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Bowled Over Again | Berkeley’s quirky grocery scores a strike with its cool new building. | By Lauri Puchall

So far, the sexy younger sister of Berkeley’s legendary Berkeley Bowl—the 10-month-old Berkeley Bowl West—is holding its own. Like its long-established sibling, the new Bowl West sells enough ripe mangoes on any given day to supply smoothies for every kid in Berkeley. But the upstart, housed in an airy, easy-on-the-eyes pair of glass and steel buildings designed by local architect Kava Massih, also satisfies the cravings of those who like a touch of glamour with their groceries.

Much has been made of the “old” Bowl’s reputation of catering to an eccentric cast of Berkeley characters who clash over carts, graze brazenly, and play bumper cars in the parking lot. Whatever its quirks, though, the clientele is loyal, and for good reason. The Bowl has consistently satisfied a taste for well-priced local, seasonal, and exotic produce since 1977, when grocer Glenn Yasuda and his wife, Diane, opened the then–pint-sized store in a bowling alley (hence the name) on Shattuck Avenue. Since 1999, a former Safeway on Oregon Street, renovated by architect David Trachtenberg, has been home to the bustling, beloved Bowl.

The new branch at 920 Heinz Ave., near the intersection of Ashby and San Pablo, has already attracted its own diehard devotees—first-timers and switch-hitters alike. Their shopping lists include everything from salad makings to office supplies to tamarind, from traditional Asian fare to imports like British baked beans and foreign candy bars.

But more than mere comestibles, the hybrid grocery-plus-cafe-plus-catering serves up a heaping portion of what locals hunger for. A big draw is what amounts to a community kitchen (albeit a commercial one) and surrounding eating area that offers the same opportunities for low-key public socializing and dining as a European cafe, on an American-size scale. It doesn’t hurt, of course, that all this is housed in a pair of sleek neo-industrial packages, wrapped in corrugated metal, pierced with picture windows, and skewered by ribbons of glass.

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The 9th Street approach offers a straight shot to a covered plaza between a duo of warehouse-style buildings, terminating in a parking lot that delivers you squarely into the territory of the Bowl. This axial alignment of public right-of-way with semi-public space, though commonplace in Paris or Rome, is refreshing for West Berkeley. Yet, lest you get carried away and think you are in Europe, the parking lot in the midst of the grand arrival brings you back to reality.

From the lot, the eye is drawn to the base of a vast metal-clad bar building where it cuts away, revealing warm wood siding. This is the grocery. To the right is the cafe building, where a cube of projecting windows creates an appealing abstract design, inviting passersby to peer into the transparent facade along Heinz Avenue. Clear glass hugs the corners of this sparkling metal box, beckoning pedestrians to walk up the ramp lined with black bamboo plants and funnel through a narrow switchback to the store’s plaza. As an afterthought, the Yasudas—who own both Bowls—recently added a glass wall set in steel as a windbreak to shelter the outdoor seating in the plaza.

In theory, all roads lead to Rome, but at the Bowl West, the walkways are cleverly designed to carry you right into this plaza and cafe area—which is to say, right into the hub of community life. Whether you approach from the street or parking lot, or ascend from the subterranean garage, you’ll wind up just outside the bright, freestanding eatery with floor-to-ceiling windows.

The Berkeley Bowl West Cafe kitchen serves a typical casual dining menu and then some: for the lunch crowd, hamburgers—dished up with pickles, chips, and mayo that are all made from scratch. For breakfast, regulars recommend the herb-seasoned egg sandwich on English muffin, just greasy enough to satisfy. The fragrant, visually appealing indoor space and the adjacent covered plaza are often teeming with diners, students, and writers tapping away at laptops, moms’ groups nursing lattes (or babies), and teachers from one of the several nearby schools grabbing a cup of caffeine.

Upstairs from the cafe, a community room available for rentals and town meetings boasts windows on all four sides, with a view of the East Bay hills.

Just inside the grocery building across the plaza, islands of bread and cheese (goat, sheep, or cow, take your pick) draw you in toward the prepared foods and the olive bar. Past the ready-to-eat meals, like burritos and sushi, is the bulk-goods department where you’ll find everything from sushi rice to dried pinto beans.

At the rear of the store, a soaring two-story market atrium shelters the famous produce that comprises well over half of the inventory. Here you’ll find mouth-watering pyramids of seasonal snap peas, mounds of green grapes, and sweet strawberries, all artfully arranged. Organics, segregated from conventional fruits and vegetables, share a weigh station with bulk bins of grains, flour, nuts, and other sundries.

Upstairs, a series of large rooms rings the atrium—warehouses, offices, employee centers, and the main commercial kitchen. The Bowl’s expert father-and-son produce buyers, whose days begin well before dawn, have side-by-side east-facing offices here, overlooking the breezeway and the cafe. With the exception of the intimate, bamboo-lined wine-tasting room, this upper echelon is off-limits to shoppers.

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Petite, with thick silky hair streaked black and gray, Diane Yasuda is a study in perpetual motion. With a master’s degree in nutrition and public health from Cal, Yasuda has performed every conceivable grocery store job over the years—cashier, janitor, buyer, you name it. Today, Berkeley Bowl West harbors a staggering 250 employees, 60 of them working side by side in the main kitchen to turn out baked goods and ready-to-eat items, as well as cuisine for the cafe. But the abundance of help doesn’t mean that Yasuda or her husband, who, at 76, personally oversees the Bowl’s produce department, are taking it easy.

Still, the Yasudas carve out time to cook nightly, usually sitting down to a simple meal of lightly grilled salmon, white rice (“because we are Japanese,” Diane Yasuda jokes), and salad. The couple also samples whatever new product the vendors are peddling that week, like organic asparagus in boil-in-a-bag plastic. Staying current with innovations is vital, says Yasuda, because the new Bowl caters to a younger working clientele with less time for cooking.

In fact, busy Bowlies may find that it takes longer to ferret out their dinner fixings in the 35,000-square-foot food warehouse (the entire facility spans 90,000 square feet) than it does to prepare them. Running horizontally, the exterior metal siding of the grocery accentuates its extraordinary length. Inside, the distance from aisle one—the deli—to aisle 16—meats—stretches 175 feet. That can be a long way for shoppers to trot, especially if they have to double back in search of that dried mugwort or mochi mix.

In deference to the clientele’s differing levels of stamina and spatial reasoning, the store provides, upon request, what you might term a comprehensive “diagram for the disoriented”—a pictorial and written index of the contents of each and every aisle.

Despite the store’s size, though, the intimacy—or the ungodly crowding, depending on your perspective—of the Oregon Street location carries over to the new digs. The Bowl West’s pedestrian ramp, for example, is just wide enough for two patrons to pass each other without incident. “It is a bit of a squeeze,” says architect Sheryl Drinkwater, who enjoys shopping at the new Bowl. But on the other hand, she notes, “there is more eye contact.” Maybe, she suggests, the enforced intimacy is an intentional part of the design.

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Architect Massih, whose office is literally just across the street from the Bowl West, has a knack for getting things built. Since launching his practice in 1996, he has designed nearly 30 projects in Berkeley—a city where government regulations and a high level of citizen involvement make it nearly impossible to build anything new. Still, it took seven years for the Bowl West project to come to fruition, with the incorporation of the community room into the blueprint perhaps sweetening the deal for concerned neighbors. In another attempt to meet everyone’s needs, particularly those of neighbor Ecole Bilingue, the store owners purchased the empty lot across Heinz to supplement the 211 parking spots required by the city of Berkeley.

This attention to detail—practical or otherwise—is evident in the store’s architecture as well as its good-neighbor policy. Served by three kitchens, the interiors of both the restaurant and grocery buildings are functional and unfussy, shining with crisp details that balance the broad brush designs necessary on such a large project. The two oversize steel structures that house them—with exposed metal trusses and diagonal steel bracing for stability in high wind and earthquakes—make long spans and large areas of glazing possible. The structure is a feature of the employee break room as well as the cafe, where bracing neatly intersects the textured concrete floors with a backdrop of glass. Unique details—for example, the metal plates tightly splicing the cafe’s wood window mullions—add variety and interest to the immense Bowl.

Yet the overall effect is clean and coherent, with the repetition of materials—concrete floors, grids of windows, the wood slat–suspended ceiling studded with lights floating over the checkout and cafe dining area—unifying the design.

Natural light streams in from high bands of clerestory windows and dormers—similar to the saw-tooth dormers of yesteryear that dot the neighborhood—illuminating the voluminous interior and bouncing off gleaming polished concrete floors. “Bringing in soft natural light into the space was something done in the old days in old factories,” says Massih, who finds the Bowl’s selection of beer impressive and is often spotted among the aisles.

A photovoltaic array on the roof by Berkeley’s Sun Light and Power provides the juice for modern conveniences like efficient fluorescent lighting and heavy-duty commercial refrigeration, but it is daylight and spaciousness that create the low-key, elegant atmosphere.

While Massih has done some minor remodeling at the Oregon Street Bowl, this is his first complete supermarket project. But commercial kitchens are an area of expertise for the firm; you’ll see their work at a number of local eateries, among them Nation’s, T. Rex, Pyramid Brewery, and Epicurious Garden in Berkeley, the College Avenue Barney’s in Oakland, and the recently (and ultra-greenly) renovated dining commons at U.C. Berkeley.

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Massih’s efforts—and those of the Yasudas—are not lost on the Bowl West’s clientele. “Natural lighting makes all the fruits and vegetables pretty,” says Nasreen Atassi, an employee in the organic produce section who lives near the Bowl on Oregon Street and often shops there for convenience, but prefers the new store. “I like it here because it is open, like a real market,” adds Atassi, who enjoys a bird’s-eye view of the space from atop a ladder while replenishing the bulk bins.

Laurel Coates, who lives just four blocks from Bowl West with her husband and two children, says she’s thrilled that the long-awaited addition to the neighborhood has finally occurred. “I am hoping it has increased my property value,” she jokes.

But of course, no two Berkeleyites share the same opinion about any issue, large or small, and it’s not hard to find customers with minor quibbles about the new store. Climate control, in particular, is a hot-button issue; a shivering shopper with a baby nestled against her chest voices a concern that the freezers in the frozen foods and meat sections are chilling more than the food.

Others, particularly parents of small children, take issue with the dearth of restrooms. There are no public toilets in the grocery; shoppers in need must dash outdoors and across the plaza to the cafe, which boasts a single unisex restroom. If that’s occupied, the options are to schlep to the more spacious community room facilities upstairs—or to hold it. The owners have heard it all from customers, Diane Yasuda says, and are making plans to address the issue.

As sexy and hip as it appears, Berkeley Bowl West remains, at its core, a down-to-earth family affair. Family ties, in fact, are the reason why Yasuda may soon be buying diapers by the dozen instead of cases of yuzu soy. “I would rather take care of my grandchild,” says Yasuda, who anticipates retiring with the arrival of her son’s first child this month.

She and her husband can certainly rest on their laurels. For a long time to come, the public will be savoring the fruits of their labors, perhaps sipping and supping comfortably at cafe tables beside plates of glass and thick stalks of structural steel. Says Massih, “Suddenly it is like a house that had no kitchen, has one.”

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Lauri Puchall is a designer in West Marin.

 

Bountiful Bowl: The new West Berkeley outpost of the venerable grocery looms large in a food-conscious community. Clockwise from top: the hip, neo-industrial storefront; heaps of fresh produce under natural light; and the gleaming cafe. Photos by Spiral–A Photography.