When you make the kind of tour of the Bay Area that we did (i.e., one that's very much focused on the local delicacies), you very quickly become aware of the massive influence Chez Panisse has exerted on the region. Not only did Chez Panisse more or less single-handedly transform its district into a teeming food haven, not only did it help foster the local organic foods movement of the last 30+ years, but everywhere we turned we encountered businesses (restaurants, bakeries, cheese shops, etc.) that had been started by people who had once worked at Chez Panisse. And while this family tree was weighted towards food-related businesses, it also included a host of people who'd gone into other creative professions. The truth of the matter, however, is that Chez Panisse itself was the product of a particular moment that followed in the wake of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement. Berkeley had had a bohemian side to it for decades, but in the mid-1960s it became a powerful magnet for a particularly passionate and committed scene, and many of these people remained in the region, laid down roots, and began to establish a way of life that challenged the accepted notions and conventional wisdom of the day. One of the businesses that was started during this period, was a source of inspiration to others, and that clearly reflects the energy that was in the air at the time is The Cheese Board Collective, founded in 1967 (some 3-4 years before Chez Panisse set up shop just around the corner). What started off as a tiny, collectively run cheese store soon turned into a very successful bakery/cheese store, one that has continued to grow and expand slowly over the years, but one that has always remained steadfastly committed to its original vision.
I first discovered The Cheese Board back in the early 1990s, when I started visiting my sister in the years when she was attending UC Berkeley. She was lucky enough to have lived around the corner from The Cheese Board (as well as Chez Panisse, the Juice Bar Collective, and a number of other interesting businesses that populate the area), in a house on Francisco Street (this being Berkeley, there were a couple of peacocks that ran wild in her backyard and the backyards of her neighbors at the time). I got very attached to The Cheese Board's impressive selection of cheeses, their excellent sourdough-based baked goods, and the shop's relaxed atmosphere. Their cheeses and baked goods were the heart and soul of many nice meals.
Some 10+ years later, I was glad to see that The Cheese Board Collective was just as active as ever. Michelle and I ended up going there twice, but both times we had to focus on their baked goods instead of their cheeses because we were cooler-less and therefore not in a position to buy cheese. No matter, we were all too happy to stick to their excellent scones, "chocolate things," English muffins, curry buns, and other treats. This time I was particularly happy to find out that the bialy had found a home at The Cheese Board. This was a real bialy, too, not the bland, anemic, and overly doughy pseudo-bialys I've been encountering in New York over the last few years.
Without question, though, the most impressive treat that we got at The Cheese Board was their pizza. Pizza became a part of The Cheese Board's repertoire some 20 years ago. Typically, it began as a small operation that was run out of their in-store bakery. Their pizzas soon developed a loyal and, frankly, ravenous following, though, and the collective's members eventually established a second collective, one that would deal only in pizzas, in a shopfront just a couple of doors down from their store on Shattuck. The first time we visited The Cheese Board the pizza collective was closed for a week of vacation, so thank God we were in the area for two weeks, because it gave us an opportunity to come back. And come back we did. We met at The Cheese Board Pizza Collective for lunch one day just as the line-up was really beginning to grow (the pizza collective is only open from 11:30 AM - 2:00 PM and from 4:30 PM - 8:00 PM, Tuesday through Saturday). The pizza collective only offers one pizza per day and you can purchase their pizzas by the slice, whole, just out of the oven, or whole, half-baked. We ordered two slices each, a couple of beverages, and then made our way to the nearest strip of grass to sit and have a picnic.
The pizza we had that day was easily one of the top three pizzas I've ever had in my life (only American Flatbread's pizza in Vermont and the pizza my sister and I had in Marseilles are in the same league). The pizza of the day that day was one with Roma tomatoes, feta cheese, mozzarella cheese, red onion, cilantro (!), and lemon zest (!), and one secret, unlisted ingredient: just a bit of fresh squeezed lemon juice (!!). Highly unorthodox, I know, but you wouldn't believe just how good it was. We found out later that this was the most popular pie that they make, and with good reason. Just how good was it? Well, for some reason, that day every order by the slice came with an extra sliver of pizza thrown in free of charge. That pizza was so good we never wanted it to end, and we gave praise for that extra slice.
The Cheese Board Collective, 1504 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley, CA, (510) 549 3183
The C.B. Pizza Collective, 1512 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley, CA (510) 549-3055