Gourmet Ghetto West

Civic boosters take stock and discover, by golly, Berkeley is an ethnic foods mecca.

Notice the “International Marketplace District” banners that popped up around San Pablo and University avenues in Berkeley late last week? Every foodie in town already knows the intersection is the place to go for Spanish wines, Indian spices, Mexican dried chiles, and halal meats. Now the city is making it official.

A year and a half ago, Michael Caplan, assistant to the city manager, and community liaison in West Berkeley, pulled together a group of civic organizers and merchants to talk about economic development in the area. “The University corridor is a gateway district,” he says. “There’s not a sense of place. But we noticed that there is an incredible concentration of restaurants and ethnic grocers.” According to Caplan, in the two-block radius around the intersection there are eight markets and ten restaurants offering a world of cuisines. Turkish, Fijian, French, Pakistani, Salvadoran — all representing.

Buoyed by the success of Berkeley’s Downtown Arts District, the city and the Berkeley Convention and Visitors Bureau dished up some cash to produce the banners and a brochure describing businesses in the area. They held a kickoff party on September 12 with the requisite speeches and finger foods.

At this stage, the International Marketplace District is no more than packaging, but it’s already had an effect. According to Caplan, since word of the district has gotten around, the Middle East Market — which burned down three or four years ago — has announced plans to reopen, plus a new Jamaican restaurant and a taqueria have expressed interest in setting up shop. There’s even talk of a food festival, but no one I spoke to could provide specifics.

Are the planners worried they’ll be sparking off a wave of gentrification in Berkeley’s Gourmet Ghetto West, jacking up the low rents that have led these markets to cluster around the intersection? Not yet. “The businesses just want to be successful,” Caplan says. “That means more sales.” You can find a copy of the city’s brochure, which lists the names, addresses, and hours of participating businesses at any of the markets or restaurants in the district.

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