On a typical winter weekend, the Berkeley neighborhood of Northbrae quietly buzzes.
From morning on, folks of all ages are out and about: jogging, cheering at soccer games or maybe heading to the playground at King Park. Other forms of recreation involve shopping at specialty food shops, tempting one's taste buds at cozy cafes, searching out literary favorites at the North Branch Library and buying botanical inspirations at a top-notch nursery.
Trees line residential streets of well-maintained one- and two-story California bungalows with flourishing yards. This is a small neighborhood -- Hopkins Street between The Alameda and Sacramento Street -- and that makes it a great destination to explore on foot.
So grab your recycled market bags or a red wagon, and start early to step into a day in the life of Northbrae.
Serving as the gateway to Northbrae at Hopkins and The Alameda is the North Branch Berkeley Public Library, set in a triangular, tree-laden swath of green. Inside the California Spanish-style building, solid wood furnishings and a large children's wing invite lingering, as do weekly children's events.
King School Park is a multi-interest magnet. Set under towering eucalyptus, it attracts those who want to lap the track or enjoy a swim or a tennis match, and children primed for playground time. The fence-enclosed tot-lot features swings and a slide, while the larger
Anchoring the south end of Northbrae is Monterey Market, a 30-year institution whose contacts with local farmers assureé the peak of freshness and availability. With bargains outside under canopy and indoor rows sporting a wide array of produce, specialty items and staples, it's no surprise to see heavily laden carts on every aisle.
At nearby Magnani, fresh Sonoma poultry, Niman Ranch meats and a dizzying variety of sausages share the stage with a variety of house-made soups, including corn chowder and minestrone, and a Deliza bar of squirt-your-own olive oils and vinegars. Sliced-to-order deli meats and prepared salads are a picnic-in-the-making.
Country Cheese Coffee Market sells an international selection of cheeses from France, Spain, Cypress and Switzerland, as well as California favorites from Humboldt and Marin counties. Team them up with enticing salamis and pâtés, imported crackers and cookies, and bulk herbs and spices that may be the best bargain around.
At Monterey Fish, the key words are freshness and sustainability, and the knowledgeable staff adds to this store's appeal. On ice are opah, halibut, Taku River salmon and a wide variety of mussels. Dungeness crabs occupy tanks, and the Hawaiian squid salad is a popular selection.
Satisfy your sweet tooth at Hopkins Street Bakery where you can choose from pastries that include blueberry cheese Danish, cinnamon twists and cranberry breakfast buns. It's also a good place for multigrain breads and tempting cakes, such as Italian cream and mango mousse.
Neighborhood life, a big part of Northbrae's attraction, can be experienced at Espresso Roma, a former gas station turned outdoor cafe with a garden setting that beckons in every season. Tables fill with locals and visitors sampling a breakfast bagel, Mexican scramble, Italian salad, vegetable barley soup or turkey panini on house-made focaccia; meals are often rounded out with strong espressos and M&M cookies.
New York-style pizza, by the slice or pie, is on hand at Gioia Pizzeria. Popular choices include mushroom, pepperoni or broccoli ricotta. The cozy space features a pounded copper oven hood and a few counter-side stools. Another option is to order through the sidewalk pass-through window.
Class by itself
Once the taste buds are satisfied, there's food for the soul at Berkeley Horticultural Nursery, which is more like a gorgeous botanical garden with take-home specimens. Arched, room-size areas under a high peaked central structure create the perfect vantage point for finding winter-colored cyclamen, bare-root roses and six-packs of broccoli rabe and kale. The block-size property has enough choices to inspire even those not blessed with green thumbs.
With recycled bags filled and appetites appeased, retrace your steps along Hopkins Street under a tree-tunnel of far-reaching sycamores. Strolling past the still-lively park and still-busy library, Northbrae almost feels like home. In this mellow residential community, it's easy to fit right in.
IF YOU GO
WHERE TO VISIT: North Branch Berkeley Public Library -- 1170 The Alameda, 510-644-6850; King School Park -- 1700 Hopkins St., 510-981-5150.
WHERE TO SHOP: Monterey Market -- 1550 Hopkins St., 510-526-6042; Magnani -- 1576 Hopkins St., 510-528-6370; Country Cheese Coffee Market -- 1578 Hopkins St., 510-526-1333; Monterey Fish -- 1582 Hopkins St., 510-525-5600; Hopkins Street Bakery -- 1584 Hopkins St., 510-526-8188; Berkeley Horticultural Nursery -- 1310 McGee St., 510-526-4704.
WHERE TO EAT: Espresso Roma -- 1549 Hopkins St., 510-528-8010; Gioia Pizzeria -- 1586 Hopkins St., 510-528-4692.