First of all, the design. At FIVE, there is no not talking about the design. It assaults you from all sides, begging to be noticed. The ten-foot-tall potted plants, the Corinthian-style columns, the rococo-psychedelic accents, the enormous elliptical marble bar anchoring the room and the fleet of green-placematted tables fanning out from it on all sides, the brash black-and-white wallpaper in several competing art-nouveau patterns, the crown molding and colossal windows and massive crystal chandelier: details upon details upon details.
To eat or drink or sit at FIVE (2086 Allston Way, Berkeley) is to be positively up to your eyeballs in ideas. The Downtown Berkeley restaurant and bar’s web site is all about “concepts,” describing its “culinary concept” (New American, basically), its “wine list concept” (an emphasis on local boutique wineries), and its “cocktail concept” (“classic recipes reinvented with a modern flair”) with borderline-precious specificity. And the space itself, schizophrenic as it is, is undeniably concept-driven (that concept being “halfway between an ice cream parlor and a whorehouse”). What’s more, much of the food and many of the drinks are undeniably cerebral, winking nods to American classics like sliders, whiskey sours, and mac ‘n’ cheese. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a cocktail here that has fewer than five ingredients. Even the name, a reference to the five senses, bears the unmistakable imprint of having been debated in some conference room for hours on end. FIVE has managed to wring a restaurant into a downright epistemological exercise, and for that reason, it is not for everyone. It’s too assertive, too over-the-top for that — after all, the more ideas you have floating around in one room, the more things guests can find fault with. It’s also fairly expensive — most cocktails cost $9 and come in small portions — and particularly well-mannered, with a crowd that skews older than most other bars in the city (probably a result of its downtown location and midnight closing time; this is definitely a pre-theater/post-work sort of place).
That said, some of the time — like when you bite into the aforementioned mac ‘n’ cheese, or when the bartender muddles the mint for your Moscow Mule with a touch that can only be described as tender — all the attention being paid here feels like a good thing. My Obituary (!) was, in fact, pretty great: tequila, chartreuse, lemon juice, and St Germain, plus a thick shaving of orange zest, well-balanced and not too sweet. The Shattuck Century (rye, maple syrup, bitters, egg white, lemon), meanwhile, was one of the better cocktails I’ve had in a while, and definitely the prettiest: peach-colored and frothy, with a carefully shaved slice of lemon zest just barely breaching the surface. The only real low point was the Aristocrat, made from Pinot noir, Champagne, triple sec, and orange juice, served in a Champagne flute with a cherry soaked so long in something it sank to the bottom, only revealing itself at the very end. It was, quite frankly, a mess, all the flavors competing with each other rather than working together. Over-thought, you might say.