If the East Bay were a food court, it'd offer every cuisine. A music festival, every genre. An art show, every style. Intellectually, we know this. But we get stuck in our daily routines, our weekly habits — the familiar cliques, the same old haunts. We recognize that the East Bay's bounty is ours for the taking, but how often do we go out and get it? Well, it's high time to do just that.
First things first: food, revered like little else from Richmond to Livermore. East Bay diners thrive on variety, fusion, freshness, and healthfulness, and countless commercial districts have made their name catering to just that. The original is North Berkeley's Gourmet Ghetto, home to Chez Panisse (1517 Shattuck Ave., 510-548-5525, ChezPanisse.com) and a cast of California-cuisine cohorts. Peet's (2124 Vine St., 510-841-0564, Peets.com) was born here in 1966 and still operates one of its more than 190 coffee shops at the corner of Vine and Walnut streets. Enduring hotspot Cheeseboard Pizza (1512 Shattuck Ave., 510-549-3183, CheeseboardCollective.coop), established four years before Chez Panisse in 1967, offers daily vegetarian specials using organic and local ingredients whenever possible.
Often declared the "new Gourmet Ghetto," Oakland's Temescal district has grown over the last decade into another of the East Bay's famed foodie havens. To wit: Restaurante Doña Tomás (5004 Telegraph Ave., 510-450-0522, DonaTomas.com), Pizzaiolo (5008 Telegraph Ave., 510-642-4888, PizzaioloOakland.com), and Genova's Delicatessen (5095 Telegraph Ave., 510-652-7401). Then there's Bakesale Betty (5098 Telegraph Ave., 510-985-1213, www.BakesaleBetty.com), that of fried-chicken sandwiches, ironing-board tables, and perennial lines.
Belly full, a sampling of artistic offerings may be in order. Two East Bay districts are not to be missed. First is Oakland's Uptown, a neighborhood that has seen a renaissance of new eateries, clubs, galleries, and venues in the past few years. It's also the home of Oakland's Art Murmur, a monthly open-studio art walk celebrating all that the city's art community has to offer at more than 25 galleries, including Johansson Projects (2300 Telegraph Ave., 510-444-9140, JohanssonProjects.com), Mercury 20 (475 25th St., 510-701-4620, www.MercuryTwenty.com), Rock Paper Scissors (2278 Telegraph Ave., 510-238-9171, RPSCollective.com), and Buzz Gallery (2316 Telegraph Ave., 510-465-4073, MamaBuzzCafe.com).
For a somewhat more, shall we say, upscale taste of the arts, downtown Berkeley's Arts District rallies around the Tony Award-winning Berkeley Repertory Theatre (2025 Addison St., 510-647-2900, BerkeleyRep.org). Down the street is the Aurora Theatre Company (2081 Addison St., 510-873-4822, AuroraTheatre.org). Esteemed folk-music venue Freight and Salvage Coffeehouse (2020 Addison St., 510-548-1761, TheFreight.org) recently moved across the street, while the Jazzschool (2087 Addison St., 510-845-5373, Jazzschool.com) — yep, same block — features both instruction and performance.
But if it's the East Bay's take on modest, small-town America that beckons, opportunities await. Along an eight-block stretch of MacArthur Boulevard, Oakland's Laurel District offers just such a feel. The beloved Laurel Bookstore (4100 MacArthur Blvd., 510-531-2073, LaurelBookstore.com) exudes charm inside and out, while World Ground Cafe (3726 MacArthur Blvd., 510-482-2933, WorldGroundCafe.com) is at least as much community lynchpin as it is coffeehouse. Farmer Joe's Marketplace (3501 MacArthur Blvd., 510-482-8178, FarmerJoesMarket.com) draws shoppers from throughout the city, while the Laurel Lounge (3932 MacArthur Blvd., 510-530-0158, LaurelLounge.com) is friendly to regulars in a decidedly Cheers-y way.
Drive twelve miles down 580 and find another of the East Bay's smaller, suburban-esque shopping districts that's worth visiting from afar. Hayward's B Street houses a number of small, independent businesses in a cozy, comfortable, and very walkable environment: The Bistro (1001 B St., 510-886-8525, The-Bistro.com), The Book Shop (1007 B St., 510-538-3943, HaywardBookshop.com), Buffalo Bill's Brew Pub (1082 B St., 510-886-9823, BuffaloBillsBrewery.com), and Bijou Restaurant and Bar (1036 B St., 510-888-1092, BijouExperience.com), specializing in French cuisine, are among them — and we've got to imagine the whole B thing is more than a simple coincidence.
For an international experience, two Oakland neighborhoods are unbeatable. Chinatown, situated just south of Broadway between central downtown and Jack London Square, offers dining, groceries, and shopping in an authentic setting that feels impervious to tourists, let alone catered to them. Dining options can feel overwhelming to the uninitiated, so for starters try the banh mi (Vietnamese sandwiches) at Cam Huong Deli (920 Webster St., 510-444-8800), the dumplings and handmade noodles at Shan Dong (328 10th St., 510-839-2299), and the vegetarian Southeast Asian cuisine at Golden Lotus (1301 Franklin St., 510-893-0383, GoldenLotusVege.com).
The Fruitvale district, loosely centered near where International Boulevard meets Fruitvale Avenue in East Oakland, offers similar opportunities for cultural immersion. But don't go approaching it like some Disney-fied attraction; generations of immigrant Latin-American families have grown this neighborhood organically in recent decades. The result is straight authenticity, Oakland-style, perhaps best embodied in taco trucks like El Novillo (1001 Fruitvale Ave., 510-533-7294, ElAgavero.com), and Mi Grullense (1301 30th Ave.) and the restaurant Guadalajara (1001 Fruitvale Ave., 510-533-7294, ElAgavero.com).
But a discussion of the East Bay's best-known commercial districts would be incomplete without a mention of perhaps its most diverse, iconic, and unquestionably successful: North Oakland's Rockridge, and Berkeley and Albany's Solano Avenue. We'll spare you the details, but if you're new to the East Bay or haven't visited either of these high-profile districts in a while — or, perhaps, just can't decide what you're in the mood for — these two offer it all: dining, entertainment, arts, shopping, and an unparalleled perch from which to plot your next discovery.