One of the more diverse neighborhoods in the East Bay, West Berkeley is home to an array of cultures, from one end of the socioeconomic spectrum to the other. Warehouse-dwelling artists, recent immigrants, homemaking young families, and innovative social and business ventures share space in this 'hood, a quality reflected in its incredible variety of restaurants and retail establishments.
Fourth Street is the marquee destination, especially among out-of-towners. This year's big new tenant, Apple (1823 Fourth St., 510-898-3341, Apple.com), is sure to please tech aficionados from Berkeley and beyond. Also new on the street: Essentia (1799-D Fourth St., 510-525-6300, MyEssentia.com), which sells natural, eco-friendly mattresses.
Eight blocks to the east on San Pablo Avenue, a busier but no less inviting scene has evolved in recent years, anchored by bright new restaurants like Gaumenkitzel (2121 San Pablo Ave., 510-647-5016, Gaumenkitzel.net). Opened in an airy, modern space early last year by a Hamburg-bred husband-and-wife team, it serves healthy and handmade "European comfort food" — but you may as well call it home-style German cuisine. The yogurt is curdled and the whole wheat milled in-shop, amazingly, lending uncommon freshness and authenticity to the likes of muesli and sauerbraten.
Luca Cucina Italiana (2057 San Pablo Ave., 510-649-9718, LucaCucinaItaliana.com), which took the place of one our favorites from last year, Jamaican restaurant Flavah Island, also goes the traditional route. The new shop specializes in informal, authentic Italian like gnocchi, eggplant parmigiana, and customizable pasta plates — not to mention the heavenly tiramisu.
Adding another cuisine to the mix of new arrivals, Mint Leaf Vietnamese Restaurant (2865 Seventh St., 510-898-1609, MintLeafVR.com) opened not far from San Pablo Avenue in August. It has a cleaner, trendier vibe than your average Southeast Asian joint, fitting for industrial-chic West Berkeley. Find all your favorites in one place: pho, banh mi, com thit nuong, chicken curry, sweet and sour seafood soup, and even bun bo hue.
Back on the main drag, teahouse Far Leaves Tea (2626 San Pablo Ave., 510-665-9409, FarLeaves.com) relocated from tony College Avenue, evidence of West Berkeley's slowly shifting demographics. The same can be said for Premier Cru (1011 University Ave., 510-644-9463 or PremierCru.net), a high-end wine shop where customers can score hard-to-find bottles.
But lest you worry that the neighborhood is in danger of losing its essential West Berkeley-ness, witness the recent addition of Dave's Record Shop (2634 San Pablo Ave., 510-666-0336 or DavesRecordShop.com). The name alone bespeaks humility, and the vibe inside is equally unassuming. Given the size of the store, selection in some genres (jazz excluded) can be limited, but the emphasis is on quality. You're apt to find rare treats at decent prices, and owner Dave Kloski (previously of 33 1/3 Revolutions in El Cerrito) is more than happy to help.