Berkeley Cheap-ish Eats Near Campus - One Local's Ratings
I lived near Berkeley campus for the last few years. Over the years I've gotten countless tips from chowhounds, both about Berkeley area restaurants and restaurants in San Francisco and throughout the rest of bay area. Yet I rarely contributed back to the community. Hence, when I moved away from Berkeley I decided to digitize all my notes and memories of meals, good and bad, and condense them into short reviews.
I ended up writing 83 (!) reviews covering nearly all places I ate at near the Berkeley campus. Despite 83 reviews, there are still countless places I walked by during my years in Berkeley that I never tried.
The highlights are listed below. The list may look long but that's because I ate at so many places. Less than 25% of the places I visited got more than three stars (out of five). Most of these restaurants are inexpensive/cheap, as there is so much price competition near campus.
Brazil Fresh Squeeze Cafe - tri tip sandwich, mango smoothie
Cafe Durant - breakfast
Cheeseboard - baked goods and cheese shop
Ib's Hoagies - cheesesteaks
La Note - French cafe
Lucky House - Thai
Ryowa - Ramen
Sketch - Ice Cream (a bit of a hike from campus)
Taste of the Himalayas - Indian/Nepalese
The Mediterranean - Greek/Mediterranean
Cafe Gratitude - vegetarian raw foods
Cafe Intermezzo - salads
Chaat Cafe - Indian-inspired
Cheeseboard Pizza - pizza
Gomnaru Restaurant - Korean BBQ
Gregiore - French
Le Petit Cheval - Vietnamese
Thai Basil - Thai
Thai Noodles - Thai
The Stuffed Inn - sandwiches
Vik's Chaat House - South Indian (a bit of a hike from campus)
Zachary's Chicago Pizza - pizza (a bit of a hike from campus)
Hopefully these lists will help fellow chowhounds (especially students) that live in the area to find new places they may not know about.
If you want to read the reviews, I posted them to yelp:
I tried to give tips in my reviews recommending favorite dishes.
A thanks to all chowhounds that have heavily contributed to Berkeley discussions in the past, especially rworange, Morton the Mousse, and Robert Lauriston.
Other good threads from the last year that cover the area near campus:
Thanks for the thorough feedback, Mark. I'm going to link this whenever a student asks for campus recs. Since we're including places that are a bit of a schlep (but busable) I'm going to throw in 900 Grayson. Call me a broken record but I just can't get enough of this place. I think the prices will satisfy a student's budget as well.
Regarding places to avoid, note that Shattuck Ave. stalwarts La Note, Venus, and Little Plearn Thai Kitchen were all cited this spring by the city health dept. for major violations (keeping food at an improper holding temperature).
Foodwise, I am regularly saddened by the mediocre pho at Pho Hoa on Shattuck ... though I keep going back, every eight weeks or so, because it's a block from my office. The beef stew with carrots isn't bad, though.
And I agree that Eat-a-Pita is really bad, although the salads *look* okay until you try them. You can actually get a pretty decent Middle Eastern veg plate (large or small) at the Sunrise Deli on Bancroft, just west of Telegraph, though the eat-in environment is nothing to write home about.
I'm also saddened by the Berkeley pho situation. Pho Hoa is actually the best I've had. For the record, I think it's okay for the kind of place it is and I like it better than Saigon Express.
Pho Hoa does make a very convenient post-movie spot, but it's time to admit Oakland has us beat by several hundred miles.
I had some kind of lamb plate. They may have called it schawerma. I honestly don't remember. Rancid would be much too strong a word, but off wouldn't. I literally left my food outside on the sidewalk hoping a homeless guy would find it in a reasonable amount of time.
I did not like The Mediterranean at all...
...but I would eat there any day over Eat-a-Pita.
It isn't Greek, but your best bet for food of this kind near campus is Holy Land (Israeli) on College.
Yeah, some of them are a schlep, but there are direct bus lines. That's my criterion. :)
I almost added Banh Mi Ba Le in El Cerrito for its BBQ chicken sandwich to my list (five stars), but I never figured out a direct way to get there without driving.
I totally agree with you about Smart Alec's; I don't understand why some people like it so much.
Hummmingbird Cafe was always decent. But it always frustrated me. They occasionally have this one kind of bread, soft interior with an exterior that is sweet and crusty but has the crust broken up nearly into flakes. I've never seen it elsewhere and I'm sorry I can't describe it well. I can never figure out when they'll have it next. But that's my memory of Hummingbird ... the decent sandwiches and the elusive sandwich bread.
Your other suggestions I hadn't even noticed, let alone tried!
I agree with you that India Palace's lunch buffet is a solid choice. I too found myself there not infrequently.
I also agree Lucky House is terrific. But you really need to branch out and try other things on the menu! Here's my review:
"Hands down the best Thai restaurant I've been to in the east bay. Everything I've tried on their specials menu has been uniformly very good, as was a noodle dish from the regular menu I've ordered twice (pad keo mao). The most impressive feature of Lucky House's cooking is the seafood. Most of the specials include a mix of seafood (fish, shrimp, scallops, mussels, or squid) and somehow they manage to serve dishes in which each of these is cooked just the right amount, not overcooked, not undercooked -- quite a feat." (And yes, to answer the question I know many chowhounds will ask, when I say best Thai restaurant in the east bay, I've been to Ruen Pair.)
Mount Everest is a reasonable option that I'd encourage you to try. "After five visits, I can say this is a pretty decent Tibetan restaurant. My favorite two dishes were the momos (much better than Caf Tibet's down the street) and the mismas tarkari (a vegetable curry). I've never had a bad dish here, though often had ones I wouldn't rave about. Service can be slow." And I don't know if the booths they have are the same ones the old Burger King had, but they do have tables and chairs so you can use those instead of the booths.
re: Mark P
re: Mark P
7 Palms is a convenience store on Euclid, across from Hummingbird and past Stuffed Inn and the Thai place. There's a counter in the back to order sandwiches. Cafe Muse in the Berkeley Art Museum is inside, so you have to walk through the building, but it is a charming and isolated place to get away and have lunch, especially if it's a sunny day out.
I think you're referring to the Dutch crunch at Hummingbird, and they always have it at the start of the day, but they do often run out after the first lunch rush. It's really good with their curry chicken salad.
Two places at the eastern end of University Ave. are reliable pleasures for me. India Palace has a pretty good lunch buffet ... five or six veg, with a wet lamb dish, a chicken mit sauce, and inoffensive tandoori chicken. There's usually some veg overlap, but the preparations vary enough to minimize boredom. The pakora are almost always hot and tasty, which on a buffet one wishes to be so. Good quality hot naan is always waiting for you, 'gratis,' when you return to your table the first time. The tables are comfortable and reasonably spaced, with napery and silver; service, if you need it, isn't bad. Not for everyday, but I reward myself once a month or so.
More often, though, I stop at Lucky House Thai, in the middle of the block, opposite the Brazilian tri-tip stand. It's an unassuming place about which I know essentially nothing, despite having been dozens of time. That's because I order only one thing: #20 on the lunch menu, Hot & Sour Noodle Soup, $4.99. I get it with ground pork and wide (not the standard skinny) noodles, as the server now well knows. When it comes, I always ask for the lazy susan of chiles and such, but never have to use it much... the soup comes steaming out of the kitchen with the flavors in proportion just the way I like them, tilting strongly toward tamarind, and just nearly spicy enough. Highly recommended.
I've yet to try Mount Everest, the Indian/Nepalese place at the corner of University and (northbound) Shattuck that was formerly, and briefly, a pizza/pasta joint, and before that the downmarket but not worthless Curry in a Hurry, and before that a Burger King. And the reason I've yet to try it is because I still remember the Burger King plastic booths having the most uncomfortable seating in Berkeley, which was maintained during both the curry and pizza regimes, and may still be there. I guess I should look through the window before writing it off altogether...
I used to like Gomnaru, but I think it's gone way downhill.
I would add a few more tips. Hummingbird Cafe makes a good eggplant pesto sandwich. My favorite sandwich near campus is the roasted chicken thigh sandwich (I add avocado and have it on Dutch crunch) at 7 Palms (which is recently under new ownership, but the same charming sandwich ladies are there); 7 Palms also makes some nice prepped salads, especially the pasta salad with ham and peas. For something a little nicer, the food at the BAM on Telegraph is good, but in the somewhat overbearing in the typical Berkeley organic ingredients, farming as spirituality way, and they have a nice outdoor patio. A lot of my colleagues like Smart Alec's, but I can't figure out why. To go sit down somewhere, we used to walk to the Phoenix, but alas... and now we go to Adagia. Also, since Adagia opened, the faculty club, which used to be straight inedible, has gotten a lot better, maybe a response to Adagia's competition?
And I love Top Dog.
Great chronicle of the Berkeley restaurants! I lived in Berkeley for 12 years. My short list of faves includes: Vik's, Cheeseboard, Zachary's, Chaat Cafe, Panini, Cafe Intermezzo, Le Petit Cheval. and Arinell. I notice we have a lot of overlap.
After living in Berkeley I moved to Millbrae and ate in Burlingame and San Mateo often. While there isn't the same assortment of good cheap food in this area of the Peninsula, some to try include: Speederia (San Carlos - great pizza by the slice), Bonne Sante (Burlingame - best burger... ever!), and Rolling Pin Donuts (San Bruno - hot doughnuts at 10:30 or so).
Maybe one day you'll give us an exhaustive account of Peninsula restaurants?
Hell yes Sketch, Vik's, and Zachary's are a bit of a hike--they're two miles away! Sketch and Vik's are worth the schlep. Zachary's, not so much.
Cheese Board and Gregoire are not that far but that's still a long walk for lunch.
The best pizza near campus is Pie in the Sky.
That's very kind of you, Mark ... but wow ... is this a super-useful post. I've bookmarked it for future reference ... and to read through with more attention.
I've wondered about so many of those places that don't get menioned often and many never.
Even 99% of three star or lower restaurants have something worthwhile and interesting. That area seems like a treasure chest that has barely been cracked open. It is surprising how good the places that I've walked by and finally checked out were.
I was just wondering about IB cheesesteaks as I was passing by the other day. So are they better than The Cheesesteak Shop?
I'll probably have a few more questions after reading through this.
So, did you move out of the Bay Area? Wherever you are, hope the new software encourages you to post on Chowhound more ... great stuff.
I agree Berkeley is "a treasure chest that has barely been cracked open" and that even most of the places I rated less than four stars have something good. Many of my meals in Berkeley were at joints I gave three stars. Perfectly fine meals. I may be a little weird -- I suppose I could simply cycle among my favorite restaurants and the occasional new joint, but somehow that would make very good food less special. Instead, I end up saving my favorites for special times and eat at reasonable but not terrific places most of the time.
As for The Cheesesteak Shop, I never tried it; I rarely made it that far down University.
I moved to San Mateo, partially because it and Berkeley have similarly astounding number of restaurants in walkable downtowns. I'm looking forward to becoming as familiar with them as I am Berkeley ones. (I spent the last weekend culling reviews from this board and have an almost intimidatingly large list of places to try.)