Classic neighborhoods stand apart because they’re organic. They sprout up on their own, over time, coming to life when the right economic mix coalesces. In the East Bay, we’re blessed with some of the best neighborhoods anywhere. Funky, eclectic, upscale, hip — you name it; we’ve got it all. In fact, there are so many to choose from, so many that deserve repeat visits, it’s hard to decide where to begin.
So let’s start in the north, with Solano Avenue, the venerable commercial strip that straddles Albany and Berkeley. In many ways, Solano is the quintessential shopping district. Its wide sidewalks, especially in Albany, are not only great for strolling up and down the avenue, but accommodate sidewalk cafes and outdoor dining. Curbside parking, meanwhile, acts as a buffer between the shops and the roadway, giving pedestrians a sense of safety. That feeling is enhanced by the relatively narrow street that slows down traffic. Beginning at the corner of San Pablo Avenue in Albany, Solano is studded with a wide array of stores to choose from, including great spots to grab a cup of coffee and a pastry, such as Royal Ground Coffee, and a terrific toy store for kids — Five Little Monkeys. The base of the avenue is anchored by the Albany Theatre, an art-deco style movie house that was originally built in the 1920s and still shows first-run films. Over the years, hundreds, perhaps thousands of shops have come and gone on Solano. Today, there are fewer independents than in years past, but there are still plenty of tried-and-true destinations. And the top of Solano still sports its very own movie theater, too, the Oaks.
On the other side of the Solano Tunnel is perhaps Berkeley’s most famous shopping district, the Gourmet Ghetto. Must-see stops in the north Shattuck Avenue district include the Cheeseboard Collective, the French Hotel, and of course, Chez Panisse, Alice Waters’ temple to artisan, organic, and locally grown food. The district also is home to a great bookstore, Black Oak, and the East Bay’s most innovative large-scale holistic drugstore, Elephant Pharmacy. And finally, around the corner from Black Oak on Vine Street is the original Peet’s Coffee and Tea, where the gourmet coffee movement began 42 years ago.
Several blocks south on Shattuck is downtown Berkeley, just west of the UC Berkeley campus. The commercial district has taken a few lumps in recent years, including the closing of Cody’s Books, which looked like it might be a real boost to downtown, and even the loss of the giant Barnes & Noble bookstore. But that doesn’t mean you can’t pick up Michael Chabon’s latest when you’re in the area. Downtown is still home to Pegasus and Half Price bookstores. It also is home to the one of the area’s best brew pubs, Jupiter, and the top games store in the East Bay, Games of Berkeley. Downtown also boasts three movie theaters — the California Theatre, the Shattuck Cinemas, and the United Artists Theater. And of course, just down Shattuck, on the way to Ashby Avenue, is perhaps the best — and busiest — grocery store on the West Coast, the Berkeley Bowl.
On the south side of campus, just a few blocks from downtown is Telegraph Avenue, the commercial district that still defines both the city and the university more than any other. Like downtown, Telegraph has suffered some setbacks in recent years, and the homeless and panhandling problems continue to challenge merchants and city officials. But the gritty four-block strip between Dwight and Bancroft ways still has plenty going for it, especially on weekends when the avenue sidewalks overflow with street vendors, hawking their handcrafted jewelry, art collections, tie-dyed T-shirts, and marijuana paraphernalia. On Saturdays and Sundays, Telegraph Avenue becomes Berkeley’s Berkeley. But Telegraph is worth visiting other days and evenings. It is home to two of the best music stores anywhere — Amoeba and Rasputin — and great used bookstores, including Moe’s and Shakespeare and Company. The thrift store Mars Mercantile is immensely popular, as is Intermezzo, which has been assembling the most plentiful and affordable salads for years. Plus, the district boasts great places to stop for a drink, including Blake’s on Telegraph.
At the opposite end of town, not far from the Berkeley Marina, is Fourth Street, Berkeley’s answer to downtown Walnut Creek and one of the East Bay’s most upscale shopping districts. Destination spots include houseware stores such as Restoration Hardware, Z Gallerie, and Crate & Barrel, and restaurants such as Tacubaya, Bette’s Oceanview Diner, and Eccolo, one of the city’s better eateries. Other Berkeley shopping districts worth noting include the Elmwood district on College Avenue south of campus, and Gilman Street and San Pablo Avenue in north Berkeley.
North Oakland’s sprawling Rockridge neighborhood may even outshine Solano as the best commercial district in the East Bay. First off, it’s huge, extending along College Avenue from the Berkeley border all the way to 51st Street. Along the way, the tree-lined street features some of the Bay Area’s finest restaurants, including Oliveto, Garibaldi’s, and Citron, just to mention a few. It’s also got great pubs, such as Barclay’s and Ben ‘n Nicks, classic bars like Bill McNally’s and George & Walt’s, and good bookstores, Pendragon and Diesel. Like the Gourmet Ghetto, it’s a foodie’s paradise, with Market Hall, a new Trader Joe’s, and a cluster of small specialty markets between Alcatraz and Claremont avenues. And of course, Rockridge may be best known for being kid friendly. In fact, walking along the avenue can sometimes feel as if you’re swimming upstream against a school of strollers as they dash madly toward the ultra popular toy and clothing store, Rockridge Kids.
Not far from Rockridge, just a few blocks southeast on Pleasant Valley, is another bustling commercial strip, Piedmont Avenue. It has more of an urban feel, with small retail stores fronting or sitting next to taller apartment buildings. The district also has its own movie theater, the Piedmont Cinema, and it features some terrific places to eat, most notably, BayWolf, one of the Bay Area’s best restaurants. It also has a great spa, Piedmont Springs, a local favorite Chinese restaurant, Little Shin Shin, a tea bar, L’Amyx, a classic ale house, Cato’s, and a first-class market, Piedmont Grocery.
Just southeast of Piedmont Avenue is Grand/Lakeshore, another notable neighborhood linked together by the city’s definitive movie house, the Grand Lake Theater. Popular destinations on Grand Avenue include Walden Pond books, the Coffee Mill, and Mijori sushi bar, while the leafy Lakeshore Avenue bustles with its own Trader Joe’s and both a Peet’s and a Starbucks to go with a terrific bakery/pizza joint, Arizmendi, and a fine Mediterranean restaurant, Mezze.
Oakland’s rapidly gentrifying Uptown neighborhood is becoming a locus for edgy youth culture. Once a month, the corner of Telegraph Avenue and 23rd Street fills with hundreds of people as art patrons and assorted hipsters take to the streets for the city’s monthly Art Murmur. Almost two dozen galleries and venues open their doors for the art walk on the first Friday of every month. Uptown also is home to two of the city’s most active clubs, the Stork Club and the revived Uptown, and will shortly be home to the newly renovated Fox Theater, which will be a musical venue to rival anything in San Francisco.
Other Oakland shopping districts worth mentioning include Montclair Village in the Oakland hills; the up-and-coming Temescal district on Telegraph Avenue south of 51st Street; Jack London Square on the city’s waterfront; downtown Oakland; Chinatown; the Dimond district at the corner of Fruitvale Avenue and MacArthur Boulevard; the Fruitvale district on International Boulevard; and the Laurel district on MacArthur, between 35th Avenue and High Street.
Across the estuary in Alameda is Park Street, a sun-drenched shopping district that is coming into its own. The newly refurbished Alameda Theater is an eye-popping addition to the long-established commercial area. The movie house is designed to provide an essential complement to existing businesses in the area, including Books Inc., McGee’s Bar & Grill, and the ever-popular La Piñata, which serves some of the most popular Mexican food in the entire East Bay.
Other commercial districts of note include San Pablo Avenue in El Cerrito; downtown Orinda; Mount Diablo Boulevard in Lafayette; and downtown Walnut Creek. And across the bay in San Francisco, the best include the Mission, Union Square, Noe Valley, the Castro, the Haight, Clement Street, Union Street, Chestnut Street, Hayes Valley, North Beach, and, of course, Chinatown.