While I’m all for adventure and accidentally stumbling upon a cool bar, boutique or bookstore, sometimes, we all need a little nudge in the right direction. This not quite 36 hours installment is going to take you to the wild, wild West (Berkeley).
If you ever have the pleasure, I highly recommend spending at least one summer of your college career living in Berkeley. The vibe of the city changes completely at the end of the spring semester, and I find that everyone is generally more interested in exploring our city and its surrounding parts during the warmer months. This past summer, I spent a lot of time in West Berkeley, exploring the array of specialty food stores on San Pablo Avenue, hanging in coffee shops on Fourth Street and having existential crises by the Berkeley Marina at least once a week. Extremely accessible via public transportation (just take the 51B toward Berkeley Amtrak!), West Berkeley is home to a rich diversity of people, activities and food options, making it a personal favorite.
Ghormeh sabzi and saffron: Middle East Market
Location: 2054 San Pablo Ave., Berkeley, CA 94702
Despite my sexy Eastern European roots, my absolute favorite food in the world comes from the Middle Eastern and East Mediterranean plate. This produce-driven, spice-heavy, heartfelt and chickpea-celebrating diet hits every note in my book. Middle Eastern food, and culture for that matter, is heavily doused in tradition and in community. Here perhaps more than anywhere else, food is about socially connecting and expressing real love. You can feel this passion in the food.
My favorite place to fulfill a Persian food fix, do a little grocery shopping and make new friends is at the Middle East Market on San Pablo Avenue. A family-owned business, walking into this part-market, part-café spot feels like coming home. The customer service is on a different level, and the food is insanely delectable. While there, I usually pick up products such as labneh, za’atar, halva and pomegranate molasses that cannot be found at your local Trader Joe’s. While you could definitely stop at grocery shopping, I highly suggest ordering something to eat (ghormeh sabzi for sure!) and sitting down for a few hours on a Friday afternoon. Chances are, you will be invited to join a sweet family having an early dinner at their table and end up with an invitation to their home the following evening. I can guarantee that you’ll leave smiling and feeling very, very full.
Specialty food store and sunsets: Market Hall
Location: 1786 Fourth St., Berkeley, CA 94710
I spend way too much time at Market Hall. There, I said it! And I’m not ashamed! The Rockridge specialty food store houses a produce market, coffee shop, full bakery, wine store and extensive fish counter, among other things. Few, however, know that this foodie heaven has a smaller satellite store tucked away in the back corner of Fourth street, a hop and a skip from the Berkeley Marina. A little less expansive, the West Berkeley branch is definitely more manageable and still offers all of the Market Hall classics, such as the seeded cheese bread and kale Caesar salad with farro.
Pack a blanket, cups and maybe a few plates, and head over around 5 p.m. on a Saturday evening. While you can’t really go wrong at MH, be sure to pick up a couple of salads from the cold case (I love the kale salad, lentils with feta and spicy marinated tofu), a piece of cheese, a nice baguette, bottle of wine and something sweet before driving to the Marina to catch the sunset over San Francisco. It gets crazy windy by the water, so dress accordingly or consider picnicking in the comfort of your car. Bring a date, bring some friends or bring yourself and a good podcast!
Sustainable shopping on a Sunday morn: Urban Ore
Location: 900 Murray St., Berkeley, CA 94710
Though Berkeley is home to a number of stellar thrift stores, none have the same commitment to environmental justice or as vast a variety of goods as Urban Ore. Started in 1981 as the Building Materials Exchange, Urban Ore was created with the purpose “to end the age of waste.” This message is still printed on every single one of the receipts its customers receive.
Beyond its fascinating history and powerful commitment to recycling, Urban Ore has one of the most extensive collections of random sh*t I’ve ever come across. The term “thrift store” does not do this place justice; it also sells cabinets, kitchen appliances, lumber, sports gear, furniture, books, clothes and everything in between. Eat a substantial breakfast, take a swig of coffee, wear some comfortable shoes and go check out everything Urban Ore has to offer this Sunday morning. Nothing is really “curated,” so this is a place to roll up your sleeves, dig and treasure hunt.
Contact Natalie Abber at [email protected].