Friday, March 21, 2008

People Coming Together in the Name of Cheese

The Cheeseboard Collective was founded in the late 1960s in Berkeley. So you know it’s going to be quirky. The quirk here is that every employee is an equal partner, sharing in the power and the success.

The Cheeseboard has grown so popular over the years that it’s credited along with Chez Panisse across the street on Shattuck Avenue for giving this area of North Berkeley the tag “Gourmet Ghetto.”

Last weekend I went to check out this Berkeley institution for the first time. Come join me, won’t you?

It was around 10:30 a.m. and the place was already packed with people at the cheese counter. There were all sorts of cheese from everywhere, but mostly California and the rest of the United States. Funny, I don’t really recall smelling a lot of stinky cheese, which I often associate with fromage shops.

The bread selection is pretty big, and according to its Web site the bread is also one of the big money makers for the collective. Bread and cheese? What could be better?

I liked how everyone working behind the counter seemed to be really happy. And they were chatting with customers like they all were regulars.

I liked the color scheme and décor near the registers. It really gave it that feeling of the old Berkeley Arts & Crafts movement. While the visit to the Cheeseboard was fascinating itself, the real reason I came all the way to North Berkeley was to try the pizza at the next door Cheeseboard Pizza (which formed its own smaller, separate collective in 1990).

The pizza restaurant was closed and didn’t open until noon for lunch. So I walked around to kill time. I came back 10 minutes before the doors open to find a line already forming. What’s the deal? Here I am at the end of the line. A few minutes later, the line extended past me and the doors still hadn’t open.

This is the pizza of the day. What’s funny is that when I saw this board, I thought it was a list of different pizza flavors for the day so I had my mind all set on a potato pizza with pasilla chili. Turns out, these are all the ingredients in just one pizza. Cheeseboard makes only one pizza each day and it’s one of those take-it-or-leave-it kind of thing. It’s all very utilitarian and Berkeley-like. If you can’t read it, the pizza on this day was roasted potato (comforting), pasilla chili (didn't taste it), onions (not my favorite topping), feta (yum), mozarella cheese (double yum), cilantro (decoration mostly), garlic, olive oil (maybe that's why it was so shiny) and limes (on the side really).

Here are the workers busy handing out the pizza of the day to the masses. I guess it makes it much easier when you just have one pizza and you can just bake tons of them and have them stacked up ready for sale.

I ended up just getting a slice of pizza (cost $2.50) and a drink. I was able to find a spot at the communal table inside and the couple sitting next to me had half a pizza for $10. I’m guessing a whole pizza would have cost $20. Hard to say because there weren’t any prices written any where. I guess people are so used to buying the same pizza all the time that the Cheeseboard doesn’t need to list the prices. Another thing: it's cash only (or checks) but no credit or debit cards.

They have a band playing for tips, which gives it a fun festive vibe on a Saturday. With the line out the store, it’s almost like a street fair.

I have to say that I was a bit bewildered by the line for the pizza. Don’t get me wrong, the quality of the ingredients was great and I love the combination of flavors. But I thought the crust was a bit soggy and there was a greasy sheen to the pizza that I’m not a fan of, so not sure if I would stand in line every week for what you get.

Despite the pizza being just so-so, I can see why this place is an institution and a great gathering place for cheese lovers.

Cheeseboard (store), 1540 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley. PH: 510.549.3183 (Open Monday through Saturday, closed on Sundays.)

Cheeseboard Pizza, 1512 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley. PH: 510.549.3055 (Lunch and dinner, Tuesday through Saturday, closed Sundays and Mondays.)


foodhoe said...

Chef Ben I haven't ever been to the Cheeseboard, so thanks for the tour. I have been many times to their bakery collective, Arizmendi in Oakland. I love their baked goods!

agent713 said...

Heh, I read the board the same way you did. I was trying to figure out what the third option was "Cheese, feta, cilantro" But what KIND of cheese.

Interesting place though. Probably not on my list of "places to visit should I EVER get to San Francisco"

Chef Ben said...

Foodhoe, I love Arizmendi too, but the Lakeshore location is a bit out of the way for me for some reason. I find it easier going to the San Francisco location after spending the day at the Golden Gate Park.

Agent713, the Cheeseboard Collective is in Berkeley, across the bay from San Francisco. I think people feel like it's such an institution they have to check it out after giving respects to Chez Panisse across the street!