TASTING THE EAST BAY
A Food Tour Sampler
BY SAM TILLIS
Food tourism is one of the fastest growing travel trends today, and this is not least the case here in the Bay Area, where numerous companies have sprung up to fill the niche. Curious to see what the fuss was about, I signed up for some tours.
Slumming Around the Gourmet Ghetto
Edible Excursions began as an exclusive experience Lisa Rogovin cooked up for guests at San Francisco’s Four Seasons Hotel. Then after a life-altering, globetrotting vacation, she realized her food tours could attract a much wider audience. Now offering ten regular tours highlighting locations in San Francisco, Berkeley, and Oakland, Lisa tells me the selection criteria for restaurants is “based on deliciousness” and that on all tours, the goal is to eat at as many stops as possible. With this in mind, I made a reservation for the Berkeley Gourmet Ghetto tour.
With its charming houses, small businesses, and multitude of independent eateries, the gourmet ghetto doesn’t appear much different from surrounding North Berkeley at first glance. But hidden within this unprepossessing neighborhood are numerous culinary icons. While our group was a mix of locals and visitors from out of the area, the tour certainly catered to those in the culinary know, with names like Alice Waters and Michael Pollan sprinkled liberally through the conversation. But then, how could it be otherwise as we circumscribed the gravity well of Chez Panisse?
Stops included Saul’s Restaurant and Delicatessen (with its exquisite celery soda), The Local Butcher Shop (where the “whole-animal” ethic encourages patrons to expand their horizons with unusual cuts), and a soup restaurant unambiguously named Soop. The keystone of the tour, though, was generous pizza and cheese samples from the legendary Cheeseboard Collective.
Find details and the full range of tours at edibleexcursions.net. Check out Edible Excursions’ new Uptown Oakland tour, which winds through Oakland’s most up-and-coming district.
Valley of the Spoon at Jack London Square
Two years ago Carlo Medina quit his job and decided to travel the world. Like Rogovin, he came back inspired to start his own business, knowing that it had to somehow involve his twin loves: Oakland and food. Carlo hopes Savor Oakland can be part of a re-imaging of Oakland, so the city might be revealed as the diverse, dynamic environment that it is. How does he choose his stops? A special blend of taste, location, and the intangible feel of a place that is “just so Oakland.”
Carlo is one of those people who knows everyone. As the tour proceeded from one end of Jack London Square to the other, he was continually stopped by “Hey, Carlo!” from passers-by, who were cheerfully granted a brief conversation before he told them he had to go, he was working. The feeling throughout the tour was that we were in the hands of a consummate local, showing off sights and sharing sometimes-sordid tales of the city he loves.
Over the course of the three-and-a-half hour tour, we ate (among other things) the eponymous dish at Home of Chicken and Waffles, authentic bagels at Authentic Bagel Co., and some exquisite churros in Mexican chocolate sauce at Bocanova.
Find details at savoroaklandfoodtours.com, where you can read about Savor Oakland’s a new Oakland Chinatown tour. When I asked about the stops, Carlo was coy, saying I’d have to try it to find out.
Afternoon in the Gardens of Lake Merritt
Localite Tours co-founder Serena Bartlett came to Oakland ten years ago after her own international travel stint. Like Rogovin and Medina, she found a vibrant city that was often overlooked by the brand-name guidebooks. So she wrote her own. The GrasssRoutes Guide to Oakland and Berkeley is one of nine travel guides she has penned. When we talked, Serena spoke about food as a doorway to the culture of a place and as a method of hands-on, experiential education. The tours designs with co-founder Gretchen Ludwig aim to helpi visitors and denizens alike “be local everywhere.”
While they do have more food-heavy offerings, I opted for Localite’s Picnic Tour. Serena herself led this quiet meander through some of Lake Merritt’s botanical settings: a sensory garden designed in consideration of the blind, a palm forest, the largest collection of vireyas (rhododendrons) in the country, and an exhibit of breathtaking bonsai.
This tour was the most laid back of what I sampled for this review, perhaps in part due to its idyllic location or Serena’s “proceed at your own pace” philosophy. And while it wasn’t the grand feast I enjoyed with the other companies, there were some yummy treats along the three-hour amble: an almond tea scone from La Farine (smuggled into the garden in Serena’s shoulder bag), a cup of Numi tea, and tastes of wine from Ordinaire Wine Bar. The tour included a stop at Oaktown Spice Shop and concluded with a full-meal picnic on the lakeshore provided by Grand Lake Kitchen.
Check out the full range of Localite tours at localitetours.com
Dining with the Dead at Mountain View Cemetery
Not noted for their hospitality, or for having much of an appetite, the dead still can offer up a good story about food. Coaxing it out of them is Barbara Gibson, one of several tour docents at Oakland’s historic Mountain View Cemetery. Covering acres of gravesites on the beautiful Frederick Law Olmsted-designed grounds, docents focus on designated topics in their twice-monthly history tours. Food emerged as a theme when Gibson noticed that a large number of the community’s permanent residents had made significant contributions to our region’s gastronomic culture.
By planting caches of themed snacks ahead of time, Gibson ensures that her guests will not want during the curated hike. A cuppa joe and chocolate-covered coffee beans slaked cravings at the graves of coffee equipment pioneer Marcus Mason and Folger’s Coffee founder James Athearn Folger. We munched grapes by the bunch at the resting place of famed horticulturalist Henderson Luelling, “father of the Pacific fruit industry,” and popped olives as we learned how Freda Ehmann birthed California’s ripe olive industry. The Mai Tais served near the ashen remains of Victor J. (Trader Vic) Bergeron were missing the demon rum, but a bottle of Yukon Jack’s namesake hooch made an appearance at the tomb of Leroy Napoleon “Jack” McQuesten. There’s much more in store for those who can catch this tour. Visit mountainviewcemetery.org/tour.html to find out when the Food Mavericks tour might next be held.
Food tours of all sorts are popping up like mushrooms around the Bay. For other options, check out these:
The international food-tour community Dishcrawl (dishcrawl.com) offers unique one-time events in over 200 cities throughout the U.S. and Canada.
Berkeley-based Bay Area Green Tours (bayareagreentours.org) offers tours with a cause. Designed to educate participants about sustainability, urban farms, and other environmental topics, these are private tours, crafted to suit the requirements and interests of the group. (June 10, Moveable Feast – A Locavore Progressive Dinner.)
If you’re interested in exploring beyond your own appetite, visit foodsovereigntytours.org to learn about Oakland-based nonprofit Food First. Their Food Sovereignty Tours offer a way to explore the realities of the global food system and to connect with the global movement for food sovereignty.