Locally owned grocery store in Berkeley, California renowned for its produce selection.

So you want to see Berkeley, the real Berkeley-- If you know anyone at the university, you've probably gotten to see the campus, and Telegraph Avenue right next door with its colorful street life. But to see the real Berkeley, not just the student's eye view, there's only one place where you can find the hippies and the ex-hippies, the anarchist vegans and the vegan anarchists, the soccer moms, the radicals, the conservatives, the Nobel laureates and the celebs and the down and out and the dreadlocked kids: Not People's Park. Not the City Council meetings. But a grocery store called Berkeley Bowl.

This independent grocery store consistently places in local resident's top five lists of best produce and best grocery stores in the entire San Francisco Bay Area. If you live here, it's the best place to get organic food for both selection and price. It has the largest produce department in Northern California-- 8000 square feet!

Berkeley may be know to outsiders for its political activism and its radical liberalism. But if you live here, you'll realize the one thing that unites Berkeley isn't politics. It's food.

So when the foodies of Berkeley go shopping they want to choose between 8 varieties of apples and five varieties of lemons. Berkeley Bowl is the place to go. They will usually have both organic and conventionally grown varieties (and when in season, the price differential is not much, especially compared to crosstown rival Whole Foods (AKA "Whole Paycheck"). Looking for fresh tamarind? passion fruit? cherimoya? ugli? The Bowl will have it. They have locally grown and imported fruits and vegetables-- and many of Berkeley's local restaurants and caterers do all their produce shopping here. Locals appreciate not only the variety of produce but marvel that the checkout staff can recognize each one.

I'm not a meat eater, but I understand their meat and seafood counters are among the best in the Bay Area, and there's also more Asian products available (including pocky!)than other similar sized stores. If you buy food in bulk, this is a great place to do it: cereals, grains, flour, nuts, seeds, beans, spices: bag it up and they'll weigh it and slap a price tag sticker on it for you.

The Bowl started out in 1977 a block away, on Shattuck Avenue, inside a former Bowling alley. Judging by the designs on the ceiling overhead, the produce aisles roughly corresponded to the bowling lanes, which guaranteed shopping cart congestion day or night. When the neighborhood Safeway closed down, leaving South Berkeley without a supermarket, the Yasuda family (original owners of the Berkeley Bowl) agreed to buy the building, and expand into a full service store. The store moved in 1999, and though the parking lot tripled in size, the place is always crowded, morning, noon, night.

The crowds-- that's part of the Berkeley Bowl experience. I remember visiting on December 31, 1999, everyone's basket piled high. Bottled water? Flashlight batteries? Hah! Everyone had fresh winter vegetables and cans of organic soup... if there was going to be a Y2K blackout, at least this town was going to eat well through it. And maybe that's part of the secret of the Bowl-- that the food you'll get is worth the long lines. There's an aliveness to the shoppers here you don't see in other stores.

People in Safeway look depressed. People in Berkeley Bowl look like they have really good sex lives.
Matt Jalbert, "Big Bad World"

If you're just visiting and don't want to spend your time waiting for parking, take the #43 bus southbound from downtown Berkeley, or take BART to Ashby and walk north two blocks. If you're not grocery shopping, go for lunch or dinner: their deli counter, which has its own executive chef, features gourmet meals, homemade desserts, and an Asian noodle bar, plus pizzas, sandwiches, or burritos made-to-order. Wander the aisles... although don't dawdle too long in the produce section--you may find that anti-war Berkeley's sublimated aggression gets taken out here as shopping cart jockeys vie for position next to the Shinseiki Asian pears or organic spring mix.

Oh, and did I mention the olive bar? Must be 40 different kind of olives available....

And if this place isn't Berkeley enough for you yet, you can rest easy knowing that the Bowl will not knowingly sell food products that contain genetically modified organisms.

Berkeley Bowl Marketplace
2020 Oregon, between Shattuck and Adeline,
Berkeley, California.


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