When it's good, it's a visceral ahhh. It's that groove into which you slip as soon as you step through the door: a sense of inchoate welcome, a cool déjà vu even if you've never been there before. And you can't manufacture this. You can't package it. You can't buy it readymade, because good atmosphere is a confluence of disparate, delicate factors: human and technical, aesthetic and sensual, all perfectly aligned.
Meridian has it.
With 45 beers on tap along with an extensive wine list and eclectic menu devised by chef Steven Musolf, whose previous gigs include the Village Pub in Woodside and Michelin-starred Trevese in Los Gatos, Berkeley's latest and glammest gastropub opened last month. Like its closest competitor, Henry's at Hotel Durant, Meridian gives old bar-food standards a run for their money. "People want better food now than just the old fried stuff," Musolf says. Sure, he makes steaks, burgers, and stew, but spiked with miso, Moroccan preserved lemons, lavender, Peruvian spices, pork jowl. The more frugal among us might blanch at what are, after all, basic gastropub prices — say, $10 ceviche and $25 steak frites. But get beyond the sticker-shock and after even a short stint here, even before you've started drinking, you can feel yourself getting giggly, snuggly, almost shockingly relaxed.
And how is this possible with eight large-screen high-definition TVs — "a theater of televisions," as the bar's homepage puts it grandly — tuned to sporting events, running continuously and simultaneously with their volumes muted as a steady stream of rock-blues-jazz-country pumps through a cutting-edge sound system to swathe every table, every booth, every elegantly cut bar-chair in Electric Light Orchestra, Canned Heat, and Jamiroquai? How in God's name can this be cozy? Good question, but it is. Maybe it's all the black.
Black ceiling. Black walls. Almost-black solid oak bar. Black stone floor. Black plush chairs. Black bookcase in a black alcove. Black fireplace. Two black straws in each glass. Black toilets and gleaming black sinks in the black-doored, black-tiled restrooms. Black too are the oblong stone slabs on which some dishes are served, and the little square slabs placed on each table beating tiny hillocks of coarsely ground pepper: black. It almost breathes, this black-on-black vastness which in the hands of a lesser designer would have been depressing, intimidating, cold, and — at more than 7,500 square feet — cavernous. Yet at Meridian, where every design detail seems considered for maximum comfort and/or effect, it beckons. It tucks. It envelops.
Like a womb.
A sporty womb, with hockey on one screen, basketball on another, Tiger Woods on yet another, college and pro football on a few more, and Dionne Warwick crooning "Say a Little Prayer" through the speakers as coverage of one game switches to auto-insurance ad featuring cartoon superheroes driving cartoon cars.
Served on a black stone slab, our cheeseboard features imported and local varieties — the selections change frequently — including a French brin d'amour whose lavender-fennel-rosemary rind evokes a breezy hillside in a romance novel. A teensy pot of cherry-wine-cane-sugar compote creates an exciting sweet-salt contrast, but the six little toasted baguette slices served with it are far from sufficient. For $2.50, a bit galled because where we come from, bread in restaurants is free, we order six more slices. More bread would have been handy for dipping into the celery-root soup, but that's not how they roll here. The soup itself is paradisiacal: celery root, onions, and shallots steamed and then puréed at high speed with cream, served with plump golden sultanas. Musolf's inspiration for it was a beloved childhood snack called ants on a log: peanut-butter stuffed, raisin-studded celery sticks.
Tuffy sipped a Krušovice, a light Czech lager whose faintly fruity aftertaste complemented his fluffy garlic mashed potatoes and vegetarian plate: deftly cooked broccoli, carrots, spinach, and basil-marinated tofu arranged artfully atop about a handful of bulgur wheat. We pondered the carbo-deficit deeply. As rice, wheat, and flour are cheap, why skimp? Do gastropubgoers watch their weight?
That said, the fish and chips feature enough, albeit just enough, huge and hearty homefries. Hewing close to the classic recipe — no jowls or ancho chiles here — Musolf alternates between black cod and rock cod, depending on what's freshest. (All meats served at Meridian are natural; all fish are sustainable.) Golden outside, snowy and fork-tender inside, it tastes of the sea: that poignant yet savvy simplicity that works so well in bars. Red onions sliced supernaturally thin comprise a piquant slaw; thick with pickle chunks, the tartar sauce is good enough to eat straight, with a spoon. Just don't let anyone see you doing it. The service here is about the friendliest and most attentive in town, but don't push your luck.
(And after finishing your ravioli-sized sopaipillas — Southwestern-style donuts that come served in a black metal cone — use a vast black cloth napkin to wipe the sheaves of cinnamon-sugar and orange honey off your lips.)
On a subsequent visit, baked macaroni and cheese tasted lustrously creamy in the alcove alongside a crackling fire and shelves packed with books. Arranged across a stone slab, skewered with knotty-topped bamboo picks, three palm-sized "sliders" stuffed with plump, juicy rare-beef patties embodied the conscious culture clash that characterizes gastropubs: folksy-cum-fancy, familiar — but with a wink. The fluffy-chewy mini-crumpets framing the sliders are house-baked. And heck: Could anything be more of a sports-bar standard than pastrami? No, but at Meridian it's made of salmon. And that old you, the one for whom sports bars used to be seedy and cheap, invents a new word as you seize your outsized fork and knife, playing with syllables because you're a bit afraid to eat: sa-pa-shimi. House-cured and gloriously stained-glass-bright, it screws with your mind at first as two incredibly familiar flavors, sashimi and pastrami — assertive piscine clarity and peppery corning spices — chase each other back and forth with every bite. And yet if you just let them, if you shut your eyes and say This can happen, and it's okay ... well, it is.