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Berkeley: Fourth Street Transformation

by Laura Werlin

Berkeley, California, home of the free speech movement, has begun a new revolution. Its called free enterprise. Known as much for its fine university as it is for its unconventionalism, Berkeley has now put out the welcome mat for good, old-fashioned capitalism, and people are flocking from all over to be part of this new movement.

The flurry centers on Fourth Street, a 16-square block area with about 130 businesses including shops, cafes, and restaurants, all lying in the middle of an otherwise sleepy if not industrial part of Berkeley. In fact, Fourth Street as a commercial enterprise got its start as an industrial area that began with a local lumber company. Then about fifteen years ago, developer Denny Abrams decided to seek out other tradespeople by building structures and renting space to merchants who sold home wares such as stained glass, textiles, furniture, and lighting. In so doing, he gave birth to a community of resources for artisans and set the stage for what has become the chic street in West Berkeley.

But not all of Fourth Street is so new. Consider Spenger's Restaurant which got its start in 1890. Today, it's fate is undecided. Actor Robert Redford purchased the restaurant in mid-1998 and has plans to turn it into a moviehouse.

A block north of Spenger's is the restaurant Ginger Island. This was formerly the site of the venerable Fourth Street Grill, which gave rise to the career of Mark Miller (of Coyote Cafe fame in Santa Fe as well as other restaurants in Washington, D.C. and Las Vegas). Now, a stop at Ginger Island might be to try their famous, though unusual, crispy fries which are made not only of potatoes but also yams and taro root, or maybe one of those Asian-accented salads or entrees. Its also a great place to sample the new twist on an age-old drink: homemade ginger ale. As the name of the restaurant suggests, ginger is featured in several of the dishes but no more so than in this refreshing cooler. With its outdoor seating, Ginger Island is a popular place to take a shopping break and sip this time-honored beverage.

Directly across the tree-lined street is one of Fourth Street's most popular destinations: Bette's Ocean View Diner. No, there is no view (Ocean View is the name of the neighborhood), but imagination is as much a part of this 50's-style diner as the dose of reality visitors often get when they're told about the one-hour wait for breakfast or lunch.

For those who choose to wait (as most people do), tough choices lie ahead. Breakfasts feature Bette's famous pancakes (the pancake mix can now be found in many specialty food stores or ordered directly. See resources below.), huevos rancheros, omelettes, bagels, and homemade sausages. Breakfast is served all day, but for the lunch bunch Bette's offers a variety of cold and grilled sandwiches, salads, and even hot dogs. It's a great place to bring the kids who get a big kick out of the juke box, (as well as the hot dogs).

If you don't feel like waiting an hour, or if the weather is too nice to be indoors, a good alternative to Bette's Ocean View Diner is next door at Bette's-To-Go. While sharing the same owners, Bette's-To-Go has its own culinary repertoire including huge slices of gourmet pizza, lots of sandwiches, and several salads and deli items ranging on the ethnic scale from Chinese chicken salad to Greek dolmas. Theres also a big variety of delectable baked goods including the biggest (albeit hardest) biscotti on the block, which makes for great dipping in a Bette's latte.

On the other side of the diner is another Bette's-owned establishment called Manix Cafe. Emphasizing specialty sandwiches such as French ham and Fontina cheese as well as savory tartlets, frittatas, soup, and salads, this exclusively outdoor cafe is a nice choice for a slightly upscale type of food but without accompanying upscale prices. (A typical sandwich costs somewhere between $4.95 and $5.95).

If you're looking for a break from the eating scene, you'll probably be one of the hundreds of people stopping in at what has become Fourth Street's flagship store: Sur La Table. The Seattle-based kitchenware store rakes in upwards of $3 million a year and has become the magnet that draws many people to Fourth Street.

In addition to selling almost every kind of cookware, bakeware, tableware and contemporary cookbook, Sur La Table also offers cookbook signings as well as cooking classes. The latter are often taught by the cookboodk authors themselves as well as by well-known restaurateurs from around the nation. They range in price from $35.00 to $75.00 per class and are almost always sell-outs.

Across from Sur La Table's main door is a relatively new string of stores that are perched a few feet above street level and are fronted by a wide plaza. Here, you'll find people indulging in the myriad of foods and drinks served up by the nearby eateries.

Anchoring this line of stores is a Bay Area favorite: Peets Coffee. Known for its super dark roast coffees, a cup of Peets will revive even the most fatigued shopper. Fairly extensive outdoor seating also makes it a popular rest stop.

Adjacent to Peets is Juicy News which offers up a variety of smoothies and frozen yogurt. But as the name suggests, news is their thing, selling an assortment of newspapers and magazines for the reluctant shopper.

Sharing this same plaza is Fourth Street's newest full-service restaurant, Cafe Rouge. Here, rotisserie chicken is highlighted, as is the large rotisserie itself, serving as a mini-attraction within the restaurant. Several appetizers, salads, pasta, and one of the best burgers in the Bay Area are also featured. Fanciest of all of the Fourth Street restaurants, Cafe Rouge features an elongated bar which is a great place to saddle up at the end of the day for a glass of one of their several wine-by-the-glass offerings and some fresh oysters. Prices range from about $6.00 to $9.00 for appetizers and $12.00 to $18.00 for entrees.

From Cafe Rouge you can wander next door to The Pasta Shop, a large warehouse-like store providing gourmet take-out foods, a huge variety of international cheeses, gourmet food products, just-pressed olive oils (self-service), and a wine store. The Pasta Shop has become an East Bay favorite at its other location in Market Hall, located in the Rockridge section of Oakland near Berkeley. Theyre hoping for the same success on Fourth Street.

A short little pass-through from The Pasta Shop will take you into the splendor of Mad River Produce. This gorgeous produce store emphasizes fresh and organic, as well as a salad bar, which has become a favorite of the lunchtime crowd.

Around the bend from this plaza are two discount stores that are sure to please the kitchen crowd: Dansk and Crate and Barrel. Both are seconds stores, though you'd be hard-pressed to find any flaws in most of the products. The discounts do add up, but so, too, do the lines at these stores during peak times. Still, they're worth checking out.

Next door to Crate and Barrel is Holey Bagel. The featured item here should come as no surprise, but the types of bagels do range from normal to unusual, including a very spicy jalape“o bagel. Several regular and low-fat varieties of cream cheese are available, and for the sweet-eater, the traditional rugelach and even chocolate chip cookie is available.

If you're looking for a completely different food experience as well as a respite from the hustle-bustle, step into O Chame. This serene Japanese restaurant features several types of soups, including smoked trout, seaweed, and udon (wheat or soba buckwheat) noodles. Or, on a hot day, the young blanched greens with sesame dressing or the sashimi salad are soothing alternatives. O Chame also features a shaded outdoor patio where you can buy a bento box filled with a Japanese salad, rice, and some type of fish or chicken.

But food is not 4th Street's only attraction. Home and garden stores abound as do furniture stores. There's also a popular CD store, a high-end stereo store, clothing stores, an art gallery, childrens shops, and even a Japanese paper store.

This unusual collection of businesses underscores the developers mission to create an area where each store, cafe, and restaurant can hold its own and can bring something unique to the table. Judging by the throngs of people that descend on the area each week, that philosophy seems to have taken hold.

Bette's Diner Products
Phone: 510-644-3932 or Fax: 510-644-3209
How to get to Fourth Street:
From Interstate 80 east, take the University Avenue off ramp. Take the Frontage road and follow signs to 4th Street.

Where to park

Most street parking in the area is free, and there is one free parking lot just west of 4th Street between Hearst Avenue and Delaware Street. Otherwise, use the Spenger's parking lot which costs $1.00 an hour or a maximum of $5.00 for the day. Lots fill up on weekends, but street parking can usually be found within a few blocks of the main shopping area.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the businesses in question before making your plans.

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