The geographically tiny Elmwood neighborhood extends only about a block in each direction from its center at Ashby and College, but it packs in more unique local businesses than many of Berkeley's higher-profile areas. According to one local retailer, there are 56 businesses in the stretch from Nabolom Bakery (2708 Russell St., 510-845-2253, NabolomBakery.com) down to the Elmwood post office on College and Webster, with a few of them spread down the western stretch of Ashby. In recent years, some of the newer businesses have been drawing larger crowds to the area, but it's relatively calm and quiet compared with the other commercial districts of Berkeley. Perfect for an afternoon shopping trip, Elmwood is largely asleep by the evening, with the exception of the classic Rialto Cinema and a few restaurants.
For luxury consignment shopping, check out Labels (2629 Ashby Ave., 510-356-4144, LabelsLuxury.com), a small second-hand shop featuring all high-end designer sunglasses, bags, shoes, and other accessories. Opened last summer, the store carries merchandise in nearly new condition from typically exorbitant designers like Chanel and Prada.
Across the street you'll find Tail of the Yak Trading Company (2632 Ashby Ave., 510-841-9891), a tiny, easy-to-miss storefront full of interesting odds and ends, like paper products, perfume, decorations, candy, and jewelry. Owners Lauren McIntosh and Alice Erb have been in the same location since they opened their doors 39 years ago.
Continuing onto College Avenue, stop into Lola Home (2950 College Ave., 510-981-8345, LolaHome.com), the four-year-old home furnishing shop owned by local designer Lois Vinsel. In addition to her own designs (available for special order), Vinsel features the work of Oakland-based Christopher Faiss and other, mostly local, craftsmen. Beyond home furnishings, they sell cards, books, artwork, and other gifts, and have art shows a few times a year.
A few doors down is Mrs. Dalloway's (2904 College Ave., 510-704-8222, MrsDalloways.com), a Virginia Woolf-inspired independent book and gardening store. It carries a wide variety of titles including bestsellers, but with a specialty in locally relevant gardening books. It also has a good-sized selection of potted plants, vases, and gifts, and has frequent readings by local authors.
There's a surprising number of good food options in Elmwood, but two spots that merit the trip on their own are the Trattoria La Siciliana (2993 College Ave., 510-704-1474, TrattoriaLaSiciliana.com) and La Mediterranée (2936 College Ave., 510-540-7773, CafeLaMed.com). Offering great Southern Italian food in a sexy and homegrown atmosphere, La Siciliana is good for a first date or impressing East Coast visitors who doubt California's ability to deliver good traditional Italian food. La Mediterranée, a small chain with two locations in San Francisco, has casual and surprisingly inexpensive Mediterranean food. They have a small but well-selected wine list, offering a few unusual beers from Armenia and Greece, and some of the Bay Area's best baklava and fillo pastries.
A trip to Elmwood should always end with dessert from Ici (2948 College Ave., 510-665-6054, Ici-Icecream.com), an organic, handmade ice cream shop. The four-year-old pet project of former Chez Panisse pastry chef Mary Canales, Ici offers a constantly changing menu of eleven daily flavors, plus handmade cones, cakes, and other treats. It's perhaps the only spot in the neighborhood where you can always count on waiting on line, but also know it will be worth it.