BERKELEY, Calif. - This artsy, funky, fun city across the bay from San Francisco is the closest thing to a bowl destination that Ohio State football fans have seen in almost two years. Berkeley, a hotbed of political activism in the 1960s and '70s, is still known for its leftish politics. The closest analogue among Big Ten towns is Madison, the home of the University of Wisconsin. Berkeley, though, makes Madison look like a Young Republicans' coffee klatch.
BERKELEY, Calif. — This artsy, funky, fun city across the bay from San Francisco is the closest thing to a bowl destination that Ohio State football fans have seen in almost two years.
Despite a perfect season last year, the team missed a bowl game because of NCAA sanctions related to the tattoo scandal. A nonconference visit to the University of California on Sept. 14 represents a perfect early-season opportunity for Buckeye Nation to work off some pent-up wanderlust.
Berkeley, a hotbed of political activism in the 1960s and ’70s, is still known for its leftish politics. The closest analogue among Big Ten towns is Madison, the home of the University of Wisconsin. Berkeley, though, makes Madison look like a Young Republicans’ coffee klatch.
Don’t let that scare — or encourage — you too much, though.
Visitors of any political or cultural bent will probably find Berkeley’s live-and-let-live attitude refreshing. And the hippie-museum vibe is just one facet of the city’s fascinating civic personality.
(And, if it makes you feel better, if someone flashes you a “peace” sign — which does still happen here — imagine it’s a “V” for Buckeye victory.)
The University of California is the dominant institution in Berkeley.
Cal has a beautiful campus with iconic Sather Tower (also known as the Campanile) near its center. The 307-foot tower contains a 61-bell carillon that is played three times a day. Visitors can ride an elevator to the observation platform just under the bells to enjoy a magnificent view of the entire San Francisco Bay Area. And those who visit the platform at noon will be treated to what will probably be the loudest carillon concert they have ever heard.
Beneath the platform and bells are several floors of offices which are used — according to one elevator operator who seemed quite sincere — as classrooms for carillon students and as storage space for the Paleontology Department’s surplus fossils. This being Berkeley, that might even be true.
The university is home to a magnificent botanical garden teeming with plants that Midwestern gardeners can only dream of successfully growing. Miles of walking paths crisscross the garden’s 34 acres, which are divided into displays focusing on regions such as southern Africa and the Mediterranean. (Ohioans should be sure to pay homage at the garden’s A esculus californica, the California buckeye tree.)
The garden’s most magical place might be the redwood grove, a dense stand of quiet giants that transported me, briefly, to some cool, isolated slope of the Sierra Nevada.
Berkeley is also home to many notable arts and performance venues, including the Freight & Salvage Coffeehouse, an icon of folk and traditional music since 1968 that still offers performances almost every night.
During my visit, I saw two great sets by Bay Area singer-songwriter Maurice Tani — whose style seems inspired by the Bakersfield country-rock sound of Buck Owens and early Merle Haggard.
(A “birthday tribute” to bluegrass great Bill Monroe is scheduled at Freight & Salvage the night before the OSU-Cal game.)
But one of the best reasons to visit Berkeley — besides enjoying a Buckeye victory — is the food.
In Berkeley, no matter what you crave, you can eat like a king — or like a president, emperor, prime minister, despot or tribal elder of any nationality or ethnicity. I didn’t see any Antarctic fare, but that’s the only obvious terra incognito on Berkeley’s food map.
While in California, though, consider sampling some California cuisine, a style that emphasizes fresh local gourmet ingredients and, many say, was born at Berkeley’s Chez Panisse in the 1970s. Chez Panisse is still a destination restaurant — I met several diners who said they had flown to the Bay Area specifically to eat there — so be sure to make a reservation, even for lunch.
If you can’t get in, though, don’t worry. The iconic restaurant has also served as a training ground or inspiration for dozens of other restaurateurs in the Bay Area, several of whom have opened shop in the same North Shattuck “Gourmet Ghetto” neighborhood as Chez Panisse.
Berkeley’s culinary delights are even part of the city’s official tourism slogan: “Come for the culture; stay for the food.”
Yeah, the slogan doesn’t mention football. But don’t let that, and Berkeley’s hippie vibe, fool you. Cal football might have a less fanatical following than do the Buckeyes, but it competes for attention with many Bay Area college and professional teams, including the NFL’s 49ers and Raiders, baseball’s Giants and A’s, basketball’s Warriors and hockey’s Sharks.
That means that fans visiting Berkeley will find plenty of sports bars and other venues in which to enjoy food and libations and watch games before and after the “big” one.
One of the best might be Pyramid Breweries, with great beers brewed on-site and big-screen televisions liberally scattered all over the joint. Pyramid offers free daily brewery tours with a generous tasting session afterward.
Craft beer fans might also want to make a pilgrimage to Triple Rock Brewery, one of the first and most enduring brew pubs in the country — and a great place to anticipate, or celebrate, a Buckeye victory.