| | By Anneli Rufus
We love our local shopping and dining districts, and we think we know them inside and out. But what makes our favorite streets really unique? What makes Rockridge unmistakably Rockridge, and what sets Solano Avenue apart? And while simply visiting these spots counts as shopping local, what can be found there that was created right nearby—or maybe right on the spot?
Urban and diverse, with grandly mature trees shading its broad, flat-as-a-board avenues signaling a long if not always happy history, formerly world-weary Temescal has undergone a pizza- and injera-flavored renaissance. Every new generation of hipsters and yupsters has its treasured Transformationland which 20-somethings can claim to have discovered and rehabbed and whose real estate they can mercifully afford.
For the crowds scoring local art at Smokey’s Tangle and other galleries, thronging Homeroom, CommonWealth, Doña Tomás, and Burma Superstar for mac-and-cheese, stout, carnitas, and green-tea salad, browsing the Temescal Farmers Market or scavenging donated effluvia at the East Bay Depot for Creative Reuse, Temescal is it.
“Our greatest strength is a sense of community, a camaraderie,” says Julie Stevens, who owns 17 Jewels Salon. “The relationships we build with one another in Temescal are not like those of any other neighborhood. It feels as if everybody’s working together, watching out for one another—the kids, the homeless, everybody. They say ‘It takes a village.’ Temescal is the village.”
What’s hyperlocal here? Indigo-dyed handbags handmade according to the traditional Japanese shibori technique by acclaimed Oakland-based craft duo Job & Boss, sold at Esqueleto. Botanically based hair products at Fig & Clover, the beauty bungalow, devised by owner Ari Huitzilopochtli with a chemist’s help.
Lined with impeccable terracotta-, turquoise-, and biscuit-colored storefronts, Rockridge manages to be both folksy (in a wink-wink, $200 sandals way) and (in an understated, East Bay way) posh. Mere steps away from flower-bedecked, painstakingly restored million-dollar homes, this leafy stretch of College Avenue might be Oakland’s Rodeo Drive.
Rockridge’s easygoing luster is a few generations deep: Dreyer’s Ice Cream is headquartered here, and decades-old destinations such as McNally’s Irish Pub, Chimes Pharmacy, Oliveto, Katrina Rozelle Pastries, and Murasaki Fine Futon Shop thrive quietly alongside trendy newbies such as Trappist Provisions and the Ramen Shop.
“It’s an actual neighborhood, complete with neighbors,” says Margaret Simpson, the children’s book buyer at Diesel, A Bookstore. “It’s heterogeneous. All kinds of families live and shop here, including gay couples—and almost everyone has a dog. Nearly all the stores in Rockridge welcome dogs, and in many stores the dogs come right up to the cash register, knowing they’ll get treats. It’s friendly that way.”
What’s hyperlocal here? Thelma Harris Art Gallery specializes in original works by East Bay artists, especially artists of color, including Julie Richardson, Bill Dallas, and Amana Johnson. Tara’s Organic Ice Cream comes in more than 100 flavors; buy it here or mail-order it online. Pegasus Books carries new and used copies of books by Oakland authors from Jack London to Mary Roach to Yiyun Li.
Jam-packed with more restaurants, shops, salons, and other businesses per square block than nearly any other East Bay neighborhood—including pamper-yourself playgrounds such as Chez Simone, Given Gold, Bay Wolf, Commis, Wine on Piedmont, and Piedmont Springs—Piedmont Avenue evokes the unpretentious charm of an aging socialite who maintains high standards and has nothing to prove. The genteel get-everything gathering place for Piedmont and North Oakland residents, among others, for over a century, Piedmont Avenue is an awninged and streamlined architectural jewel box whose nostalgic gems include the Piedmont Cinema, screening films since 1917.
Shops, restaurants, and bars such as Blue Door Beads, Folks’ Art, the Kona Club, and Piedmont Grocery are as welcoming as they come, especially during the monthly Piedmont Avenue Strolls. Being sandwiched between Kaiser Permanente Medical Center and Mountain View Cemetery—with its Julia Morgan–designed Chapel of the Chimes—keeps the avenue real.
“Piedmont Avenue is a little world in the middle of a big city. I refer to it as ‘Mayberry with a tattoo’—because it’s probably a lot more tight and friendly than many true small American towns,” says Nathan Waldon, owner of Nathan & Co. “We merchants know most of our neighbors and customers by name. A Saturday in our store or on the avenue is like a party.”
What’s hyperlocal here? Greetings sells cards made by Oakland artists and is a go-to shop for Oaklandish clothing. Fentons Creamery, which claims to have invented rocky road ice cream—as does its Rockridge neighbor, Dreyer’s—has been creating its own ice creams and toppings for over a century. Piedmont Yarn & Apparel offers hand-knitted and crocheted clothing created by local artisans, including owner Bente Petersen and manager Michaela Popoff.
On this northerly stretch of Shattuck Avenue and its offshoots, it’s all about the eats. Amid remarkably unremarkable architecture, crowds from near and far tuck into stinging-nettle risotto, thin-crusted arugula-hazelnut pies, and other stratospheric palate-pounders at Chez Panisse, the Cheese Board Collective, and other outposts studding this birthplace of California cuisine—and then, forever afterwards, boast of having done so. Waiting on long lines for towering cups of velvety rich coffee at Peet’s and Philz, sampling dinosaur kale at the North Berkeley Farmers Market and scoring swatches of sustainable carcasses at the Local Butcher Shop are all essential to the Gourmet Ghetto experience.
But between the sips and bites, this district’s salons and unique retail shops offer styles, services, inventory, and conscientious extras—European footwear shines at the Walk Shop; Vine Street Salon donates a portion of its proceeds to charity; Firehouse Gallery North is just one of many local collectives—that reflect the same visionary diversity as do the area’s award-winning menus.
“Gourmet Ghetto is where some of the world’s most famous foodies gather and test the limits of great organic and sustainable food bites paired with democratic pricing,” says Roy Fong, owner of the Imperial Tea Court.
What’s hyperlocal here? Holistic Hound offers dog beds made in Berkeley by family-owned For Your Dogs Only. Housed in a historic former pumping plant, Vintage Berkeley stocks wines from Berkeley’s Broc Cellars. At Masse’s Pastries, classically trained Paul and Marcia Masse offer a wide range of seasonal pastries, tarts, cakes, and other freshly baked delights.
Chockablock with irresistibly lush, luxurious, and drop-dead adorable restaurants and retailers, Fourth Street is where Berkeleyites go when they aren’t ashamed of being upper-crust—or at least of looking and feeling upper-crust. Taking an intermediate fusing class at the Stained Glass Garden, testing organic mattresses at Earthsake, choosing fine pens at Castle in the Air, selecting drawer handles at Restoration Hardware, picking out the hottest titanium frames at Lunettes du Monde, one can finally ditch the Che shirt, stop pretending not to be pretentious, and let the fancy flag fly. In look and feel, Fourth Street gazes resolutely toward the hills and turns its back on everything maritime; Spenger’s Fresh Fish Grotto and the name of always-packed Bette’s Oceanview Diner—itself a nod to this neighborhood’s 19th-century moniker—are the only clues that San Francisco Bay shimmers mere blocks away.
“Fourth Street represents a vision of independent retailers, each with their own flavor, working together to create a unique destination,” says Michael Endlich, owner of Pavé Fine Jewelry. “This is not a chain-driven shopping district. It’s all about small businesses—that feeds the community, and that’s really strong.”
What’s hyperlocal here? Téance sells chewy mochi that is handmade with garden-grown ingredients in El Cerrito, just a few minutes’ drive away. The exquisite papers sold at Miki’s Paper are made in Japan, but here at the shop they are handcrafted into one-of-a-kind cards, journals, and other must-haves. At Chocolatier Blue Parlor, chef Danyelle Forte makes ice creams from such exotica as geraniums, apriums, and chili peppers.
Basking quietly in a warm, baguette-scented haze, this casually resplendent stretch of College Avenue is the outermost frontier of U.C. Berkeley’s sprawling, student-thronged Southside. As such, nestled amid the unmistakable upscality of 14 Karats, Edelweiss Jewelers, Summer Kitchen Bake Shop, Focal Point Opticians, Casa de Chocolates, historic Elmwood Rialto Cinemas, and other must-sees is a certain discreetly deliberate funkiness. Latter-day traces of Berkeley’s hippie heritage survive stalwartly in Nabolom Collective Bakery’s vegan brownies, Slash Denim’s rainbow of secondhand jeans, and the mellow mood that makes Elmwood so accessible to all.
Bisecting a residential district whose grand Arts and Crafts homes are worth a guided tour themselves, Elmwood is the irresistibly perfect place to while away a sunny afternoon reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance or The Monkey Wrench Gang while having your hair colored at Hermosa or eating kappa maki at Manpuku.
“The Elmwood has such a great balance,” says Bill’s Trading Post manager Janet Dunlap. “It has a bank, a beauty shop, a dry cleaner, a theater, restaurants, and shops—just about everything you’d need in your daily life, and at a very high level of quality. You cannot get a bad cup of coffee in the Elmwood.”
What’s hyperlocal here? Sweet Dreams Toy Shop sells Emeryville-made Folkmanis puppets. Tail of the Yak spotlights Berkeley crafters such as jewelers Donna Altman and Christina Goodman and paper-wonderworker Anandamayi Arnold. Small-batch ice creams, sorbets, candies, and cookies are house-made from scratch using fresh and mostly organic local ingredients at Ici.
Stroked perpetually by sea-borne drafts, breezy Solano is literally a breath of fresh air. Boutiques, bakeries, and banks cascade conveniently down this venerable shopping district where passing strangers smile and which spans not one but two towns: Up top, it’s Berkeley; westernmost, it’s Albany. Some of the businesses behind these cozy, fairy tale–cute storefronts have been here since the seniors now strolling Solano were students: Flowerland, Sal’s Pharmacy, King Tsin Restaurant, Zarri’s Delicatessen, and Matsu Fine Natural Bedding & Gifts have welcomed many generations of the same local families. Maybe that’s why Solano sometimes feels plucked out of time—like a friendly flashback to the crewcut, fresh-as-a-daisy 1950s.
Trendy new havens keep up that spirit: Nature’s Express, Bowl’d, All in One Fitness, Sacred Rose Tattoo, and La Bedaine are edgy, daring little jewels—offering impeccably polite old-fashioned service—in the venerable vintage bracelet that is Solano Avenue.
“The best thing about Solano is that it’s a really functional street,” says Hannah Hernandez, owner of Hannah’s Children’s Resale. “There are banks, supermarkets, a post office—you can get your stuff done. But best of all is the fact that a lot of owners are sitting right there in their shops. A very large number of us on this street are owner-operated stores. You don’t see that in many other places.”
What’s hyperlocal here? The Bone Room sells dried, mountable insects gathered within mere blocks of the shop. At the Xocolate Bar, Malena Lopez-Maggi and Clive Brown create sweet, bittersweet, and even vegan marvels in stunning shapes and flavors; they also make jewelry to match. Sue Johnson Custom Lamps & Shades features a dazzling range of unique lighting fixtures designed and handcrafted in-house.
Anneli Rufus lives in Berkeley and is the author of numerous books. Her latest volume, due out this winter from Tarcher Penguin, is The Big Book of Low Self-Esteem.
Top to bottom: Indigo-dyed handbags by Oakland craft duo Job & Boss are sold at Esqueleto in the Temescal district (photo courtesy Job & Boss, photo by Brook Lane); Thelma Harris Art Gallery in Rockridge displays works by artists like Bill Dallas (Abstract Berkeley Bees By Bill Dallas, courtesy Thelma Harris Art Gallery); a hand-knitted beanie by Bente Petersen of Piedmont Yarn & Apparel (photo courtesy Piedmont Yarn); house-made ice cream cones at Ici in Elmwood (photo courtesy Ici); Paul Masse decorates one of his architectural cake creations at Masse’s Pastries in Berkeley (photo by Lori Eanes ); serene tea room at Fourth Street’s Téance (photo courtesy Téance); chocolate enlightenment at Xocolate Bar on Solano Avenue (photo courtesy Xocolate Bar).