SFGuide

The Best Restaurants In Berkeley

Peking duck, bagels and lox, and Top Dog.
A plate of pad thai and chicken at Sistory Thai

photo credit: Brit Finnegan

There’s no place like Berkeley. For starters, it’s the home of the undisputed best grocery store in the world (Berkeley Bowl, for the uninitiated, and prepare to spend hours wandering the aisles). It’s the birthplace of Oski The Bear, the endearing and somewhat terrifying mascot that Cal students and alumni rally behind. And yes, there's some truth to the cliche that this place is still a hippie town (the city did pass the nation’s first soda tax). While these are all essential elements of the city’s identity, so too are its restaurants.

This guide is full of incredible places to eat, including a flower-filled patio for pizza-eating, a tiny Thai spot where the spice levels are dialed up to the max, and one of the country's most famous restaurants (Chez Panisse, but you knew that).

THE SPOTS

photo credit: Great China

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Chinese

Berkeley

$$$$Perfect For:Special OccasionsBig GroupsDrinking Good Wine
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Great China is the best spot for an upscale group dinner, especially if you’re out on the company card, or are a Cal student on a mission to prove you’re not a total degenerate when your parents come to town. The Northern Chinese restaurant, which could pass for an industrial fine art gallery, serves non-stop hits in mountainous portions. Have the whole Peking duck on your table. The crisp skin is fanned out like a sun over a mound of roast meat, and the side pancakes are delicate enough to see through. Fish dumplings, sticky spare ribs, and platters of slippery double skin should also fill your lazy susan, along with a bottle or two (you’re here to impress after all) from their 26-page wine list. 

This ridiculously small Thai spot (there are only about 15 seats) isn’t just a restaurant—it’s an all-out flavor experience. They specialize in pungent, sinus-clearing comfort food that’s funky, sour, and sweet all at once. It’s hard to believe that this blink-and-you'll-miss-it place, jammed right in the middle of a West Berkeley strip mall, is home to dishes that are this loud and bright. It’s nearly impossible to order wrong here, but the chicken wings tossed in chili jam, an actually hot hot papaya salad, and the red curry with rock cod are the greatest hits. And since you’re here, you might as well get loose over some wine, and don’t resist a selfie in the bathroom under the multi-colored lights. 

Rose Pizzeria should always be the backdrop for charming pizza dinners you’ll want to last for hours. You’ll dine on excellent thin-crust pies on the quiet, flower-filled patio that feels like you’re actually in a friend’s backyard. Your knowledgeable server will talk up the natural wines on offer, and then drop off a spicy miso caesar salad and plates of salami and cheese. About those pies: they excel at the sweet-salty balance (combos include sausage and caramelized fennel, and burrata and garlic confit), and the crusts are crisp and charred in all the right ways. 

Ask 10 people where to go if you’re visiting Berkeley for the first time, and the answer will likely be Cheese Board Pizza. The worker-owned co-op, an offshoot of the famous Cheese Board a few doors down, has been attracting a line out the door for over 20 years. The fact that they serve one type of pizza a day (it rotates) and do their own thing with them has a lot to do with it. That thing is taking a bunch of the super fresh ingredients and mashing them together to create sort-of-unusual flavor combos (like green tomatoes, mozzarella, and garlic breadcrumbs). The result is thin, sourdough pizza goodness. Line up at least once, and then, inevitably, many more times. 

photo credit: Krescent Carasso

$$$$Perfect For:BrunchBreakfast

The perfect Saturday should involve zero plans, other than devouring the Maryland plate at the classic Fourth Street breakfast haunt Oceanview Diner (it dropped Bette’s from the name after an ownership change). This corned beef hash will make you climb up on the counter and break into a ballad about the fall-apart meat and jiggly poached eggs that meld together like soulmates. It’s one of many hearty diner standbys that this spot nails. Fluffy pancakes, loaded omelettes, and, of course, free coffee refills attract families, solo diners, and hungover students daily. Just be prepared to pop into the nearby toy shops and boutiques selling fancy leggings while you wait. There will be a wait. 

Late nights and hot dogs just go together. We don’t make the rules. This kind-of-a-dive hot dog institution near the UC Berkeley campus (it’s been around since the ‘60s and is open until 2am) is a rite of passage for Cal students, or anyone motivated by the greased-up, meaty aroma of blistering kielbasa, hot links, brats, and franks. Order at the counter with cash in hand ($5 credit card minimum and most dogs are $4.50), wait outside for the dog (and, likely, be chatted up by a local who “remembers coming here back when…”), and then slather on the mustard and fresh onions.

If Hashtag Poki was located in the middle of Interstate 80 during rush hour traffic, we’d still send you there—the deceivingly simple poke bowls are incredible. Fortunately, there’s no need to subject yourself to that 10th circle of hell. Just walk up to this fast-casual spot on a quiet stretch near campus to order. This is a build-your-own bowl situation: pick a fish like hamachi, albacore, and salmon so buttery it’s downright luxurious, and mix in the avocado, fried garlic, and housemade yuzu sauce. Once you’ve done it your way (and said goodbye to meat forever)—ponder pursuing life as an angler at sea. 

A meal at this enormous West Berkeley warehouse feels a bit like eating in a food court. You order your Indian street food at the counter, pick up your metal tray (or, more likely, trays) from one of several pick-up stations, and then find a seat in the large cafeteria-style hall. This casual (and loud) place is a great option for just light snacks and big meals that should definitely include plump samosas, savory uttapam, the lamb biryani, and puris covered in yogurt and tamarind chutney. It also doubles as a market, so pick up rice, frozen paneer wraps, biscuits, or teas before heading out.  

Greetings from Chez Panisse, the Berkeley institution that’s considered the godmother of the farm-to-table movement. Yes, it’s incredible, but have you met Chez Panisse Cafe, located just upstairs? It’s got the same hyper-seasonal produce, and, most importantly, the experience comes at a more reasonable price (it's a la carte, unlike Chez Panisse’s $175-per-person set dinner). So go in on the pizzas topped with fruits and vegetables at their absolute peak, order the bright pink salmon that grew up on the shores within driving distance, and rendezvous with the ripest beet ever. Stained glass, copper accents, flower arrangements, and white tablecloths add romance to the always-crowded place. Get here for special celebrations, fancy lunches, or simply to feel rich. 

Pizzeria Da Laura is cranking out New York- and pan-style pizzas that sing. Pillowy crusts, simple yet bright tomato sauce, and high-quality toppings are how this spot (run by a Tony’s Pizza Napoletana alum) nails pie perfection. There are some homemade pastas and meatballs on the menu, but really, getting the Ray J overflowing with mozzarella, burrata, and deep pepperoni cups, or the Sicilian-style Regina (an international pizza award winner, if you care about that sort of thing) is the roadmap to pizza-party success. This place is buzzy, with two stories of seating, wine, and several TVs for your sports-watching pleasure. Think of this spot as a pizza-centric meet-up spot for grad students and theatergoers, or anyone looking to have a good time. 

photo credit: Julia Chen

$$$$Perfect For:BreakfastLunch

We don’t like relying on superlatives to convey love, but we’ll make an exception: this tiny takeout-only bagel shop on College Avenue makes the best bagels in the Bay. They’re New York-style, plump and chewy, with a perfect crunchy bottom. The usual bagel suspects are here, like poppy, garlic, and cinnamon raisin, and they nail the more interesting hybrids—earthy pumperthingel (pumpernickel and everything), and the salty-sweet eggything. While it’s never a bad move to go for the well-stuffed sandwich filled with lox and vegetables, we prefer things simple. The order: untoasted everything with fluffy chive cream cheese all the way. 

Lemat is the go-to spot for comforting Ethiopian food, and it also feels like a neighborhood clubhouse. Contrary to what you’d expect from a cavernous space, this spot is warm and friendly—and perfect for spending a couple of hours scooping up aromatic stews, sauteed tibs, and the raw beef kitfo special with springy, all-teff injera. We also love the surprisingly good cocktail menu, which includes a peppery berbere margarita and the gin-based pineapple juice fizz. 

Enter Bartavelle and you’ll want to lock your phone in a box. You know, to focus your attention on the housemade pastries, seasonal toasts, and salads—and succumb to the cafe’s no-rush energy (the former quick grab takeout window is now a permanent, larger, and more tranquil space down the block). Golden-brown coconut macaroons and buttery sweet and savory scones are royalty, but the showstopper is the Persian breakfast, hands down. It's a nicely balanced plate of pickles, lebneh, and a pile of fresh herbs, plus a side of pizza bianca. This place transforms into a sexy wine bar at night, so don’t be surprised when you find yourself here twice in one day. 

The whole hyper-seasonal California thing can feel rote and overdone (we've had too many rapini, sunchoke, or goat cheese-topped tartines and pizzas to count). Thankfully, this is never the case at Standard Fare in West Berkeley. The food at this breakfast/lunch spot from a Chez Panisse alum tastes exciting and new every time thanks to a menu that changes daily (lunch is typically a vegetarian sandwich, a meat sandwich, salad versions of each, and a special of the day). Another reason is the ingredients, from rockfish and turnips to spiced sausage and fennel, are the most impeccable, freshest versions of themselves—and simply done to maximize flavor. Order a cappuccino to go with everything, and then grab a seat on the shaded patio out front. 

photo credit: Fish & Bird Izakaya

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Berkeley has a fair share of casual izakayas serving passable but slightly underwhelming dishes. But not Fish & Bird. The food at this lively and a tad upscale spot downtown stars traditional Japanese dishes, zhuzhed up by the freshest seasonal produce, simple-yet-stylish presentation, and neurosurgery-level attention to detail. Lightly fried green beans topped with curry sansho salt are crunchy perfection. The housemade soft tofu is a cream bomb topped with scallions and ginger. If the night calls for seafood, the chef’s selection of thick-cut sashimi is fantastic. The menu changes daily, so no two visits will ever be the same. 

This long-standing deli has been serving excellent, comforting Jewish staples since 1986. The high-ceilinged space is packed with enough tables to fit your entire extended family, and deli cases stocked with an impressive roster of baked things, like hamantaschen, cake slices, and black and white cookies. Slide into a red diner-style booth, and feast on hearty chicken schnitzel, reubens, and a solid matzo ball soup. And know it’s legally required to order a whole bag of housemade hand-rolled bagels. They’re hefty stunners evenly coated in everything seasoning, poppy seeds, and sesame. 

Note: Lulu has closed up their West Berkeley location and will re-open on Solano Avenue soon. Stay tuned for updates.

Two words that define the Lulu experience: mezze brunch. The $30-per-person feast (presented on wooden turntables and tiered stands like they’re gifts) is an eye-catching assortment of creamy dips and homemade breads, including a chewy-crispy mana’eesh, plus pickles, crudités, and feta-topped egg salad, served only on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays. This Palestinian brunch spot in West Berkeley does not disappoint, so you’ll leave happy even if you come on a non-brunch day (they’re open for dinner, too). Get the seasonal preserve-topped halloumi sandwich on a soft bun, and make sure a fragrant rose-spiked latte is on the table, too. 

Korean Superette makes us want to drop in with a good book—or a daily affirmations journal—and chill all day. A lot of these feelings have to do with the stellar Korean comfort dishes. Think udon noodles in a hearty black soybean sauce, spicy gojuchang-braised tteokbokki with thick fish cake ribbons, and the silkiest tofu stew overflowing with octopus, scallops, and shrimp. The fact that this spot doubles as a mini mart stocked with instant ramen and freezers full of the biggest frozen mandu ever is certainly an added plus. Order from the counter, make sure the creamy iced matcha latte is part of the mix, and head for a seat on the backyard patio—this place looks like an idyllic garden diorama with tons of flowering trees and bushes, and plenty of shade. 

photo credit: Julia Chen

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$$$$Perfect For:Lunch

Anyone who hits up farmers markets like it’s a competitive sport will become a regular at Fava. The lunch-only takeout window in North Berkeley specializes in healthy, vegetable-heavy dishes with a Mediterranean bent. Flatbreads are loaded with falafel and herbs, glossy steelhead is served over tabbouleh and marinated beets, and lentil soup is finished off with dill. Ending the meal with a tahini chocolate chip cookie, dusted with sesame seeds and crisp around the edges, is always a move we endorse. This light lunch will fuel you through an entire day, yet never send you into a too-full-induced nap. 

When’s the last time you had lobster ravioli tom kha at your neighborhood Thai restaurant? We’re going to assume the answer is, “Wait, what is lobster ravioli doing in my tom kha?” Sistory Thai on San Pablo sets itself apart by serving exciting food we don’t often see at other casual spots we rely on for quick dinners before slouching on the couch. Aside from the lobster ravioli in creamy coconut broth, there are other dishes that hold our attention, too. The crispy cod tacos are wrapped in the flakiest roti and topped with mayo. The Northern Thai specialty, kanoom jeen nam ngew, is a big bowl of luxurious pork rib stew with vermicelli noodles, minced pork, and pickled vegetables. Like any great neighborhood spot, this place is charming, with faux brick walls, flowers, friendly servers, and happy people filling the tables in the small space.

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