I’ve had a love/hate relationship with Berkeley Bowl for years. I love it because it's usually the only place I can find escarole, the produce department has 20 different types of onions and more varieties of pears than I knew existed, and I've never seen more tomatoes loaded up in huge gorgeous piles of red, yellow, purple and green anywhere. It also has one of the best fish markets in the area, a plentiful butcher counter with diverse cuts of meat, and more bin-food items than you could ever hope to scoop.
Unfortunately, the negatives are so overwhelming that I rarely step foot in the place. The parking lot alone is reason enough to run for the hills. It's like demolition derby with aged Volvos trying to out-maneuver newer hybrids to stake their claims on the all too elusive parking spots. By the time I make it inside the actual store I need a valium, but am instead met with a melee of other crabby shoppers who are also irritated from their own parking lot experiences, sticky floors, and long lines. The whole place gives me a headache.
But after seven long years of planning, negotiating, and building, Berkeley Bowl has opened a new warehouse-style market just off Ashby in Berkeley near I-80. This is great news for anyone who loves what Berkeley Bowl has to offer but detests actually shopping there. With two large parking lots, a new and clean interior with pretty much everything the old store offers, plus a large café with ample seating, it’s the new go-to East Bay market.
Like the old store, Berkeley Bowl West has a vast produce section with plenty of beautifully ripe fruits and vegetables of all kinds abundantly laid out. The organic section, however, is a little different in that it is now set apart from the main fruits and vegetables area and shares a space with the bulk food aisles. This is somewhat convenient as it means you no longer have to discern which fruits and vegetables are organic while shopping. I must admit, however, that it’s sort of a pain to have to get your cucumbers weighed and the bag stickered with the price before you can leave the zone. Cemone, the woman who weighed my fruit, said they set up the organic section this way because the checkers had too many SKU numbers to memorize and this made the checkout area run more smoothly. She seemed very earnest and nice when telling me about their system, but I must say I'm skeptical about the merits of separately weighing and pricing everything only to have to get in line again later to check out. I will reserve judgment, however, until I'm there on a busy day.
As with the original Berkeley Bowl, the prices are great. When I was there last week, heirloom tomatoes were available for about $2.50 a pound and organic Rainer cherries for under $1.50 a pound. The fresh local halibut was just under $10 a pound, a dozen organic eggs were $2.99, and I bought the most delicious locally-made ricotta for under $4. Nothing makes me happier than buying beautiful fresh foods at low prices.
The new market also has an abundant beer and wine section full of interesting choices, including two large shelves of sake, which I thought was pretty impressive. And like the old store, they have an extensive cheese selection. The food counter and deli will be a highlight for anyone wishing to purchase take-away food and has a notable array of items: fresh sushi, sandwiches, soups, salads, cooked dinner items, and anything else you could want, including an enormous collection of olives.
Overall, my shopping expedition to Berkeley Bowl West was enjoyable. We parked right away, our cart didn't have a stuck wheel, and the store was clean. Best of all it wasn't crowded and people were actually pleasant. Finally I could enjoy that amazing selection of food without wanting to rip my hair out.
Berkeley Bowl West
920 Heinz Avenue
Berkeley, CA 94710
Store Hours: Mon-Sat 9am-8pm, Sun 10am-6pm