What’s Hot and What’s Not: Berkeley, CA

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I’ve been in Berkeley going on 3 months now, enough time to get a decent feel for the Bay Area and to compile my own personal list of Hots and Nots.

What’s Hot

1. The Mint Mojito Latte (Sweet & Creamy) from Philz Coffee

This is by far my favorite culinary discovery in Berkeley thus far. Sure, the food is pretty good, but this drink gets points for deliciousness and creativity. While it isn’t actually alcoholic (sorry, guys) it captures and blends the flavors of a sweet and creamy latte and a minty mojito perfectly. It comes iced and with actual fresh mint on top, which never ceases to impress me. Delicious.

2. Ze Bohemian Vibes

Now, this category has a lot to do with my host mom/boss, Marisa, and her grasp of aesthetics. She keeps colorful fresh flowers in the kitchen and the bathroom at all times. She has piles of shells, drift wood, sea glass ornately situated on window ledges and in bowls on the porch steps. She regularly uses her clothes line to dry out loads of boho garments and billowing bed sheets. Her dance-y world music often wafts out the open windows into the backyard (where I have my little studio). Her attention to the details of the house make it a homey, comfortable, artsy, vibrant space that I just love being a part of.

East Bay as a whole too is bohemian, but “Start-Up” culture seems to have completely pillaged the free-spirited feel that San Francisco used to be known for (Bohemians of the 60s and 70s wouldn’t be caught dead in the posh Haight nowadays). As a result, the hippy culture has bled into Oakland and Berkeley and these east bay cities are becoming the major cultural hubs instead.

3. Telegraph Ave

Telegraph Ave is enormous–it runs through both Berkeley and Oakland, the carotid artery of the East Bay. To your right, dreadlocked street vendors sell sterling silver rings, gemstone bracelets made to cleanse your chakra, Tibetan singing bowls to enhance your yoga and meditation practice, handmade glass-blown pipes and Bob Marley vinyl. To your left, there is any and every type of hole-in-the-wall eatery you could desire: Burmese, Thai, Tapas, French, Italian, Indian, you name it. Ahead of you, you’ll see college kids in blue and yellow Cal Bear tee-shirts, belly dancers, a singing guitar player busking for spare change, a woman painting with her easel out, and families of every ethnicity and creed. East Bay is a very diverse place, but it’s on Telegraph where all the diversity comes to a head.

4. Bike Culture

Have I mentioned that I’m getting into awesome shape here? I have my car, but I only use it to cart around the kid I nanny and for lengthy trips. Within Berkeley and Oakland, I ride my bike everywhere because, not only are their awesome bike lanes and laws here, but the area is fairly flat (unless of course you venture up towards the Berkeley/Oakland hills, that’s a whole other story.) I ride my bright red road bike all over; to bars, to my friends’ houses, to cafes and restaurants, to yoga class, and now that I zip-tied a milk crate to the back, to Trader Joe’s to get groceries! I’m gettin’ some major thigh muscles because of it.

There is a lot of support for cyclists here too. Berkeley alone has countless bike shops that will fix your bike for dirt cheap. My personal favorite place is Missing Link on Shattuck Ave because they have a box of communal tools that they allow riders to use for no charge, and, more excitingly, because they offer free, indoor, secure bike storage for the entire day. As Berkeley has an astronomically high bike theft rate, I am IN LOVE with this service.

5. BART

Seattle’s public transportation is total crap compared to the BART and Muni system in the East Bay. BART is like a subway system that goes all the way from south of San Francisco to the northernmost parts of the East Bay. It’s super cheap, relatively fast and a greener option for those who commute from East Bay to The City (or vice versa) for work. But aside from that, the COOLEST people ride BART. Maybe it’s just that I’m a fairly extroverted, open person, but I have met and conversed with so many interesting people while riding. I met a Bio Chemist from France, a traveler from Montreal, a professor at Cal Berkeley, a graduate student from Russia. Everyone gets a little confused when first riding BART, but the community is so welcoming (and made up of lots of transplants and new people learning the culture of the area) that it’s super easy to approach people, befriend them and ask for aid. The times I have felt the most welcome and connected to others here has been while riding the BART. I love it.

What’s Not

1. Live Music=Meh

Granted, I have been spoiled in this department my entire life (growing up with a musician father in Seattle then going to school in Bellingham where live music is alive and well,) but I can safely say most of the live music I’ve seen here has been…meh. (Caveat: I know a ton of super talented musicians in the bay area (you guys know who you are and know I love you!), but they’re just aren’t that many venues for them in Berkeley! One exception being Freight & Salvage, that place is lovely.)

San Francisco has great music, of course, but I’ve been looking for good local indie rock/pop/bluegrass/etc I can ride my bike to. No dice. The one place riding distance away that has live jazz is a bar called “Jupiter” but they’re idea of jazz is weirdly electronic, fusion-y, smooth jazz that I loathe. And despite the fact that this is a college town, there aren’t that many college bands that are locally famous and have a following (Think Blue Scholars at Gonzaga, Pole Cat in Bellingham) so I never know if I should take a gamble on a cover charge. The data I’ve collected so far says, don’t. Maybe I just haven’t found the right places, but I figure if it’s this hard to find good music, that isn’t a good sign…

2. Hella Dudes

There are definitely exceptions to what I’m about to say, but by and large Berkeley guys are bro-y, macho, frat boys that pretend to have some hipster flare. If that makes no sense, picture an L.A. guy who’s ashamed of his SoCal roots and thus puts horn-rimmed glasses on and pretends to listen to Bob Dylan. It’s a hard thing to describe, because it’s a subtlety, and it has to do with my radar for genuineness. As one guy told me candidly outside a bar, “There are a lot fake people in this hood.” It is really true, and really off-putting. I mean, the other night I was 2 beers in and I still remember thinking, “There is not a single person (girl or guy) that I want to get to know here.” That was when I knew it was time to call it a night.

Oh yeah, and as the stereotype says, they use “hella” way too often here. I am really hoping it doesn’t rub off on me.

3. “I work at a Start-Up”

This phrase gets thrown around too much. Mostly because it’s true, there are a ton of Start-Ups in this area (businesses that are just getting off that ground and thus are hiring lots of fresh grads. Usually they’re inventing apps, etc.) but I think it’s also thrown around because there is this whole “glamorous” culture that comes with being part of a Start-Up. Start-ups are usually funded by generous share holders like Google, and thus they have money for a whole slew of amenities that have become the status quo in a start up job. Free meals. Hip office spaces. Happy Hours and Parties. All that coupled with a built-in network of young people to be friends with and a job that could potentially earn you a lot of money. Awesome, sign me up!

But after knowing a few people that work at start-ups, you get to know real quick that the glamour is mostly an illusion. You work crazy long hours, you hardly get respite from coworkers and work talk, and more often than not start-ups fail and leave you in the lurch without a job. Not to mention, the atmosphere in general seems really intense and stressful. Realistically, it’s this intense and stressful way of life, and yet people throw their membership in start-up culture around as if it’s some badge of instant superiority. It’s annoying.

4. The Drought

It never rains here. In the three months since I got here, it’s rained three times. In fact, it’s hardly ever overcast.  As a Seattle girl raised on Gortex and polar fleece, this just feels fundamentally wrong.

5. The Parking People Eaters

Um, for the life of you, never leave your meter a minute longer after it runs out, park on the wrong side of the street during street sweeping or god forbid, forget to pay for parking in downtown Berkeley. The parking police must be bored because they are the more thorough than a fine-toothed comb. They’re ruthless too: they will not hesitate to give you a $50 ticket for 5 mins of unpaid parking. More than once I’ve been caught running down the sidewalk in high-heel wedges to stop them from tagging my car. I refuse to let the Parking People Eaters win. I downright REFUSE.

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