The term “Mediterranean food” encompasses a staggering number of regions and foods, from Turkey’s moussaka to Spain’s paella. The phrase includes such a huge variety of cuisine that some argue there’s no such thing as authentic Mediterranean food. Yet in the US, the term has become shorthand for a simple, healthful style of cooking, something that’s heavy on fresh vegetables, fish and lamb and probably contains a vat of olive oil. In the Bay Area, we’re lucky to have a wealth of options for this kind of Mediterranean food, from high-end restaurants to hole-in-the-wall cafes. Here are some of our favorites in the East Bay--if we left yours out, let us know in the comments.
Emeryville’s 40th and San Pablo shopping center has nearly everything you could ever need--from shimmery eyeshadows at Ulta to a power saw at Home Depot--but it lacks non-chain eateries. Luckily, there’s Wally’s Cafe, tucked off San Pablo and attached to the divey Bank Club bar. Once you find the place, you’ll be rewarded by a menu of standard Mediterranean dishes with an emphasis on Lebanese food from owner Wally Matar, who knows how to make diners feel welcome: every meal starts with a free bowl of flavorful lentil soup. A lamb and beef gyro was a departure from the typical shaven-kebab style and featured marinated beef and lamb formed into patties, then crisped. The well-seasoned meat was topped with tzatziki, a shower of herbs, crunchy lettuce, and sumac-y onions. The bread is considerately thick to help keep it from degrading, but it’s still messy, requiring neck contortions to keep it from falling apart. At the end of your meal, there’s another gracious touch: a free piece of delicate, flaky, not-too-sweet Lebanese baklava. Is it any wonder why nearby Pixar employees love the place so much they allegedly decided to immortalize it in 2008’s WALL-E? (A poster of which hangs in the restaurant, proudly bearing Matar’s name tag from his visit to the studio) Bring cash, and prepare for a wait if you go at lunch time: on a recent weekday, the restaurant and its outdoor area were packed with a crowd that ranged from office workers describing their new favorite podcast to a couple debating whether or not it’s dangerous to crack your joints.
Charming neighborhood spot La Méditerranée, with locations in San Francisco and Berkeley, has been a Bay Area standby since 1979, when owners Levon Der Bedrossian and Garbis Baghdassarian opened the first one on Fillmore. The reason for their longevity--as evidenced by the doorway, its length covered with Zagat, Yelp and TripAdvisor recommendation stickers--is straightforward: delicious, simple, food prepared well and at a good price. There are other pros: a huge seating area, easily able to accommodate a Friends-sized group of amigos; heating lamps outside for when the weather isn’t Mediterranean-esque temperate; and smiling, efficient service. Yet another boon is the long lunch special, which goes until 4 PM and includes some of their star dishes for a few bucks less. If you’re new to the restaurant, get the Middle Eastern plate, which comes with a dizzying amount of options: a rich, sumac-spiked levant sandwich; a sweetly fragrant chunk of Chicken Cilicia; a towering, flaky spinach and feta roll similar to Spanakopita; and a bowl of soup (a piquant bowl of lemon chicken on my visit). In case that wasn’t enough, you also get cheese, fruit, pita, and a sizable dollop of hummus.
2936 College Ave. [Map]
Berkeley, CA 94705
Ph: (510) 540-7773
Hours: Sun-Thu, 10am-9:30pm 5-10pm; Fri-Sat, 10am-10:30pm.
Facebook: Cafe La Mediterranee Berkeley
Price range: $$ (Entrees $11-$17)
Rojbas Mediterranean Grill
Downtown Berkeley’s Rojbas Grill is a respite from University Ave’s activity, a peaceful place with buttercup yellow walls to get an affordable, delicious meal. Owner Emin Tekin’s salads are from the 90s (goat cheese and beet, spinach and blue cheese) but his menu is decidedly Mediterranean, with a focus on Kurdish dishes like Adana-style lamb and a mast o sir yogurt dip. The Adana kebab was an antidote for anyone who's experienced tough, rubbery lamb. It was rich and succulent, with an enlivening but not overpowering level of heat. The food is lovingly, almost painstakingly prepared by a single kitchen worker, leaving you time to ponder the efficacy of a nearby "Mein Trumpf" sign, or to simply be hypnotized by the slowly rotating column of meat on a spit.
Zaytoon Mediterranean Restaurant & Bar
The Bay Area has no shortage of low-to-medium priced options for quick, cheap Mediterranean meals. But what if you want something a little more upscale? Albany’s Zaytoon, which owner Izat Eliyan opened this year, aims to fill that gap. The decor is casually elegant--subdued teal leather booths, artistic light fixtures--and the menu follows suit, with a thoughtfully varied menu that emphasizes sourcing (most of the meats are local). While many dishes are familiar--kebabs abound--there are some rarer-seen options like mansaf, Jordan’s national dish. It’s a tower of incredibly tender braised lamb on top of lavash and yogurt. As you eat, the soggy bread collapses into a delicious mush, thanks to the tangy yogurt, with slivered nuts adding crunch.
Should you find yourself starving in San Pablo--whether you’re stuck in traffic on the 80 or just trying to fill up before a long night of gambling at Lytton Springs--park yourself in a nondescript shopping center for distinctive, excellent Mediterranean food. Kebab Express (located next to charmingly named taqueria-slash-pizzeria Americana Restaurant) offers a halal menu of traditional gyros, but don’t miss their simple chicken and rice dishes, usually prepared by owner Farid Mohsini. A huge pile of chicken--well seasoned, tender, with some char from the grill--comes topped with garlic yogurt sauce. Choose your spice level wisely (when they say spicy, they mean it), but the green sauce it comes with, a zingy yogurt and cilantro jalapeno affair, adds a tempering burst of freshness. Portions are gigantic, so prepare to stay a while: grab some plastic cutlery and settle in to watch the TV in the corner (playing NCIS on my visit) and enjoy your mountain of food.