldn’t find any, he roasted his own, and opened Peet’s Coffee and Tea—the progenitor of specialty coffee in North America. Peet’s states, “True quality cannot be achieved without social, environmental and economic sustainability.” We unwind with dark roasts from Sumatra and Ethiopia. Each butcher at The Local Butcher Shop is a trained chef. All their meats are seasonal, locally sourced and sustainably raised. They buy whole animals, and even offer butchery classes. Our Sando of the Day is a hearty corned beef and potato latke in a roll. Gregoire Restaurant has earned cult status for potato puffs that taste like fluffy mashed potatoes inside crisp French fries. From his garage-turned-high-end French takeout restaurant, I order duck confit and potato hash with poached eggs on a grilled baguette to go. From bean-to-bar Alegio farms its own beans in São Tomé and Principe from which they make their own uniquely intense chocolate. A 73% cacao bar mixed with nibs is luxurious. What’s the scoop? Lush Gelato offers fat-and-dairy free options, but I’m fine with a gelato of Stout beer and chocolate waffle cone pieces. Hands-on cooking classes are offered at Kitchen on Fire located within the heart of the Gourmet Ghetto. Entirely stuffed, this is also a seductively aromatic walking tour.
Alice Water’s Chez Panisse Restaurant, Steve Sullivan’s Acme Bread Company, Kermit Lynch Wine Mechants and other local pioneers and collectives created California cuisine. They are lauded Berkeley institutions. The new trends carry their legacy forward. The new Berkeley, progeny of a social movement, bolstered by Northern California’s sun-kissed produce, vaulted forward by great chefs with global inspiration, is still innovating and creating “environmental harmony and delicious flavour.”
Adam Waxman is an award winning travel journalist focusing on food, wine and well being. As well as an actor in film, television and formerly, the Stratford Festival, he is the Associate Publisher and Executive Editor of DINE and Destinations magazine.