Saturday, February 12, 2011

Eat Like a Student and Get an "A" in Savings -- Good Cheap Eats on Telegraph Avenue, Berkeley

You don’t have to be a student to enjoy the budget restaurants clustered around Telegraph Avenue near UC-Berkeley (a short bus or BART ride from San Francisco).  A recent walk on the avenue found a number of interesting spots that offer value, good food, and a taste of life in Berkeley.  All are open for lunch and dinner, and many of the restaurants also offer food to go.

I found Durant Square by following my nose to Steve’s Korean Barbeque with its enticing aroma of grilling marinated meats. Durant Square,  is sometimes known as the “Asian Ghetto” for its collection of Chinese, Korean, and other Asian restaurants featuring large portions and low prices.  For $5-$8 expect to fill up on food from any one of these establishments.

Steve’s Korean Barbeque is popular and its offerings range from $6.99 for grilled chicken to $8.49 for barbecued beef short ribs. Steve’s also cooks up vegetarian and seafood options as well as other Korean specialties.  Like many of the restaurants on the square, it is open for lunch and stays open until late. (No website. 2521-F Durant Avenue. 510.848.6166)

Another restaurant in the complex, Gyspy’s Trattoria Italiana, is a mash up of old-fashioned Italian-American restaurant and budget fast food place, with slightly more ambience than many of the other places on the square.  Expect to pay under $6 for most vegetarian pastas, under $7 for seafood, beef and chicken ones such as Crazy Alfredo with chicken, sausage, roasted red peppers, and red wine in Alfredo sauce tossed with fettuccine.  The daily special is a plate of pasta, salad and soft drink for $8.99. The food is plentiful, hearty and filling.  Gypsy’s also offers pizza, calzone, salads and sandwiches.

Another alternative for Italian food is Pasta Bene. The food here is a bit more refined as is the atmosphere.  The restaurant, a relative newcomer to the avenue, features a daily happy hour, outdoor seating and a $5 pasta lunch special.  A starter of fried calamari is $5.95 and an order of linguini with chicken breast, artichoke hearts and vegetables in olive oil-herb sauce is $7.95.  Most pasta dishes are $7-$9 and Pasta Bene also offers stone-fired pizzas, sandwiches and salads.

A large sandwich on incredible honey wheat bread, a salad bowl that seems bottomless and a perfect place for people-watching, that’s the Café Intermezzo experience — one I’ve long enjoyed.  Join the quick-moving line (usually out the door), see what others are eating and check out the wooden menu on the wall for the day’s specials before ordering.  Soups and stews are also offered daily. Sandwiches and salads start at under $7 and portions are large so consider sharing. It’s a Berkeley institution that briefly changed names and owners (but not menus) last year, and is back under the original management.

Since this is Berkeley after all, every café and restaurant around campus will have vegetarian options, even the cheesesteak place,  but everything at the recently opened Maoz is not only vegetarian but kosher.  Maoz, part of a chain that began in Amsterdam, offers falafel, salads, and Belgian and sweet potato fries in an unlimited number of combinations that you create yourself by adding on toppings from its extensive salad bar.  “Meal deals” with sandwich, fries and a beverage start at $7.15.  Ala carte sandwiches start at $4.25.

Bongo Burger has been stuffing hungry students on a budget with falafel and other goodies since 1968.  It has several locations around campus, with one just off Telegraph Avenue. Besides Middle Eastern specialties such as shish kabab and tabouleh, Bongo Burger specializes in juicy hamburgers. My favorite is the Persian Burger with seasoned, ground lamb at $6.50.  An “All American” with a third-pound of Niman Ranch beef is $4.25.

Looking for place to eat a bit away from the Telegraph Avenue scene?  Right across from campus is an elegant café that offers morning pastries, lunch, and gourmet dinners as well selling classical music cds. The Musical Offering also has special event dinners.  Luncheon items include hot and cold sandwiches and salads, most under $8.  Dinners start at a few dollars more but offer items such as lamb quesadillas and chicken flatbreads.  Menus and specials change often.

Just need a quick bite?  Try Gordo’s for overstuffed San Francisco/Tex-Mex style burritos, Blondies or Fat Slice for slices of pizza, King Pin for donuts (on Durant Square), or a grilled hot dog or sausage from Top Dog.

Update (12.17.12) Maoz closed the Berkeley location.  Cafe Intermezzo, very sadly, burned to the ground.  Rebuilding and reopening are an option, but a distant one.  The fire also destroyed Raleigh's Pub next door, a favorite place to take our kids to play pool (yes, really).
A version of this post first appeared on poor taste magazine.
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