Thursday, June 05, 2008

48 Hours in Berkeley or Why I Envy my Son

At last, we arrived in Berkeley. I was beside myself with excitement but filled with questions. America’s epicentre of student radicalism looms large in the imagination of anyone raised in 1960s America. This was the home of the Free Speech Movement and a place where students had put their careers on the line to fight for civil liberties. But what would it be like in post 9/11 America, where would Berkeley now come down on the civil liberties versus national security debate and what would Eloise make of it all.

In every way, Berkeley exceeded expectations. Eloise’s expectations were simple. She just wanted to hang out with her brother and so we did. He proudly gave us a tour of the beautiful University, where Nobel prize winners are so numerous that they have their own parking spaces. He drove us around the lovely Berkeley hills. We watched him play a spirited match of Ultimate Frisbee. Eloise attended a Game Theory class at the Haas School of Business and to the surprise of the other students, launched herself into a discussion of Red Bull marketing. While this was going on, I attended a presentation by Matt Kistler, SVP for Sustainability at Wal-Mart. Although Kistler convinced me that Wal-Mart was paying serious attention to the environment, I still had trouble connecting his remarks to my experience as a Wal-Mart customer. Nevertheless, I valued the fact that Berkeley had organised the debate, that Kistler had agreed to speak and that I was allowed to attend.

As part of Eloise’s sentimental education, we paid a visit to the activists who set up shop daily on the campus’s Sproul Plaza. At the time, Free Tibet was the hot topic. We also had a lengthy discussion with a young woman named “Citizen” who was handling communications for the Memorial Oak Grove Tree Sit, a group that has been living for over a year in trees which the University would like to cut down to build a sports center. Eloise suggested that we throw some food into the trees for the campaigners but Citizen said we should join the Sunday gathering of grandmothers who were resupplying the treesitters. Otherwise, we might get arrested. Of course, there are always two sides to every story and the counter-argument to Citizens position was well articulated in an open letter sent to all students by the UC Berkeley police chief. If you’re interested, you can read the letter here. Eloise and her brother (who supports the University and as a Native American studies major in college, claims that the Indian burial ground argument is rubbish) had lively debates about the issue.

In addition to the treesitters, we also made a point of visiting the Code Pink:Women for Peace (aka the Pink Ladies) campout in front of the Marine Recruiting Office which was also attended by a large contingent of Berkeley police and a group who opposed the Pink Ladies waving American flags. This time, Eloise felt the police presence was out of proportion to the threat posed by the singing women in pink outfits and we had another discussion about civil liberties, free speech and national security. I was really happy that Eloise had a chance to see an American city that was so engaged in debating the big issues of the day. She takes so much flack in Europe for her American heritage. The next time she is accused of coming from a country of apathetic ignoramuses who don’t care about the rest of the world, she can respond, “I have been to Berkeley and I know better.”

But our stay in Berkeley was not all protestors and politics. It was also about the pleasures of an interesting hotel, fabulous food, and the great outdoors. While in Berkeley, we stayed at the historic landmark hotel, the Berkeley City Club which was built by Hearst Castle architect, Julia Morgan, for a woman’s organization dedicated to fostering social, civic and cultural progress. Much of Morgan’s signature style, used to such great effect at Hearst Castle, such as the gorgeous 1930s swimming pools and the flamboyant Moorish Gothic architecture, can also be found in this wonderful club and hotel in Berkeley. The hotel rooms are comfortable, paying tribute to the club’s genteel antecedents and feeling much like a very nice bedroom at your granny’s. Rooms look out over either the San Francisco Bay or the Berkeley hills. Staff is appealingly eccentric. Arriving back late one evening, the desk clerk used us as an impromptu focus group to critique the cover of his new 1980s disco compilation CD. The City Club’s location, a block away from the UC Berkely campus and a few minutes walk from the BART rapid transport system, couldn’t be better. For all of this we paid $125 a night for our room with breakfast included which I felt was good value given that we were staying in a fantastic bit of history in such a great location.

As for food, eating in Berkeley is like dying and going to heaven. Starting with Peets, the cult-like purveyor of coffee and tea on the corner of Walnut and Vine, to the nearby Cheese Board and Pizza Collectives (no boss, no manager, no non-owner worker) which serves some of the best tasting cheese, bread and pizza found anywhere in the United States, to the small restaurant across the street, Chez Panisse, which single headedly created a philosophy of food that changed the way America eats, this is a city which cares passionately about what it eats.

During our stay we ate at a remarkable delicatessen called Saul’s that could give Katz’s Delicatessen in New York a run for its money. The pastrami sandwich brought tears of homesickness to my eyes. Our dinner at the Chez Panisse Café, was everything I hoped it would be. We loved the lively informality of the Café, which looked like more fun than the shrine-like restaurant to “Saint Alice” downstairs. We had asparagus with lemon, ricotta and herbs, halibut with leeks, turnips, potatoes and romesco sauce, duck braised with artichokes and rosemary and polenta and Lee chowed down on a large piece of rib-eye roast with potatoes, spinach and anchovy butter. Prices were fair with starters ranging from $7.50 to $14 and mains from $17 to $28. There was even a 3 course prix fixe for $28 which looked good.
We also had a fabulous pizza lunch with root beer from the Cheeseboard Pizza Collective sitting, in clear defiance of the law on the grass median right in the middle of Shattuck Avenue, just like everyone else.

On top of all the amazing places to eat in Berkeley, the city also has one of the coolest owner/operator grocery stores in America. If you want to see what Whole Foods was like before it went the way of ‘big organic’, head for the 40,000 square foot Berkeley Bowl, located about one mile south of downtown Berkeley. The produce aisles will blow your mind. There’s an aisle as long as a football field devoted just to citrus, another just for mushrooms. People from all walks of life and income levels were in there shopping up a storm. Prices were fair and the quality and selection was extraordinary. This may sound silly but I found this grocery store very inspiring. Every American deserves to eat better and owner/operated businesses deserve to succeed. I thought the Berkeley Bowl pointed the way to how both those goals could be achieved.

In addition to the incredible food, another thing that blew our minds during our stay was a trip to visit the coastal redwoods in the Muir Woods National Monument. Just 12 miles north of the Golden Gate Bridge, this is the sole remaining stand of old growth redwoods trees in the Bay Area and one of the last on the planet. It’s a heavily visited place but you can easily get away from the crowds by taking one of the many trails leading out of the valley. And its more than worth the effort. There is something about these awe inspiring, ancient trees, some more than 1,000 years old towering more than 250 feet above your head, that puts your place in the universe into sharper perspective. After communing with the majestic trees, we headed for the Marin Headlands, which, along with Muir Woods, is part of a 75,398 acre Golden Gate National Recreation Area. Seeing so much magnificent (and valuable) land saved from development, stretching for miles along the Pacific Ocean within spitting distance of San Francisco, was also an inspiring experience. As we drove across the Golden Gate Bridge, I had the thought that being envious of your own child was unattractive and un-maternal, but in the case of my Bay area son, I couldn’t help myself. This place is just too perfect. Come see for yourself.

Useful Addresses

Berkeley City Club
2315 Durant Avenue
Tel: 510 848 7800
Fax 510 848 5900

Peets Coffee & Tea
2124 Vine Street
516 841 0564

The Cheese Board Collective
Bread and cheese: 1504 Shattuck Ave
510 549 3183
Pizza: 1512 Shattuck Ave
510 549 3055

Chez Panisse Restaurant and Café
1517 Shattuck Avenue
Café reservations: 510 548 5049
Restaurant reservations: 510-548 5525

Saul’s Restaurant & Delicatessen
1475 Shattuck Avenue
Tel: 510 848 3354

Berkeley Bowl Marketplace
2020 Oregon Street
510 843 6929

Muir Woods National Monument
Tel: 415 388 2595
Admission: $3
Open 8am to sunset or 5pm in winter

1 comment:

  1. Hi Kate,

    Enjoyed your final California installments on San Francisco and Berkeley. Only thing I would've done differently is take that red Chevy for a huge circular drive around the Bay. One reason why the Bay Area's epi-center of the U.S. Green and environmental movements is its stupendously amazing geological locale. Yeah, London has the Thames, Paris the Seine, New York the East and Hudson Rivers, but no world-class city I know of has anything which resembles the grandeur of the Bay. I would posit, a major definitive difference between LA and San Francisco lies in their respective geographies. LA was settled and built by people of narrower mind and focus, who could abide no physical or human obstacle (The Otis family, founder of LA Times) to their ambition. Whereas, San Francisco attracted those of more creative and accommodative bent. The aura of tolerance and kookiness which pervade the Bay Area, vs. the stifling homogeneity amid Diaspora (a.k.a Crash!) which defines LA, can all be traced from their geographic differences.

    It's hard to know on whom your trip has had greater impact, you or Eloise!

    The Travel Yente