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Navigating Berkeley’s Tasty Gourmet Ghetto Tours

New ISO gastro-graphical street signs. Credit: L. John Harris and PNR Graphics

New ISO gastro-graphical street signs. Credit: L. John Harris and PNR Graphics

I can spot them in my North Berkeley neighborhood a mile away: Clumps of mostly middle-aged and conservatively-dressed tourists circling around youngish, mostly female, clipboard-toting tour guides and nibbling on tasty treats in front of popular foodie shops and iconic cafes and restaurants. Like flocks of hungry pigeons around bags of bird seed.

These gourmet tasting tours, led by what one tour company calls “epicurean concierges,” are sprouting up all over America and the impact on the broader culture — national and international — is mushrooming. Witness the virtual takeover of CNN by Anthony Bourdain and his far-flung gourmet adventures in the recent series “Parts Unknown.” Bourdain did not invent American gastro-tourism, but he’s exporting it to every corner of the planet.

Globally, the zest for food-centric tourism is, at least marginally, all to the good for underdeveloped Asian, African and Latin American countries and Europe’s struggling southern tier economies hungry for tourist dollars and euros.

Locally, the phenomenon is coming to a neighborhood near you. In fact, it’s already here. Just about every major American city I’ve checked offers gourmet walking or bus tours now, combining tastes of neighborhood specialties with narratives about local history and architecture.

In my neck of the woods, the San Francisco Bay Area, a company called Viator leads tasting tours of Fisherman’s Wharf, Chinatown and North Beach for $69 a ticket.  Another tour company, Edible Excursions, has $75 apiece tours of Japantown and The Mission in San Francisco, and the trendy Temescal corridor in Oakland. But it was the $75 tasting tour in my own Berkeley hood, dubbed now the Gourmet Ghetto, that I could not resist.

If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em

The online itinerary for my tour offered taste treats at some of the last surviving ghetto establishments that helped launch the California cuisine revolution and its foundational mantra “fresh, local, seasonal” in the 1960s and ’70s — including a coffee tasting at the original Peet’s Coffee & Tea shop and a cheese sampler at the worker-owned Cheese Board.

Although iconic Chez Panisse, the ghetto’s and California cuisine’s mother ship, does not participate in the ghetto’s tours, other veteran and newbie establishments do, including Poulet (roast chicken bites), Saul’s Deli (mini pastrami sandwiches), the Cheese Board’s Pizza Collective (pizza slices) and the recently opened Local Butcher Shop (charcuterie tastes). Gone but not forgotten in the ghetto’s historical narrative are Victoria Wise’s legendary Pig-by-the-Tail Charcuterie and Alice Medrich’s celebrated Cocolat.

Iconic restaurant turns 100. Illustration credit: L. John Harris

Iconic restaurant turns 100. Illustration credit: L. John Harris

The Gourmet Ghetto’s 800-pound historical elephant

If the obvious draw of these tours is food tasting, it seems to me that the narrative behind the food — in this case, the stories of the ghetto’s offbeat community and its radical “simple food” philosophy — is the true content of the tours. Or should be. I wondered whether my guide would agree?

Yes and no. Her facts were certainly accurate and the stories reasonably nuanced, as nuanced as one might expect from someone who wasn’t even born when the ghetto’s identity was being shaped. But there was an 800-pound historical elephant in the ghetto, something our guide didn’t know or didn’t think important to comment on — the fact that the very name “Gourmet Ghetto,” now the city-endorsed designation for our neighborhood, started out as a joke.

The term was coined in the 1970s as a snarky put-down by one of the first clerks at the Cheese Board, the comedian and San Francisco Mime Troupe member Darryl Henriques. Henriques would welcome his cheese-craving customers to the “gourmet ghetto” and rant about the counter-revolutionary explosion of trendy shops that followed the success of Chez Panisse and were “ruining” the neighborhood.

The dark irony of attaching “gourmet” to “ghetto” was not lost on the Cheese Board’s Jewish and left-leaning customers back in the day. Like so many terms associated with revolutions and their leaders in culture and art — lefties and hippies, impressionists and cubists — they often begin as the mocking labels of hostile critics, only to be adopted over time by the mainstream culture. Witness the rise of “foodie” as a replacement for the now overly-quaint “gourmet.”

Getting the stories straight

After my edible excursion I began to notice more and more ghetto tour groups. And I would shamelessly eavesdrop. One guide I overheard in front of the Cheese Board referred to the mission of this mom-and-pop shop when it opened in 1967 as “offering local artisan cheeses.”

Really? There were no local artisan cheeses when the Cheese Board opened. Laura Chenel was perhaps the first true local artisan cheesemaker in Northern California, starting her eponymous Sonoma goat cheese company in 1979.

Recently I caught another tour guide explaining to her group perched outside Saul’s Deli that the co-owner, Peter Levitt, had collaborated with Gourmet Ghetto-spawned Acme Bakery to offer an Old World Jewish rye bread because commercial rye (the ubiquitous New York rye with a cornmeal crust and caraway seeds) had “absolutely no rye flour in it.”

Scandal! Sacre bleu! Oy vey! Rye bread without rye flour.

Well, not really. When I mentioned the comment to Levitt that afternoon, his jaw dropped. “That’s just not true. I’ve never said that.” He proceeded to give me the learned lowdown on commercial rye bread, its low rye flour content and its link to a style of authentic rye bread from Eastern Europe that catered to the “refined” tastes of the rich and to certain preferred culinary applications — a lighter, whiter rye bread with a reduced ratio of rye flour to white flour that I, for one, still prefer, especially with pastrami and corned beef.

The correct narrative here, in our new Michael Pollan-ated world of whole grain consciousness, is that it’s not the quantity of rye flour in various styles of rye bread that counts, but the quality of that rye flour, where it’s grown and how it’s milled and baked.  After that, its chacun à son goût.

Hot out of the oven

Who would have thought that young Berkeley lefties, hippies and proto-foodies like myself would create an American food revolution and live long enough to see how the historical narratives would be served forth, sometimes butchered, often manipulated or merely ignored, on popular gourmet tours?

Maybe I should lead my own tours of the Gourmet Ghetto to help keep the narratives honest. I’ll promote my tours by driving around the ghetto in a repurposed Oscar Mayer Wienermobile with a public-address system blaring:  “Fresh local history. Get it while it’s hot.”

Top graphic: New ISO gastro-graphical street signs. Credit: L. John Harris and PNR Graphics

Zester Daily contributing writer and illustrator L. John Harris has lived and worked in and around Berkeley's Gourmet Ghetto since the 1960s. Since the sale of his cookbook publishing company, Aris Books, in 1990, Harris has worked as a journalist, cartoonist and documentary filmmaker. He is the author of "The Book of Garlic" (Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1975) and the graphic memoir "Foodoodles: From the Museum of Culinary History" (El Leon Literary Arts, 2010). A vintage guitar collector, Harris launched the nonprofit Harris Guitar Foundation in 2013 in collaboration with the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.


  • Rick Wise 7·1·13

    Another great article by you, John. If only you could find a Weinermobile!

  • Toney Weiner 7·1·13

    you’re perfect for the Oscar Meyer Weinermobile as long as you don’t have to drive it on the freeway.

  • Peter Jackson 7·2·13

    Do you remember Vivoli the awesome gelato place? I forget the exact location, but I remember it being somewhere on Shattuck.

  • ellen 7·19·13

    Vivoli was in Trumpetvine Court, at Shattuck and Allston. (Till the Florentine gelateria sued over the name.)

  • Lee Ballance 7·20·13

    For many years Lenny’s supplied meat and fish from its location about where Saul’s is now. It was a traditional butcher shop with garrulous countermen and great T-shirts (“Lenny’s Will Sell No Swine Before Its Time”). One day in the late ’70s I was there when a group of Japanese men came in on a tour. I believe they were themselves butchers. There is nothing new under the sun.

  • L. John Harris 7·20·13

    Ah yes, I remember Lenny’s. Those were the days when the ghetto was just a ghetto. Nothing gourmet about Lenny’s. Very old school. The only grass fed meat in those days was the Berkeley hills deer that nibbled on your lawn.

  • Linda Schacht 7·20·13

    Set ’em straight, John. Would love to take your tour!