Berkeley’s Best Restaurants, According to the Michelin Guide

Berkeley’s Best Restaurants, According to the Michelin Guide

Berkeley, California: a city just east of San Francisco and the birthplace of California cuisine. Though foodies might quibble over the exact origins and definition of what’s called “California cuisine,” Berkeley’s distinct food culture and record of culinary innovation place it squarely in the state’s food history.

A moderately sized college town, Berkeley’s open-mindedness and progressive tendencies have marked it as a bellwether for nationwide trends, like with the university’s Free Speech Movement. As far as food, Berkeley became the mecca of California’s farm-to-table movement with the 1971 opening of restaurant Chez Panisse in the city’s northeast corridor (more on that below).

Here we’ll look among Berkeley’s superb restaurants at some of the Michelin Guide’s recommendations. Recognition by Michelin can entail the famous Michelin stars, but the tire company also doles out other distinctions that signal a great meal. The Bib Gourmand, for example, rewards a menu available at a great value relative to the area. And the Michelin Guide highlights a range of restaurants that are worthy spots, including a wealth of East Bay restaurants. Let’s eat!

Featured photo courtesy of Comal. 

Exterior of Michelin Green star recipient, Chez Panisse Restaurant in Berkeley, California
Photo courtesy of Chez Panisse Facebook.

Top of the list in renown, Chez Panisse revolutionized New California cuisine with a farm-to-table menu that prioritizes quality local ingredients. The restaurant has perfected its own model, sourcing 75% of its produce from its organic farm and obtaining the rest from producers within a 50-mile radius. These victories for local food chains, along with the restaurant being zero-landfill waste, won Chez Panisse a Green Star for sustainability in Michelin’s first round of awarding the distinction

Dining at Chez Panisse means getting a hyper-seasonal menu, written for that specific day. The dishes are simple yet elegant, highlighting ingredients’ quality to craft something delicious. Diners also have their choice of reserving at the downstairs restaurant, which serves a fixed-price, four-course menu, or at the upstairs café for an equally inventive à la carte menu. I can’t tease menu items since dishes rotate, but I will paste one menu item from this week (at time of writing): “Monterey Bay squid cooked in the hearth with red wine and leeks; with saffron risotto.” I’m in.

Mushroom quesadillas with blue corn tortilla at East Bay Mexican Restaurant Comal for Berkeley Restaurant Week
Photo courtesy of Comal.

With an ambience that’s as delicious as the food, Comal is a suave, upscale Mexican restaurant tucked in the heart of Downtown Berkeley. Perfect corn tortillas are cooked on the kitchen’s comal — the restaurant’s namesake: a flat, griddle-like pan used for centuries across Latin America. The menu includes mainstays like enchiladas and chile rellenos, while incorporating dishes that highlight the flavors of Oaxaca, earning Comal the Bib Gourmand designation.

Whether you’re seated indoors or outdoors (the heated, covered patio is a year-round favorite), your meal should be punctuated by the irresistible corn chips and one of the many fresh appetizers — ceviche and tostadas abound, along with sikil pak, a smoky Mayan pepita dip. If you’re looking to impress a date, share a for-two plate, which splits a meat main and sides. Vegetarians and pescatarians have their pick of the menu too, with a stellar mushroom quesadilla and rock cod tacos, among other options, giving plenty to dine on. 

Table of Chinese food like walnut prawns and green beans at the East Bay's Great China in Berkeley, California
Photo courtesy of Great China Facebook.

Great China’s expansive dinner menu and solid lunch special make it both a chic destination and your favorite neighborhood Chinese spot. It’s no wonder that the restaurant won a Bib Gourmand — it’s a prototypical awardee of the distinction for “exceptionally good food at moderate prices.” 

On its Northern Chinese menu, Peking duck is their signature. Other big-ticket menu items include a bone-in roast duck and whole bass (priced “as quoted,” according to the season), and curious foodies should try the refreshing “double skin,” a cold appetizer of mung bean noodles, seafood, veggies and pork. The tea offerings are also exceptional, with several options along a range of floral notes, like the beautiful snow chrysanthemum tea. And for comfy Chinese classics, you’ve got exceptional chow mein, kung pao, hot & sour and dumplings. Get there early if you can manage it. This place gets packed — and no reservations for small parties!

Sign in the window for East Bay Japanese restaurant Ippuku in Berkeley, California
Ippuku's covert entrance on Berkeley's Center Street. Photo by Rosemarie McKeon via Wikimedia.

Ippuku’s entryway is inconspicuous during the day, but the stylish yakitori house opens up its gray facade for dinner, welcoming guests with a wood-built counter pulled straight from the streets of Kyoto. Ippuku is an izakaya, meaning it’s basically a Japanese pub, a casual bar with snacks to wash the sake down. 

It’s skewers galore on this Bib Gourmand-winning menu. You can get chicken thighs, breasts, hearts, gizzards and more grilled on a stick over charcoal, along with fixings like udon, tempura fish cakes, fried rice balls, tofu skin and more. Order the omakase to get the chef’s pick of five skewers, and take in the restaurant’s vibes from the low seats or a tatami table.

Pav bhaji curry from the East Bay Indian restaurant Vik's Chaat in Berkeley, California.
Photo courtesy of Vik's Chaat.

In any discussion about Indian food in Berkeley, conversants tend to reach consensus that Vik’s Chaat is the best in town. And once you enter Vik’s massive food hall slash grocery store, you’ll smell why. For the uninitiated, chaat is a type of Indian street food, a usually crunchy and potato-y snack with a chutney or yogurt to go with it. 

Of course, you can’t go wrong with the large chaat menu, featuring samosas and various puri (pani puri, sev puri, dahi batata puri — hold me back!), but the masterminds at Vik’s also offer a huge menu of curries, dosas and whatever else you could want. To try a variety, go with a thali, a platter of several dishes. Vik’s Chaat cycles their thalis daily, and curious patrons can look ahead at the day’s specials on the restaurant’s Facebook page.  

I got so excited writing about Vik’s Chaat that I almost forgot to mention its Michelin inclusion. In 2019, Vik’s hit the Michelin guide, which noted its great value and appeal as a good, casual meal for both Indian food novices and aficionados. 

Table full of Japanese small plates at Fish and Bird Sousaku Izakaya in Berkeley, California
Photo courtesy of Fish and Bird.

Another Berkeley izakaya, Fish and Bird serves up a range of Japanese dishes and drinks on its relatively quiet portion of downtown’s Shattuck Avenue. Local ingredients meet Japanese imports on this Michelin-rated menu, which keeps pace with trends in Japanese food culture. There’s plenty of fried goodness by way of tempuras and karaage (fried chicken), but Fish and Bird also hones a modern style and a focus on fresh, organic small plates. 

Sip on a shochu cocktail while taking a trip through a selection of sashimi. Or slurp up some udon while pondering another serving of green bean fritters. Whatever you do, be sure to save some room for the out-of-this-world creamy Basque cheesecake.

Paella at East Bay Spanish restaurant La Marcha Tapas and Bar in Berkeley, California
Photo courtesy of La Marcha.

Spanish tapas and paella, served up in a hip and lively space on San Pablo Avenue. La Marcha has small plates for all times of day — be it lunch, dinner, happy hour and even a new weekend brunch — and critics rave about their creative and inspired paellas. 

Recommended by the Michelin Guide, La Marcha is named for “the march,” when Spanish folks empty out of work in the evening and begin grazing food and drink at tapas places. This Berkeley joint keeps up that spirit, with cozy seating and a commendable wine menu (which of course features sangria and, amusingly, a gazpacho bloody Mary during brunch). Round it out with some creamy croquettes and a Spanish tortilla, and you’ll be transported to Madrid. Don’t walk out of there without trying a dish with squid ink!

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