Best Lunch Restaurants in Berkeley, CA
Berkeley is a lovely place to be, particularly in the spring and summertime. I've spent a ton of time visiting and living in the city: my boyfriend at the time went to Cal and I myself have resided there for several weeks at a time, working as an instructor at a high school debate camp (also held at Cal) for four consecutive summers. One of the first things I noticed, and later grew to love, was how many unique and delicious little restaurants there are for grabbing lunch. Some of these places are Bay Area classics, and others are native to Berkeley. Some are upscale gourmet eateries, and others are simply affordable and quick. For a city with a population of just 100,000 or so (relative to neighboring Oakland with 7x that), Berkeley would have to be in my list of top-5-food-coma-inducing cities in the US.
Alas, here is my list of favorites:
A tiny place with a giant menu alternating monthly, Gregoire is the ideal place for a delicious and reasonably priced gourmet lunch (much better deal than for dinner). In its North Berkeley location, Gregoire is nestled on the busy corner of Cedar and Shattuck, right in the heart of the Gourmet Ghetto. As I mentioned earlier, this menu changes each month! For lunch, you can safely expect about 9 sandwich options, along with soups, salads, sides, and dessert. A sandwich on its own is anywhere from $6-$9, but you would be a fool to miss out on the Crispy Potato Puffs. Priced at $4.50, they will certainly take a heavier toll on both your wallet and stomach, but not at the expense of potatoey happiness. The dipping sauce is always a surprise, but my favorite is definitely the chipotle mayo.
If you're in the mood for something authentic yet simple, and especially if you already have a draw towards Brazilian food, this is an awesome place to try. I first discovered Brazil Cafe when it was only in the form of a little shack on University Ave, at the North end of the UC Berkeley campus. There were green plastic tables and chairs under homey umbrellas, loud Brazilian music playing, and a friendly owner inviting hungry pedestrians to try samples of their famous tri-tip steak. Now, there's another, "fancier" location on Shattuck Ave with inside dining. Whereas the menu is inclusive of several sandwiches and plates, I have only ever gotten the tri-tip sandwich and mango smoothie. The sandwich is incredible: fresh, juicy cuts of tri-tip steak on warm, homemade french rolls. The glue that binds this delectable little ensemble is the creamy cilantro sauce, which I surely could eat by itself.
The Cheeseboard Collective
I couldn't write a Hub about my favorite places to eat lunch in Berkeley without mentioning a few of the obvious ones. Cheeseboard is a worker-owned cooperative that's been in operation since the late 1960s. It's actually part of a community of cooperatives,including this one. Part cheese store & bakery, part delectable pizza shop, Cheeseboard is the essence of class. They regularly feature a jazz band playing in the corner of the small dining area. The pizza menu changes daily, but two of my repeat favorites include the 4 cheese (mozzarella, fontina, asiago, goat) 3 onion (red, yellow, white) pizza and of course, the Roma tomatoes, onions, asiago, and fresh herbs pizza. Pizzas are $20 for a whole, $10 for half pie, and $2.50 per slice.
Upon getting over my irrational fear of Mexican food (not a beans person), I learned that refusing to eat the crispy tacos at Cactus would be a grave mistake. The taco shells are fresh-fried corn tortillas, filled with guacamole, cheese, 2 types of salsa (1 mild 1 spicy), and a mountain of lettuce. The menu is actually pretty vast, but I only get the crispy tacos (you may sense a trend, here) and the Nachitos. You also may be wondering what the Nachitos have to do with the crispy tacos. Well, the other incredible (and free!) part of the Cactus menu is the array of salsas. This is one of the few places I've had tacos where I did not think it was at all necessary to add anything to my little pockets of goodness, including salsa. But the salsa is too good! So, this is where the Nachitos come in: they are the necessary salsa delivery mechanism. On their own: tiny little chips with melted cheese on them. But they are only $2 (2 tacos range anywhere from $4.50-$6.00), and your backstage pass to accessing the Cactus salsas.
A great intersection to be at for: Gregoire, Cheeseboard, Barney's, and anything in the Gourmet Ghetto.
Steve's Korean BBQ
This is probably the best place to get the most bang for your buck. You can find Steve's located in the back of what Cal students refer to as the "Asian Ghetto" -- on Durant just south of Telegraph. If you're craving a giant plate of steamed rice with deliciously seasoned barbeque beef or chicken piled on top (I'd advise against experimenting too much with the rest of the menu), you must try Steve's. If you happen to be on a budget, you could easily feed yourself for a full day off of one of these $6-$7 plates. The other perk is that Steve's is open until midnight during the week. The appearance is not classy. It is not the perfect place to go on a romantic date. You should not expect "reward winning service." But don't let the haters scare you away from trying -- and instead check out its Yelp rating.
Vik's Chaat Corner
I've been told by many trusted sources that Vik's makes some of the best Indian food in the Bay Area. If you follow Channing Street all the way to 4th, you will probably see the 580 freeway. Hopefully, if you're on a mission for food you'll ignore the freeway and head straight to Vik's. Vik's is native to Berkeley, family run, authentic Indian cuisine. The samosas are prepared by hand, the dough is kneaded daily, and if you show up on the weekend, you get to eat the weekend specials! Just to give you an idea of what those weekend specials are: fresh dosas (savory crepes with various filling options), lamb baida rotis (roti stuffed with minced lamb), and more. They have most of the weekday chaats available as well, such as: aloo tikki, dahi batata puri, and of course all the samosas and pakoras you could ask for!
If you've never visited Berkeley...
Other, more standard places that are worth checking out: Top Dog (too obvious), Genova (Italian deli on 51st and Telegraph), and Barney's Gourmet Hamburger (many locations).