Berkeley is a substantial city. With a growing population of over 110,000 individuals (100,000 of which can be found on a bicycle at any given time) and a college brimming with idealistic undergrads, we need a few solid options when it comes to dining out.
Good thing Berkeley’s the birthplace of the slow food movement, as well as the home of the world’s best hot dogs. And with that kind of range… there’s probably at least one place in town to fit your fancy. Here are the best restaurants in Berkeley right now.
The Best and Most Underrated Pizza Styles in America
Downtown The backyard beer garden at Jupiter is beautiful when it’s sunny, and heated when it’s cold. There’s really no bad time to visit. Go in and grab a seat outback -- perhaps near the fire pit -- and enjoy the outdoors while savoring a wood-fired pizza and sipping a house brew. If you’re more of the indoorsy type, the converted two-story livery stable dates back to the 1890s, and is chock full of local historical pieces. Jupiter’s pretty much a classic on the East Bay brewery scene. Scope the live music Tuesday through Saturday; it’s heavy on jazz, DJs, and Americana folk bands.
Corso features modern Italian food that’s pure Berkeley at heart. The produce and ingredients are sustainable and locally sourced, they butcher and prepare the meats in-house (including house-cured salumi), and the pasta is homemade with no pre-made sauces. Be sure to order the Branzino, an entire grilled sea bass, that tastes as good as it looks. Reservations are a good idea, and should you make this a date spot (and not parent night), snag counter seats overlooking the open air kitchen.
Berkeley Hills Ready to have the “let’s be exclusive” chat? Make the ask at this upscale, modern American spot. The dining room’s massive window wall overlooks a lush, green private garden -- the perfect setting for staging romance moves. Chef and owner Wendy Bruckner’s locavore menu changes with the season to best showcase seasonal meats, fish, and produce. The only constants are perfectly golden mushroom fritters curling with flakes of Parmigiano. The service is superb, and even if you get denied significant other status, don’t skip Rivoli’s desserts, made in-house by the pastry chef.
Downtown Of course Berkeley has a restaurant dedicated to your favorite deep-fried county fair foods done in the most artisanal way possible. Their whipped cream is homemade, their corn dogs are hand-dipped, and they prepare everything in house. Think caramel apples rolled in Fruity Pebbles; funnel cakes topped with caramelized bananas and drizzled with Ghirardelli chocolate; hand-cut bacon cheese fries; decadent sundaes; deep-fried Oreos.
Gourmet Ghetto The iconic Alice Waters opened Chez Panisse in 1971, and has been queen of California cuisine ever since. This is the birthplace of the slow food movement -- the sustainable, local, organic bounty that defines your Saturday morning farmers market ritual. If you’d like to one day revel in the tasting menu here, get wise to the reservation policy. If you’re footing the bill, eat upstairs at their more affordable Cafe (but don’t think that means you can skip the reservation). Prices are steep but eating here is a rite of passage for any self-proclaimed foodie.
1865 Euclid Avenue, Northside Berkeley Zach’s serves up healthy and delicious options for students (or non-students) on the move. Owner Jamal Fares hand-makes savory pies, with veggie and kosher meat options, that are easy to grab and eat on the go. You’ll also find homemade soups and quick snacks like fruits, chips, and coffee (coffee’s a snack, right?). It’s a tiny place, and only open 8am-3pm on weekdays, so be sure to plan accordingly.
Best spot for grabbing ice cream close to campus: Ici
Elmwood Ici serves up sinfully good scoops until 9pm on weekdays and 10pm on weekends. They use fresh, local, organic ingredients; source seasonal flavors; and prepare all their ice cream and desserts in small batches. And you can tell. It’s freaking delicious. Menus change daily and include standout flavors like candied Meyer lemon and ginger gingersnap. Best of all? The tips of their housemade sugar cones are filled with housemade chocolate.
West Berkeley Chaat are savory Indian snacks and if you haven’t tried one, now’s the time. On weekdays, Vik’s serves up delicious Indian street fare (including chaat) from 11am to 6pm -- and 8pm on weekends. The food court-style setting lets you pick and choose to your heart’s content, and the attached market is full of specialty groceries, so poke around in there after your belly is full. Word to the wise: There’s a wider selection on weekends, and you’ll wanna go early (or late) to avoid the lunch rush.
Gourmet Ghetto This culinary offshoot of the worker-owned Cheese Board Collective has been titillating tastebuds since 1985. There’s only one flavor of pie per day and you’re gonna have to wait in line (call-in orders are taken for eight or more pies only, and there’s no delivery), but it’s 100% worth it. There’s live music each day during lunch and dinner, which makes the wait a bit more bearable.
Elmwood If there’s such a thing as a sushi dive, Manpuku is it. A once long, skinny establishment that recently expanded to offer more group seating, it offers endless sushi rolls that won’t slim your wallet. Nigiri starts at $1.80, traditional rolls at $3.50, and the fancy dragon roll action tops out at $9.50. You may think at these prices the sushi leaves something to be desired, but that certainly is not the case. Stop in and be pleasantly surprised.
West Berkeley A classic breakfast joint with the gourmet twist, Tomate Cafe serves up mouthwatering dishes like the zucchini cakes, kale, fried apples, and applewood bacon (or chicken sausage) found in the ever-popular Harvest Plate. It’s the perfect stop-off before a lazy Sunday strolling the Fourth Street scene. Best of all? Canine friends are welcome on the airy back patio.
Northside What you’ll find here: juicy burgers, waffle fries with garlic herb aioli (or truffled parmesan, maple butter, or juicy fungi fries), beer on tap, and homemade milkshakes. It’s small, casual, no frills, and exactly where you’ll want to be after a few drinks.
Downtown In an area rife with amazing brunch options, none have a dish that competes with the lemon ricotta hotcakes topped with lemon curd, blackberry compote, and maple syrup from Venus. If you need to soak up last night’s sins, order the housemade biscuits with housemade pork sausage gravy, or go the Berkeley route and opt for a locally sourced omelette chock-full of seasonal veggies. It’s not big inside, but the cozy two top tables and intimate vibe provide the perfect setting for a brunch session with your sleepover sweetheart.
Southside Open until 2am on weekdays (and 3am on the weekend), Top Dog has been satisfying drunchie-induced gluttons since 1966. Go classic with the eponymous, all-beef Top Dog; ensure you sleep alone with the beef, pork, and fresh garlic German Frankfurter; or choose the health route (yes, dogs can be healthy) with the fan-favorite Chicken Apple. If the party’s at your place, pick up a six-pack of cold dogs and buns for the grill. There’s usually a crowd during the late-night hours, so expect some lively conversations.
Gourmet Ghetto Vegetable-laden rice bowls, beautiful tempura sushi rolls, and a delightful Kinoko Miso (mushroom-packed) soup are just a handful of the vegan-friendly treats on offer here. The interior is no-frills, but you’ll be too focused on your plate to even notice. Pro tip: It’s generally packed around lunch and dinner, and since there are no reservations, you’ll want to avoid primetime to dodge the line. Oh, and make sure to hit the ATM beforehand -- no cash, no soba salad for you.
Southside Tivoli is a campus favorite for a reason. Steps from the corner of Telegraph and Bancroft, students and faculty alike line up out the door for classics like the hot meatball sub, eggplant parm, or sauteed veggie and mozzarella sandwich. They also have solid breakfast offerings (like super-stuffed breakfast burritos and homemade French toast) that will do you right. You also can’t go wrong with the deep-dish pizza -- but you’re really here for the sandwiches. Too glutinous? Try the seriously tasty gluten-free pizzas, pastries, and sandwiches.
Southside Fast, cheap, and delicious -- you can’t go wrong at Gypsy’s. From 10am to midnight you can get massive portions of pasta, personal pizzas, and calzones at this cozy cafeteria-style spot on Durant. If you’re watching your calories they also offer protein-laden salads and sandwiches. If your waistline isn’t the issue, grab The Godfather, a creamy chicken and pancetta penne pasta dish that will set you back $10 and feed you for two days. On a budget? You’ll save a whopping 50 cents each time you pay cash (hey, it adds up).
Sign up here for our daily San Francisco email and be the first to get all the food/drink/fun SF has to offer.
Annie Crawford is an Oakland-based writer who spends half her time country-hopping in search of the perfect dessert.