In foodie talk, Berkeley is synonymous with Chez Panisse: there’s hardly a writing of Bay Area cuisine without the mentioning of Alice Waters and her propriety. But as attractive as the local and sustainable idea sounds, places like Chez Panisse are clearly not in the accessible range for everyone’s weekly, or even monthly, savour. If it’s not what the locals regularly eat, how can it represent the local cuisine? The common Berkelers don’t make one month reservation to eat at a cafe, they instead would rather make a line on the sidewalk, waiting to be seated in 25 minutes or so-told by waiters with tattoos and spiky hair. Such casualness, though paired with obvious reduce in taste innovation and price, defines the Berkeley dining spectrum, with the holes in the wall like Razan’s Organic Kitchen and Gregoire at the cheaper end, to more comfortable sit-downs like Herbivore and Venus at the other.
I call it a sit-down because Venus is barely bigger than a classroom, and diners are spaced more snugly than students on exam day. Its rectangular base holds a kitchen-cashier combination and roughly 40 seats – an ok amount for lunch and dinner but not enough for the mornings. I’ve seen lines, and been in one myself, standing outside the door even on weekdays. The mornings here are cold, but Venus’s breakfasts are good.
Omelets and scrambled eggs are the main categories, with typical Californian blendings like chicken-and-apple sausage, fresh berries and chocolate chips in pancakes, and thick, fat, buttery French toasts accompanied by melons and oranges.
If you feel guilty about taking time to savor your toasts while others are shivering outside waiting to slip through that door, lunch proves a more comfortable choice. To boost, the hosts give you both the breakfast and lunch menus if you arrive around noon. The specials of the day are printed items with a simple twist, like my chicken salad with a load of watermelon cubes mixed in.
The ingredients aren’t clamorous and the mixing isn’t adventurous, but such daily specials are nonetheless a refreshing attempt to harmonize flavors: sweet watermelon to temper tangy feta and vinaigrette, teeth-sinking jello crunch of the grilled chicken to pair with airy crustiness of newly baked bread. It isn’t the best salad I’ve ever had, but it bursts a mouthful of Casual-Cali aroma(*): healthy food can have attractive taste.
The atmosphere, too, is characteristic. Jazzy 60’s records reluctantly slip words one by one off the speaker like water dripping from a roof after some heavy rain. College students twirl their straws over a quiet chat by the windows. An old man with a cane and weak feet drags his steps to the table, clouding himself with a Degas’ look while waiting for his soup. Lone diners in spectacles spend an entire morning flipping through the news, occasionally take a bite of sandwich and a sip of coffee. Couples in their late fifties laugh and talk without constraint. Everyone is comfortable. It’s a noisy place, but oddly it’s full of solitude.
Venus restaurant, in some aspect, is just like their panna cotta: rich and smooth, with the occasional fresh and tart berries to boost.
Eating local and sustainable means spending unsustainably, or eating expensive in plain terms. Sure, breakfast for two or lunch plus dessert will rip you off about 25 dollars sans tip. But when the bill doesn’t absurdly boast $50 or more a person, the taste, the portion and the good feeling of eating healthy and local justify the self-indulgence. I guess.
(*): This definition is made only on comparison with the cuisines of other states in America, as the fusion and local trend is by no means particular to California, but a growing fashion in high-end restaurants around the world.