Albany, Solano, and El Cerrito are a bit quieter and more residential than their surrounding neighborhoods, but that doesn't mean there's not plenty going on in the neighborhoods north of downtown.
Club Mallard (752 San Pablo Ave., Albany, 510-524-8450, ClubMallard.com), for one, is a bar and pool hall so big, so bustling, so positively lively that you'll forget you're in sleepy Albany. Downstairs, there's a dance floor, a bar, and a pleasant (and heated!) patio, while upstairs boasts several well-kept pool tables along with a second bar and patio. The clientele is eclectic, the drinks are stiff, and the vibe is anything but quiet.
Ajanta (1888 Solano Ave., Berkeley, 510-526-5473, AjantaRestaurant.com) does elegant Indian food in a low-key and understated setting. Although they certainly offer all the old standbys, perfectly rendered, you're better off going for something like the tandoori scallops or the cardamom gelato.
A night at the Pub (1492 Solano Ave., Berkeley, 510-525-1900), with its fireplace, leather armchairs, and overflowing bookshelf, feels like crashing a house party thrown by an eccentric old professor. Though its selection of tobaccos, pipes, and papers makes it undeniably smoker-friendly, it offers beer, wine, and a low-key atmosphere for those who don't light up.
Payn's Stationery (1791 Solano Ave., Berkeley, 510-526-5036) is any writer's dream: It's cramped, dark, and crammed full of every last paper product you could ever imagine. The kaleidoscopic pen collection alone is worth a trip to this little shop, which is also proudly independent and family-owned.
Don't miss: The Albany Bulb (1 Buchanan St., Albany) is part park, part homeless encampment, part art installation — and entirely unskippable. ... Zachary's Chicago Pizza (1853 Solano Ave., Berkeley, 510-525-5950, Zacharys.com) has been named Reader's Choice for Best Pizza in our annual Best of the East Bay issue for several years running, and for very good reason. ... Albany's Hotsy Totsy Club (601 San Pablo Ave., Albany, 510-526-5986, HotsyTotsyClub.com) is tiny, divey, and a total trip.
Urban art at the Albany Bulb.
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