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Gourmet Ghetto: not so much any more?

Recent posts by tourists planning to spend time touring Berkeley's "Gourmet Ghetto" (Shattuck around Chez Panisse) made me think maybe the name's out of date.

Lots of the places that made its reputation are gone (Pig by the Tail, North Berkeley Wine, Cocolat, Vivoli), dated (Juice Bar Collective, French Hotel, Poulet), or no longer unique (Peet's). More recent attractions like Phoenix Pastificio and Shuna Lydon's desserts at Poulet are gone too. What's left?

Chez Panisse is great (if you have a reservation).

The Cheese Board is a great cheese store.

Cheese Board Pizza is unique, fun, and cheap.

Cesar is good upscale bar and tapas place, but the branch on Piedmont is better.

Vintage Berkeley is an excellent wine shop but not exactly a tourist attraction.

Some people love Gregoire, I don't get the appeal. (Doesn't help that on my first and only visit I ended up with grease all over my lap from lack of seating and the weird octagonal box.)

Maybe a couple of the places in Epicurous Garden have some good food, I dunno. I'm too creeped out by the Disneylandish claustrophobic space.

I think that's about it. Are any of the other restaurants of interest unless you live in the neighborhood? Barney's? Cha-Am? Saul's? Not really destination sorts of places.

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  1. Agreed. A diaspora of sorts has occurred, and great food destinations are now scattered more evenly throughout the Bay Area.

      1. I still think you should give Gregoire another chance. If you're dining alone, it's usually pretty easy to score a spot at the counter. The corned beef and lamb patty on the March menu are both great. And I had a perfect basket of fries there last weekend.

        But I agree with you. I do my shopping and eating all over Berkeley - downtown, 4th St, Hopkins, Solano, and beyond. I live near the GG, and my visits are pretty much limited to Cheeseboard, Cheeseboard Pizza, Vintage, Andronico's, Gregoire, and the occasional bottle of coconut water from Cafe Gratitude. I do think that Cheeseboard alone makes the area a worthwhile destination.

        The new Rivoli venture will be a welcome addition:

        19 Replies
        1. re: Morton the Mousse

          A meal at Chez Panisse or cheese and olives from the Cheese Board justify a trip, definitely.

          When I'm in the mood for a sandwich more or less along the lines of the ones Gregoire makes, I go to Wood Tavern, Cafe Rouge, or Eccolo.

          1. re: Robert Lauriston

            I love Eccolo, but their sandwiches literally cost twice as much money (or more) as Gregoire's. But if you can afford to drop $20pp whenever you're craving a sandwich, I can completely understand why Gregoire wouldn't interest you.

            1. re: Morton the Mousse

              Wood Tavern's pastrami sandwich is $9.

              Gregoire's corned beef is $7.50, the lamb patty is $8.00. No plate, no utensils, no guarantee of a seat or table.

              1. re: Robert Lauriston

                Smoked Salmon sandwich at Eccolo: $17
                Smoked Salmon sandwich at Gregoire: $7.50

                Pulled Pork Sandwich at Eccolo: $14
                Pulled Pork Sandwich at Gregoire: $7

                Steak Sandwich at Eccolo: $16
                Steak Sandwich at Gregoire: $7.50

                Cheeseburger at Eccolo: $15.25
                Cheeseburger at Gregoire: $8

                There's a reason Gregoire is always mobbed with students; low overhead costs directly translate to smaller markups on the food.

                To my taste, Gregoire uses superior beef and pork than the Niman standard. This is not intended to disparage Eccolo, I just tend to spend twice as much or more there than I do at Gregoire.

                Oh, and Gregoire does give you utensils, albeit shiny plastic ones.

                1. re: Morton the Mousse

                  Eccolo's burgers are oddly expensive.

                  Cheeseburger with fries at Wood Tavern: $11

                  Cheeseburger with fries at Gregoire: $12.50

                  1. re: Robert Lauriston

                    Yes, but those are some freakin' amazing fries at Gregoire! Also, its enough fries for at least two, maybe even three people to share, and I'm a die-hard french fry lover.

                    1. re: chemchef

                      The past few times that I've tried the Gregoire fries, they have not been good at all. I won't get them anymore.

                      1. re: JasmineG

                        Maybe it makes a difference that I ALWAYS order my fries well done (ie. extra crispy), no matter where I go.

                        What was wrong with the ones you got at Gregoire?

                        1. re: chemchef

                          Each batch tasted like the oil was a little off. They didn't make that pleasant eating.

                        2. re: JasmineG

                          Depends on who's frying. During the day, look for the guy with the 5 o'clock shadow and tattoos. He knows how to fry - last batch he did for me was perfect. Both of the current dinner cooks are expert at frying.

                      2. re: Robert Lauriston

                        900 Grayson Bacon Cheeseburger with Crispy Shoestring Onions and Fries. $10.50. Game, Set and Match.

                        1. re: Robert Lauriston

                          Ahh, the famous red herring: Wood Tavern vs. Gregoire, when the debate was about Eccolo vs. Gregoire. :)

                          1. re: Jeff

                            No red herring. I said "When I'm in the mood for a sandwich more or less along the lines of the ones Gregoire makes, I go to Wood Tavern, Cafe Rouge, or Eccolo."

                            Eccolo's $11.50 croque-monsieur is probably twice the size of Gregoire's sandwiches.

                            1. re: Robert Lauriston

                              and yet, not really a croque monsieur. My husband was very disappointed to get a ham and cheese sandwich when he ordered the croque monsieur. That said, we still love everything else we've had there.

                              1. re: chemchef

                                In Paris, they call that variation a croque-Poilâne. I suppose for full disclosure Eccolo should call it a croque-Acme.

                                1. re: chemchef

                                  Isn't a croque monsieur a ham and cheese sandwich? Was it not grilled?

                                  1. re: Xiao Yang

                                    In the original version, there's cheese on the outside.

                                    1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                      and bechamel, which is the main thing that Eccolo's is lacking. Also, the broiling after the bechamel is applied for the caramelization of the cheese/bechamel topping.

                            2. re: Robert Lauriston

                              Also, the servings at Gregoire are at least 2/3 of what you would get at Wood Tavern. Those are some small sandwiches, with very little meat inside.

                  2. It's a natural occurance compounded by real estate prices, change and opportunity. Besides people and places moving on, the price of rent and overhead has gone up, hence new places and innovators go where the rent is "reasonable". GG success and stability probably has kept innovators out due to available space and cost. Also that stretch of Shattuck isn't that long, what 4 blocks and not all of it commercial.

                    Another issue is a place as a destination rather then just a regular neighborhood. Many neighborhoods in the Bay Area have experienced this...from a low key service area to a destination.

                    Add in the fact that the upping of overall quality in the BA and jaded people looking for a new buzz and yeah, things get old. Everyone gets old, nothing stays the same, expect perhaps a few hippies in Berkeley but even they change.

                    1. I agree with all your assessments.

                      But, Masse's Pastries is definitely destination worthy. For a 60 cent cookie, an individual cake or a fabulous party dessert, it is worth going out of your way for.

                      1 Reply
                      1. re: milklady

                        Masse's is a good bakery but Crixa (on the other side of town) is better.

                        I'm not sure there's anyplace currently as good at chocolate stuff as Cocolat was when Alice Medrich owned it.

                      2. There are two phenomenon going on now. One as people have suggested there has been a food diaspora. That has already been discussed. The other phenomenon is that Alice Waters and Co. have won. The Gourmet Ghetto was coined 20-25 years ago when the type food found there was a revelation. The word gourmet itself is passe. You can still go to north Berkeley and eat very well for several days in a row especially if you include the farmer's market. The thing is you can now do that in many places throughout northern California. Of course the Gourmet Ghetto isn't a destination; we have been going there for decades and now we can go there anytime without having to bother with driving out to Berkeley. The place still deserves the title of Gourmet Ghetto because that is where you find the original gangsters.

                        1. For years Gourmet Ghetto only meant two things to me ... Chez Panisse and Cheeseboard. They are still there ... so I vote it still deserves the title. All the other things you may or may not be able to find elsewhere. You won't find those two anywhere else.

                          1 Reply
                          1. re: rworange

                            By cracky, in my Berkeley days Alice Waters was too busy demonstrating (maybe alongside me, how would I know?) so it was just the Cheese Board and Peets, plus the Monterey Market, the Berkeley Co-op (not so gourmet, though) and the Potluck Restaurant way down on San Pablo, possibly the real originator of California Cusine...

                          2. What he said. Epicurious Garden wedging itself in with all the hype and
                            vacuity of a Disneyland ride seemed to me to be a final nail. Wine robots!

                            Still, the new Rivoli thing rumored to be going in to the old Phoenix
                            place should be cause for at least a little excitement.

                            1. Cheesboard cheap? $20 for a thin piece of bread with minimalist toppings?

                              10 Replies
                              1. re: blexo

                                The pre-bakes are $15, are the baked $20?

                                Those pizzas are way more than a 'thin piece of bread with minimalist toppings.' Todays pizza is "Orange Bell Pepper, Onions, Mozzarella Cheese, Feta Cheese, Olive Tapenade, Italian Parsley" and tomorrow's is "Fresh Mushrooms, Onions, Mozzarella Cheese, Montalban Cheese, Arugula in French Vinaigrette." (from the website) They might not be piled with crappy toppings like Round Table, but the taste of Cheeseboard's pizzas are in no way mimimalist.

                                1. re: adrienne156

                                  The prices went up - it's now $20 for a whole pie, pre-baked or baked. One pie is enough for two or three people.

                                  I still think it's a deal, especially considering the quality of the cheese.

                                  1. re: Morton the Mousse

                                    I agree. Especially with the "wild" sourdough crust. If you've ever tried to make wild sourdough, you can really appreciate their crust.

                                    1. re: Morton the Mousse

                                      ....technically isn't it $20 bucks for a whole pizza plus the two small slices that have shown up laid on top my pies the two times I have enjoyed their pizza? Do they always do that?

                                      1. re: rcspott

                                        Yes, they even do that if you order just a slice. I usually get 2 slices and it ends up being 2 1/2 - 3 slices b/c of the freebies.

                                        1. re: rcspott

                                          The "bonus slice" is one of my favorite things about Cheeseboard. Generally, they will give one extra half slice per customer, although sometimes with a full pizza (or generous server) you'll get two. It's a bit counterintuitive, because the less pizza you order, the more you get for your dollar. If I order one slice, I actually get 1.5 slices for $2.50, averaging $1.70/slice. If I order half a pizza, I get 4.5 slices for $10, averaging $2.25/slice.

                                          The reasoning behind the bonus slice in genius: it assures that each full slice is served hot and fresh from the oven. If a pizza has been sitting out for too long, they just turn it into bonus slices. That way, they don't waste the lukewarm pizza, the don't reheat it, and they don't charge for it either.

                                          The bonus slice was the brainchild of founding Cheeseboard pizza member, and champion truffle maker, Kate Dowling. May she rest in peace.

                                    2. re: blexo

                                      $2.50 for a slice is cheap.

                                      One of Cheese Board Pizza's many, many eccentricities is that you don't save by ordering a whole pie.

                                      1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                        Indeed. Among the restaurants within easy walking distance of my office, the Cheese Board is the only one where I can score a satisfying lunch for $5.

                                        1. re: hohokam

                                          And, every time I walk in there to get a half-baked to go for dinner(incorrectly called it a pre-baked above), they always shove slices at me until I walk out the door. These people are anything but cheap with their goods.

                                          1. re: adrienne156

                                            Not at Cheeseboard but at another Berkeley pizzeria I asked for cheese 1/2 baked and when I went to get it it was cheese 1/2 bacon. I now ask for partially cooked.

                                    3. VIVOLI'S! You remember Vivoli's? I thought only I and my children remembered it. Never has there been better tasting gelato than at Vivoli's! The new ice cream place at Epicurious Garden does not come close. If they could copy the taste of Vivloli's spectacular gelato the area could again become legend.

                                      3 Replies
                                      1. re: threadmill

                                        The ice cream place at Epicurious Garden's a branch of the national Ciao Bella chain.

                                        1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                          ... and the worst gelato around, IMO. Can't really even call it gelato b/c of the fat content anyway.

                                        2. re: threadmill

                                          Vivoli's -- where I realized that my date (now husband) was a keeper -- over a cup of "oranges and cream". I really miss that place and those gorgeous gals scooping the behind the counter. Somehow, their gelato just seemed better; maybe it was just the first.

                                        3. What are Vintage Berkeley's strengths? Any particular regions, importers, styles, older vintages etc. ?

                                          1 Reply
                                          1. re: Nathan P

                                            Good values from all over. They have a relatively high percentage of adventurous customers, so they can sell things like Hungarian, Croatian, and South African wines, obscure Italian and French appelations, and so on.

                                          2. Very interesting thread. Having been in North Berkeley since the days of Lenny's and Pig by the Tail, etc., it was always my impression that the true gourmet ghetto designation stemmed from a combination of exceptional places to eat and exceptional places to buy high quality ingredients, within a compact, sustaining culture. For me, it was all the small shops and their individual character(s) that made the area what it was. At the time, it was also fairly unique: the gourmet ghetto was pioneering new taste adventures, at least in the US. It was a "destination" largely because there were no equivalent destinations.

                                            There certainly was a "diaspora" of sorts, but food culture also grew up, and outgrew that narrow corner of Berkeley. I also like to think that the original gourmet ghetto succeeded in teaching people to appreciate good food, and to cook, so that now everyone's gourmet ghetto is their own kitchen, fueled by their culinary imagination. The gourmet ghetto did its job as a catalyst, and we are all the richer for it.

                                            If there is a real "gourmet ghetto" candidate today it might be Washington St. in Yountville. Call it a world-class gourmet ghetto, but where else can one walk to four top-tier restaurants on a single street? (And I'm not counting Bistro Jeanty.) Michael Chiarello is building a new 150 seat bistro in the redeveloped Vintage marketplace, with a cooking school. All this newness makes Shattuck St. look rather run down by comparison, especially when you throw in the new Yountville resorts and Spa's going up. If Alice Waters ever wants to build a new restaurant it will be there, not here.

                                            Of course, the issue in Yountville is that most of the new development is for well-heeled tourists, not locals, but all that $$$ does support truly great restaurants.

                                            25 Replies
                                            1. re: santoku45

                                              As one of the tourists I believe the OP was referring to, I was most intrigued to read all of your comments. I had planned to spend a morning in the GG, partly because I've never been to Berkeley. I am now rethinking that plan. With only 4 days in the SF area, I don't want to waste time visiting an area that is not worth the trip... now what will we do with our reclaimed Friday morning ? :-)

                                              1. re: grayelf

                                                If you're having lunch at Zuni and dinner at Canteen, maybe a long walk to work up an appetite?

                                                1. re: grayelf

                                                  Don't give up. These opinions are comparing the good old days to a different present. Depending on where you are from, it may be very exciting to experience the gourmet ghetto as an great example of the marriage of neighborhood and foodie lifestyle. If you have a similar concept at home, this may be boring. I am afraid we can get jaded and forget to count our blessings, until I go to Ohio to visit the relatives and can't wait to get home so I can have a vegetable.

                                                  1. re: oaktowngirl

                                                    If Chez Panisse's neighborhood were dominated by foodies, there wouldn't be so many thriving mediocre restaurants!

                                                    1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                                      Of course there would be. Most thriving, free market specialty districts
                                                      are dominated by mediocre examples of whatever the specialty is.

                                                      1. re: uh ... art

                                                        Rockridge, Piedmont, Fourth Street, upper and lower Solano, Temescal, downtown Berkeley, the San Pablo / University area, and downtown Oakland all have a much higher percentage of restaurants I'd happily return to.

                                                        Of the neighborhoods around Berkeley and Oakland with a high concentration of restaurants, I think the "Gourmet Ghetto" has the highest percentage of places I wouldn't want to eat at twice.

                                                        1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                                          That is your preference, Robert. However I find myself at the Gourmet Ghetto more than the areas you mention.

                                                          I would say the the GG is anchored by Cheeseboard currently, but there are some other fine options in that area that are just not to your personal taste.

                                                          I think this post is a shame because, at the least, it has discouraged one poster from visiting a highly signigficant, food-worthy area.

                                                          That is not that I don't see your point. It was better in the old days but it is still pretty damn fine. You can not duplicate on a daily basis Cheeseboard or Chez Panisse elsewhere.

                                                          As Xiao Yang said, visitors should stop by. The other areas are for locals and not really tourists.

                                                          For locals I think for decades it was more than just the GG. I'd drive over from SF weekly just to shop at Berekeley Bowl, Andronicos, Cheeseboard, and Acme.

                                                          1. re: rworange

                                                            I don't think anyone has really dissed the Ghetto, just qualified what it represents today. And the poster who was "discouraged" seemed to be reading the boards with his eyes open. I will say, doing Berkeley without a car is a PITA, even when you like to walk as much as I do. It's not that the distances are that great, but the lack of anything interesting in between destinations makes it seem so.

                                                            1. re: rworange

                                                              My impression is that grayelf dropped Berkeley from the itinerary for their brief visit after realizing that their excellent plan to have lunch at Chez Panisse, take the Scharffen Berger tour, and shop at the Crate and Barrel outlet wasn't a very practical using public transportation.

                                                              Where do you eat / shop in that area besides the places I mentioned in my original post? I shop at the Cheese Board all the time myself. No one else in Berkeley can compete with the quality of their cheese or olives.

                                                              1. re: rworange

                                                                And Monterey Market, yes? I am reading this thread, nodding my head to rw's post above, but saddened that no one's mentioned the Monterey Market. Not exactly in the GG neighborhood, but surely, an arm's length away. It's my Mecca. the reason we added onto our house, 'cause it's w/in walking distance of MM, and I want to be like my neighbor Joe, walking to the market each day with white hair, bringing home a bag of oranges, a bag of shelling peas, a bag of somethin'.

                                                                My mom calls it "the food museum" because it has many of the foods she remembers from her childhood in Panama and Lima.

                                                                I know many people think the Berkeley Bowl is bigger, better. But the Monterey Market has heart. And crowded, scruffly floors and great people.

                                                                ...little plug for a big market.

                                                                1. re: bunky

                                                                  Monterey Market's in the Northbrae neighborhood, about a mile from the GG.

                                                                  The GG has two less interesting supermarkets, an Andronico's and a Safeway.

                                                                  1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                                                    ... and a nice little organic farmer's market on Thursdays.

                                                                      1. re: wolfe

                                                                        which is great for those of us that work!

                                                                        1. re: chemchef

                                                                          But hard for those of us that don't. It messes up my afternoon nap.

                                                      2. re: grayelf

                                                        I'm not much of a Berkeley fan (I did my time there 40 years ago) but think everybody should see it once. The comparison with the past should only serve to enhance Berkeley's reputation and gourmet creds. New "haute" foodie destinations pop up everywhere every day, but it's impressive that places like the Cheese Board, Peets, Monterey Market, etc. have been flying the flag with distinction for 40 years.

                                                        1. re: grayelf

                                                          Frankly if you're not going to have lunch in Berkeley, I wouldn't bother. If it's about food and you're not going to have a meal there, it will be a bit disjointed, i.e., nothing to anchor the experience.

                                                          That said, lunch at Chez Panisse, a snack at Cheese Board or Cesar, etc, some grazing would be well worth it. GG is one of the touchstones of new American cuisine, it's a good place to visit. I think it's a place most serious foodies would want to check out, given the chance, despite some jaded locals complaining.

                                                          Add-in a walk through campus and Telegraph Ave (get a Top Dog as mentioned) and a view from the Campanile would be a very pleasant half day. It doesn't get much better then a nice sunny day hanging out in Berkeley. That's why some people never leave.

                                                          P.S.: re: the complaining and jaded...reminds me of every/any place you visit. If you went to NYC and told a local you wanted to go to Nathan's on Coney Island, no doubt you'd hear all kinds of stuff, it's a mess, it's filthy, it's not like the old days, it's no good, no one goes there, go to Papaya King, you'll be mugged, blah, blah, blah. Despite this, I'd still go, I just keep my expectations in check and make it a goofy experience. You know, it might be fun.

                                                          1. re: ML8000

                                                            Who's complaining or jaded? We're lucky to have Chez Panisse, the Cheese Board, and the handful of other great spots in that neighborhood.

                                                            Personally I think a meal at CP belongs on the itinerary for any foodie's first visit to the Bay Area.

                                                            1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                                              Apologies if I inadvertently "dissed" anyone's opinion by suggesting I might omit the GG from my itinerary. All the SF Hounds have been incredibly gracious so I'll blame a nasty virus I was (and still am) suffering from. As I mentioned elsewhere today, I'm going to rethink the whole Berkeley thing and make it a full day car trip with lunch at Chez Panisse and dinner at Grayson's (sp?), either this trip if we can swing it or next, which I hope will be soon.

                                                              1. re: grayelf

                                                                Unless something happened since the last time I was at 900 Grayson, last week, they are still fighting for having dinner service against the Berkeley Zoning Authority and the neighbors.

                                                                1. re: wolfe

                                                                  They haven't quite gotten to the fight yet. They filed an application for a permit for longer hours, and it's scheduled for a hearing on the 27th.

                                                                2. re: grayelf

                                                                  No need to apologize, it's your plan and vacation.

                                                                  Now just imagine if everyone here was going along...then you'd certainly have to cancel. :)

                                                                  1. re: grayelf

                                                                    No worries - hounds have been arguing about Berkeley and the GG for years.

                                                                    If you have a car, a full day in the East Bay would definitely be worthwhile (check this thread for ideas: http://www.chowhound.com/topics/492473). After lunch at Chez, I would consider dinner at Pizzaiolo, Wood Tavern, or Dopo (my personal favorite). Lots of reports on these boards on all three.

                                                                    1. re: Morton the Mousse

                                                                      Thanks for the 411 on Grayson (maybe by the time we go they'll have the dinner permit) and the thread reference. If our other trips to SF are any indication we'll be having a brilliant time and eating superb food no matter where we go.

                                                          2. People keep opening them: most recently Maritime East and Digs Bistro. Though both those locations have had a lot of turnover.