The bitter-melon curry, sada karayla, is "hot enough to make your head explode," says Tuffy, spooning more of it into his mouth under a wire-and-glass-bead chandelier shaped like one of Christopher Columbus' ships. He does not mean his head. He means my head, in theory, and were I to try more than one tentative taste he might be right. This is a pity, as I asked the server for mild versions of this and the spinach-cheese curry, palak paneer. The latter is a little less hot, spices jingling in the spinach alternately soothed by nibbles of firm white paneer. But chili-pepper seeds seethe on the tongue. This means we will drink more (and more) of the free chai waiting beside the counter in an urn. Filling our mugs, we survey a loud student crowd whose loopy, ornate metal chairs and sleek Bauhausy ones scrape a not-spotless flagstone floor. On one carmine faux-marble wall hangs a framed world map, on another a repro-Renaissance lithograph. The counterman's bracelet bears a single word: RINPOCHE, signifying a Tibetan Buddhist lama. Spanish-language music on the kitchen radio mingles with Bollywood out front. Red paper lanterns emblazoned with Chinese characters swing from the ceiling, tassels shirring in the gusts as traffic bustles down the street.
A few steps down the hall, a checkout desk faces a rococo tripartite loveseat with fat crimson cushions. Sculpted stone cupids stand guard. A wooden staircase leads to guestrooms above.
This is the Beau Sky Hotel, one block from the UC Berkeley campus and housed in a 1911 Victorian. The hotel's restaurant, sharing its eclectic premises, is House of Curries, the second in a growing chain featuring Pakistani specialties. Our earthy whole-wheat roti and vegetable samosas — sturdy, stuffed-full, just-spicy-enough cones — could fuel a stout hike. A row of umbrella-topped tables line the covered, columned deck facing the rush of Durant Avenue. The night we visited, two young Islamic women wearing jilbab, just their hands and faces bare, were dining on the deck.
At other East Bay hotels at the same time, guests and visitors were eating $49.95 four-diamond prix-fixe salmon dinners (Jordan's at the Claremont Resort), pomegranate margaritas and black-eyed-pea succotash (the Paragon Bar & Cafe, also at the Claremont), chipotle-orange "angry" pork tenderloin with spicy black beans, coconut rice, and gungo peas (Miss Pearl's Jam House at Oakland's Waterfront Hotel), cornbread-stuffed game hen (Bay Grille & Lounge at the Berkeley Marina Doubletree), and Crazy Monkey Roll sushi (Genki at the Golden Bear Motel on San Pablo Avenue).
That's just a sampler. The hotel restaurant has come a long, long way since its early days in ancient Greece (where Herodotus wrote that the Lydians did it best), in Sahara Desert caravanseries, as a refuge for medieval pilgrims, and as the height of metropolitan chic where 20th-century sophisticates traded quips: Asked what she thought of ducking for apples at Halloween, Dorothy Parker once told her friends at Manhattan's Algonquin Hotel Dining Room to "change one letter in that phrase and you have the story of my life." Hotel restaurants today run the gamut of styles and price ranges. In the East Bay, where expectations are ridiculously high and where some of the world's best restaurants beckon visitors, hotels have to try harder. In the early days of travel, guests felt constrained to dine on-site because they were exhausted from their journeys and because the lanes and highways beyond most inns were fraught with actual dangers. While this is arguably becoming true again, a quick hop from secured hotel hallway and elevator to well-lit parking lot to car affords East Bay hotel guests unlimited options. What's a caravansery to do?
Some go gourmet. As proximity to guests' rooms no longer matters, they strive to compete with stand-alone restaurants on those restaurants' own terms. First step: Hire world-class chefs. The Claremont's executive chef Thomas Hanson earned laurels during a previous stint cooking for the stars at the Hotel Bel-Air. Eddie Blyden, now helming Henry's gastropub at Berkeley's newly refurbished Hotel Durant, learned to cook in his aunt's Sierra Leone kitchen before training at renowned hotspots around the world such as Munich's Tantris, Manhattan's Cafe Metro, and San Francisco's 21st Amendment and Alembic. He's a Slow-Food enthusiast. Miss Pearl's founder, TV chef and Stars alumnus Joey Altman, shares the kitchen with Robert Barker, whose curriculum vitae features Arnaud's, Emeril's, and Sazerac in New Orleans as well as three Wolfgang Puck properties.
Adagia serves California/Mediterranean cuisine using mostly organic ingredients one cafe away from the Bancroft Hotel. UC Berkeley alumnus Daryl Ross owns both businesses, and the former is considered the latter's official restaurant. Both are housed in historic buildings. The Bancroft is a 1928 Arts and Crafts-style National Landmark by Julia Morgan's contemporary and sometime collaborator Walter T. Steilberg. Adagia occupies Westminster House, built in 1926 by Bernard Maybeck's pal Walter Ratcliff, who was known for his eclectic European touches. Latticed windows, arched entryways, quaint sconces, and red-brick chimneys jutting from a steep shingled roof lend the look and feel of a grand old auberge. During the '60s, Free Speech Movement activists gathered here. Today, the restaurant space is leased from the Presbyterian Campus Ministry, which uses the rest of the building for ministry programs and student housing. Savored on the romantic enclosed outdoor courtyard — with a view of the sky, the student apartments, and the restaurant's warmly woodsy Wind in the Willows-y dining room — our blue-cheese-and-walnut ravioli comprised ten chewy and bright-tasting, if a bit under-stuffed, pillows. The cheese-nut richness lingered in mouth and mind, like a dream of being pampered, long after every bite. A mushroom risotto, the best and heartiest we've had anywhere, ever, was jam-packed with meaty slabs of very fresh crimini and oyster mushrooms. Porcini butter and provolone spun generous golden strands between fork and plate, the sort you normally achieve with pizza.
In Berkeley's Gourmet Ghetto, the French Hotel is housed in a brick-fronted, tile-roofed building that used to house a French laundry.
"When they converted it into a hotel, 'French' was the goodwill name," says manager Ron Tompkins, "so they kept that and changed it from a French laundry to a French hotel." In keeping with its putative Gallicism, a street-level cafe was installed "with the ambience of a European hotel cafe," Tompkins says. "In other words, keep it simple: croissants and fruit and espresso. At typical French hotels, they don't eat the full ham-eggs-bacon-sausage breakfast, so we don't serve it." The hotel's owner, Sandy Boyd, owns many Berkeley properties; this cafe is part of his Espresso Roma group. Having worked here for 26 years, head barista Angel Maldonado roasts and grinds fair-trade organic coffee beans from Oaxaca, Mexico, attracting an intensely loyal local clientele that would continue to sip here even if the hotel itself vanished into thin air. During a fracas sparked last year when the City of Berkeley threatened to ban the café's outdoor seating, regulars staged a protest, calling themselves the French Hotel Liberation Army. They won.
"That's the way Berkeleyans are," Tompkins says. "We like our independence. We were not happy when Starbuck's opened up down the street" — with only Andronico's supermarket separating the mega-chain coffeehouse from Espresso Roma — "and we were pleased when they decided to close that unprofitable location." The franchise closed for good this summer.
Stay for the coffee, but as the day marches on, skip the pastries. Our chocolate biscotti made nothing resembling a crunchy sound when bitten. We were practically able to fold them.
Adagia has an impressive wine list and a dessert menu that includes honey-mint crème brûlée. Henry's serves cocktails featuring absinthe and acaí liqueur. The Claremont has views worth coming around the world to see. The Doubletree has a breakfast buffet.
So, the next time friends or relatives arrive from out of town, check into their rooms, unzip their luggage, unwrap the soap, and call you asking where to meet you for a meal, say: Stay right there.