One upscale restaurant in Berkeley?
Hey, I'm a Vancouver chowhounder, visiting in the East Bay. My hosts want me to pick a "fancy" restaurant for Tuesday, but I don't know enough to make a decision on my own. I'm hoping some Bay Area chowhounders might be able to help me out. I'm already aware of Chez Panisse as the prototype Berkeley restaurant, but I'm curious what others might have to say about it and other upscale restaurants in Berkeley. I'm open to ethnic cuisines, but it seems like I should be aiming for something "California".
In general, "Berkeley" and "upscale" don't go together. There are good restaurants, of course--just not fancy ones. A couple of places to consider that fit your "California" category are Rivoli on Solano Ave and Cafe Rouge in the Fourth Street shopping area. Cafe Rouge is more consistent in its use of local, seasonal ingredients, and parking will be easy. Rivoli has a more charming space and the food and service can be quite good, although I've encountered occasional lapses in both. Either would be a good choice based on what you've described.
Go to Chez Panisse Cafe if you can get in. I've had outstanding meals there. It's in Berkeley proper. I haven't been to Oliveto since Canales left but recent reports say the food is still good, so I'd second this as an "upscale" choice. Love Commis but it's a tasting menu format only now and everyone would need to want to do that. Camino is my go to EBay restaurant for perfect cocktails, delicious food cooked on open fire, and relaxed, warm setting good for all occasions.
Thumbs up re Chez Panisse Cafe (and the "fancier" downstairs Chez Panisse Restaurant, w/ a daily fixed price menu).
Wood Tavern: good second choice.
While I like Cafe Rouge, I don't think it's a special occasion place. Rivoli can be good, but isn't always. I'm down on Oliveto's these days (small portions, high prices, some items like pastas are brilliant, other dishes not so much). And I know I'm in the minority on this Board, but I find Commis precious.
De gustibus..... And have a lovely time in the East Bay!
Oh, and a follow-up. You asked about impressions of Chez Panisse. Be aware there is a downstairs and an upstairs. The downstairs is the "fancy" side of CP, and is a fixed price menu. It can be hard hard to get reservations. In my opinion, The interesting menus tend to be weekends, and of course are fairly highly priced on those days, and harder to get reservations. During the week I find there are more moderately priced menus, but too often in my opinion, you find it to be fare you could make easily enough at home (which of course was kind of the point and "mission" of CP originally). But spending $30 for a game hen? meh.
The upstairs is more casual, and the menu gives choices. I've found the upstairs to be wonderful and disappointing --sort of depends on what you order. Of course, the times it was disappointing were when I went with overly high expectations based on the wonderful times.
I think you are wise to look around for alternatives: CP no longer stands alone on the top of the mountain.
Downtown Berkeley I highly recommend Revival. Cocktails, chalkboard full of the day's fresh choices. Near BART if that matters.
Then, all the other suggestions are good:
Cafe Rouge (west)
Wood Tavern (college ave)
Plum (oakland downtown, tres hip)
Oliveto (Rockridge oakland)
Commis (piedmont, only amazing tasting menu)
These restaurants are nice, but upscale - nope. And I agree, Chez Panisse is far from the only game in town. I'd rather fight the traffic through the Caldecott and go to Artisan/Lafayette for really great food.
BUT: "fancy" implies not just food, but upscale service and extra-nice atmosphere.
I would go to Meritage at the Claremont Hotel. Despite CH's bankruptcy Meritage is doing fine - this is their busy summer season. Be aware parking is now privately vendored-keep your parking ticket AND the validation ticket the waiter gives you – you'll need both plus probably $2 extra to cover a dinner's parking tab.
On the lobby level of the hotel, Meritage was once on the high end of prices but is now firmly in the middle – they have not raised prices in almost two years. One extremely nice aspect is that ALL their dishes, even pre fixe specials, are available in half-portions. It is a great way to try a number of dishes!
Be aware the waitstaff sometimes forgets to mention the kitchen does a true classic hot chocolate souffle but needs 15 min. to produce it, so best if you tell them ahead of time. This is a real "Mastering the Art of French Cooking" type of souffle, a little sweeter and with a good but not super-intense cacao flavor. It's lovely; a delightful trip down Memory Lane that makes you wonder why restaurants stopped offering this wonderful type of dessert.
THE VIEW IS SPECTACULAR. There is no better view in the East Bay, period. In fact, there are not many SF restaurants with a view like this, from downtown SF across both the Bay Bridge and Golden Gate Bridge, and the Marin foothills. Bring your sunglasses if it's sunny, though – the dining room faces west.
We have eaten here three times in the last two years. When Meritage is "on", it ranks above any other restaurant in Berkeley just from the combination of good food, good service – and the chairs are actually comfortable, thank God, with decent sized tables – and a real only-in-the-Bay-Area scenic vista.
Chez Panisse downstairs, Oliveto upstairs, and Rivoli are the places that are really on the fancy side.
Wood Tavern and A Cote have first-rate food and service but the atmosphere is very casual.
Ajanta, good Indian food with white tablecloths etc.
Pican for upscale Southern food.