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A Tour of the Gourmet Ghetto with “the Balzac of Berkeley”

April 11, 2018
by Josh Sens

L. John Harris, food writer, filmmaker, Gourmet Ghetto fixture, has been called the “Balzac of Berkeley.” But on a recent drizzly morning, he could have passed for Proust as he stood outside the original Peet’s, describing the caffeinated madeleine moment he had at the shop nearly 50 years before.

“It was a house blend, mostly likely a French roast, and it reminded me of coffee that I’d had in Europe,” he said. “We’ve all had food epiphanies that flood us with memories. This was one of those for me.”

That was in the summer of 1968, and Harris, an undergraduate studying art at UC Berkeley, was on the cusp of a gastronomic awakening. The same was true of the neighborhood, a sleepy, residential district on the verge of going gourmet.

“There were no trendy boutiques or restaurants,” Harris said. “But then we woke up one day, and food was suddenly an art form. It became a vehicle for creative expression. And so much of that change started right here.”

In the half-century since, Harris, who is 71, with a robust head of hair and the salt-and-pepper goatee of a cafe bohemian, has traveled and published widely. He has penned several books, including two on garlic; produced a documentary on a Chicago deli; spent long stretches in the seventh arrondissement. But the North Berkeley neighborhood where it all began for him remains his favorite milieu and his frequent muse. On this cool, gray day, as he set off on a walking tour of its rain-slicked streets, it inspired him to reflect on his surroundings, then and now.

“This was the original Cheese Board, right here,” Harris said.

During one of those shifts at the Cheese Board in 1971, a young woman named Alice Waters dropped by. She was opening a restaurant around the corner and looking for help for her first dinner service.

Umbrella held aloft, he had moved a few doors from the coffee-scented corner of Walnut and Vine to what is now the Juice Bar Collective, the same snug space where, in 1967, Sahag and Elizabeth and Sahag Avedisian introduced their patrons to the likes of Emmental and Danish Camembert. A long way from exotic by today’s standards, the Cheese Board’s selections were a world removed from the processed stuff most shoppers knew back then.

The Avedisians themselves were unconventional, too, avowed lefties who went on to turn their business into the worker-owned cooperative that still operates today on Shattuck Avenue.

Harris was one of their early employees, logging half-day shifts, two to three days a week, off and on, for more than a decade. During one of those shifts, in 1971, a young woman named Alice Waters dropped by. She was opening a restaurant around the corner and looking for help for her first dinner service. Harris raised his hand to be a waiter for a three-course, prix fixe evening that has since passed into culinary lore.

“If you talk to Steve Crumley, the maitre d’ that night, he’ll tell you that a thousand people claim to have been there,” Harris said.

It was the food world’s version of the night Wilt Chamberlain scored 100 points.

It was also groundbreaking. Though Harris only lasted a few shifts at Chez Panisse, the restaurant’s impact on him lingered. Raised in Los Angeles, in an assimilated Jewish home, he’d grown up on a diet of schmaltz and pastrami but also bacon and spaghetti and meatballs. He wasn’t picky, or especially worldly. As it did for countless others, Alice’s restaurant pushed Harris further toward the boundless possibilities of good food.

“It was rustic. It was garlicky, and Provencal,” Harris said. “It was not the kind of dining very many of us knew.”

The light rain had dwindled to a mist, and Harris,  umbrella closed and brandished like a cane, was walking south on Shattuck, wood-shingled Chez Panisse looming on his left. His path took him past a lineup of relative newbies: an upscale food emporium, a shop specializing in acai bowls—easy targets for anyone taking aim at chi-chi-fication.

Cartoon of a guillotine

Harris is disinclined toward potshot critiques, favoring instead the kind of gentle satire contained in his book, Foodoodles, a collection of cartoons and commentaries that make light sport of the local food scene. One drawing, entitled The Food Revolution, shows a chef in the shadow of the Berkeley campanile, his head clamped in a guillotine, above the caption: Off with his toque.

It’s a popular pastime, poking fun at foodie culture. And no neighborhood draws more mockery than the Gourmet Ghetto, whose very moniker was born as tongue-in-cheek. Some have credited its coinage to the late San Francisco Chronicle columnist, Herb Caen, others to the Berkeley humorist Alice Kahn. Harris says that he first heard the term in the early 1970s from Darryl Henriques, a Cheese Board Collective member who performed in a local comedy troupe. His use of “gourmet ghetto” was part of a shtick linking the decline of the neighborhood to the rise of fancy food.

That food here and elsewhere has become so politicized—tied to socioeconomics, the environment, animal rights, and more—obscures the fact, Harris says, that the food movement’s first stirrings weren’t political at all.

“We have a tendency to collapse history,” Harris said. “If you read the Wikipedia entry for Chez Panisse, it describes a sustainable ethos and it gives you the sense that that was a driving force from the start. But when the restaurant opened, no one used the word sustainable. There was no political agenda. It was the same as it was for so many of us back then. We were drawn to good food for the sensory pleasure of it.”

“I don’t disagree with the goal of challenging the industrial food machine. But I also think it’s worth asking whether, in all our analytical thinking, we lose the pure pleasure of eating.”

To sum up how things have changed, Harris relies on language less political than scientific. The evolution of our approach to food reflects, he says, a shift from “right-brain eating” to “left brain eating,” the right brain being primal and pleasure-seeking, the left brain being rational, analytical. Harris appreciates the latter but abides by the former.

“I have a son who is a vegan and a daughter who is a vegetarian—I understand their choices and I support them.” Harris said. “I don’t disagree with the goal of challenging the industrial food machine. But I also think it’s worth asking whether, in all our analytical thinking, we lose the pure pleasure of eating. That’s what I’m after. I believe I’ve established myself, to the extent that I’m known at all, as an old-school gourmet.”

Not an activist by nature, Harris is also not above complaining. Now, crossing Shattuck and turning north, he brought up his biggest gripe about the neighborhood: the presence of not one but two Safeways. He finds the Safeway Club Card especially repellent (“It’s basically extortion. If you don’t join our club, you don’t get the discount,” he says) and it galls him to think that in a district known as the Gourmet Ghetto, there is nowhere he can walk—or, rather, where he wants to walk— to buy a quart of milk.

“That particular matter is probably as close as I get to agitating for change,” Harris said.

He had reached the Cheese Board and its collectivized offshoot, Cheese Board Pizza Collective, which opened next door to the mothership in 1990. When he first tried the pies, Harris’s first thought was, “Wait, this isn’t pizza, at least, not New York pizza.” But he realized quickly that was classic left-brain thinking. An internal argument ensued. His right brain won.

“The truth is, it’s delicious,” Harris said. “So why not just enjoy it for what it is?”

Passing on a slice—and the long wait required to get one—Harris ducked into the Cheese Board and bumped into Steve Sutcher, a Collective member since 1979. They got to talking. Harris inquired about the address one door north, the longtime home of a now-shuttered corner grocery store. The space was vacant. Harris had heard the Cheese Board planned to take it over.

Cartoons of "James' Beard," "Julia's Child," "Alice's Water," and "Jeremiah's Tower."
From the Museum of Culinary History (1990) / L. John Harris

“Do me one favor,”  he said. “Put a little fridge in there and sell quarts of milk.”

“We’ll take that under consideration,” Sutcher said.

As a representative of the Gourmet Ghetto old-guard, Sutcher is part of a dwindling population of neighborhood long-timers who know Harris by name. Many others have moved on to other phases, or to other realms. The Avedisians are long gone. Marlyn Rinzler, of counter-service Poulet, recently retired. Time’s passage can be sobering. But there are upsides, Harris says. On his near-daily outings into the Gourmet Ghetto, down from his home just up the hill, he’s free to stroll the streets largely in anonymity, dropping in on his favorite spots to snack or sip, lost in his own idle ruminations.  There’s nothing quite like food to get the noggin churning, whirling with remembrances of meals past. The Cheese Board’s cornmeal-and-cherry scones have that effect on Harris. Ditto the roast chicken at Poulet.

“Noshtalgia,” Harris calls it.

With lunch hour approaching, he was ready for a helping of just that, so he crossed Shattuck again, this time to Saul’s Restaurant & Delicatessen. Aside from being hearty, deli food is often freighted with the expectations diners bring to it. No style of cuisine has provided Harris with richer food for thought. In 1998, he produced a documentary—Divine Food—about the 100th anniversary of a family-run, Chicago based deli business, which was based on a book he also wrote.

In the course of those projects, Harris spent time contemplating not only delis but also ideas about delis, and the power of those ideas to please and disappoint.

“In the end it really all comes down to childhood,” Harris said. “People want the deli they had when they were kids.”

The L.A. delis of Harris’s childhood were New York-style delis, untouched by today’s West Coast culinary currents. But his fondness for them doesn’t mean he’s wedded to them. One of the many things he admires about Saul’s—in addition to its bagels, lox and pastrami—is the way that it has bridged the old and new. It hasn’t been easy. But Harris has played a supporting role. In the mid-to-late ‘90s, he volunteered as a greeter-cum-ambassador at Saul’s, answering questions, tempering unrealistic demands.

“Some people would come in looking for a sub sandwich, and I’d have to explain that this wasn’t that kind of deli,” Harris said. “And of course there’s always someone complaining that the pastrami doesn’t taste like it does in New York. This is not that kind of deli either. It’s a Gourmet Ghetto deli, and it has done a remarkable job of integrating into the current climate while satisfying old school expectations.”

As evidence of that success, Saul’s was packed, the crowd a mix of Berkeley-style babushkas and twenty-somethings in skinny jeans. At one of the two-tops sat two familiar faces: Saul’s co-owner Peter Levitt and none other than Steve Crumley, the maitre d’ from that long-ago inaugural Chez Panisse dinner.

Harris stopped to chat. Pleasantries gave way to reminiscences.

“It’s absolutely true,” Crumley said. “John is one of the people who really was there that night.” 

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