Block Party


Fun on Fourth Street

Shop Eat & Play in Berkeley

    Before the city of Berkeley existed, the now burgeoning shopping strip of Fourth Street was part of a town called Ocean View. The name is still in play—just take a look at Bette’s Oceanview Diner. In more recent days, the street was part of an industrial area filled with warehouses and the like; the neighborhood still maintains a bit of its working-class past, with trains lumbering by and the Truitt & White lumberyard just down the road. However, starting in the 1980s, the area has been transformed into a posh commercial district, with shops for everything from fine art books to gourmet cookware to extraordinarily expensive snakes (read on for a full explanation).

Where to shop

1  Margaret O’Leary
    This Bay Area-based designer (raised in County Kerry, Ireland) specializes in knitwear, but don’t think that’s all her women’s boutiques have to offer. Party dresses, designer T-shirts, trendy blazers and more from designers such as Velvet, Cynthia Steffe, AG Jeans, and Graham & Spencer are all on offer. The style here is definitely girly, glamorous and on the pricey side, with luxe fabrics like velvet, lace, cashmere and silk in heavy rotation. The shop also stocks accessories and jewelry—some made by local designers. And you can feel especially right­eous picking up sweaters and other knitwear designed by O’Leary herself—she uses eco-friendly, sustainable materials, such as bamboo, for some of her knits. 1832 Fourth Street, (510) 540-8241,

2  Castle in the Air

    In the market for a little whimsy? Then scoot right on over to this lovely, imaginative store in the middle of the Fourth Street hustle and bustle. The shop bills itself as “a studio for the imagination” and specializes in fine writing implements, including fountain pens, imported notecards, stationery (Jan Petr Obr Bohemian correspondence paper from Prague is $36 for 25 small cards and envelopes), invitations, paper cards of all sorts and bound journals. The boutique’s inventory also includes a good dose of the dramatic, including minidioramas (an entire miniature bakery, complete with baked goods for $950) as well as elaborate moss-laden “fairy houses” made to look like tree stumps overtaken by a good sprinkling of fairy dust ($200 and up) and little felt fairies to inhabit them. This is also the spot to go to for custom printing; ask at the shop, or check out the Web site. 1805 Fourth St., (510) 204-9801,

3  Benefit Cosmetics
    Oh, the glory of having a professional brow wax! At Benefit, another locally owned small chain, you’ll find a slew of waxing services available with or without prior booking. Just meander into the store and ask; the store may have an immediate appointment available or may ask you to come back after some power shopping. And if you want to book ahead, feel free. Up front, the cosmetics boutique offers brow waxing, shaping and tinting. In the store’s nether regions (if I may), you can go for an extended bikini or Brazilian wax (ouch!). Of course, you may come in for just the beauty treatment, but don’t be surprised if the makeup line’s sassy, 1950s-inspired packaging lures you into purchasing a face product or two. 1831 Fourth St., (510) 981-9858,

4  Cody’s Books
    Stretch your brain instead of your wallet at a reading at the venerable Cody’s Books. The bookstore is a must-stop for national and international literary superstars on book tour. Who’s come to read? Only such luminaries as former prez Bill Clinton; actress, activist, et al., Jane Fonda; local lady Amy Tan; vampire fanatic Anne Rice; Lake Wobegon’s Garrison Keillor; and the list goes on and on. Or check out your favorite local novelist, poet or scribbler. The bookstore has a lovely area for readings and more seating available than most. Go to the Cody’s Web site to see a calendar of readings at both the Fourth Street store and the new San Francisco location. An e-newsletter list is in the works. 1730 Fourth St., (510) 559-9500,

5  4th Street Yoga
    On Fourth Street for 13 years, 4th Street Yoga is a friendly, cozy spot to practice your dogs, upward and downward. For having only one yoga room, the studio is chockablock with imaginative classes, everything from beginner basics to mama/baby yoga dance (now that we want to attend!) to classes especially designed for large women. Classes are $14-$17, with special breaks when you buy in blocks. Classes are offered daily. For an up-to-date schedule, see the studio’s Web site. 4th St. Yoga also offers specially themed monthly workshops and retreats. 1809 C Fourth St., (510) 845-9642,

6  East Bay Vivarium
    Block Party was a little at a loss as to whether to include this fascinating shop under things to do or places to shop. Just because you’re not in the market for a creepy crawly is no reason to skip stopping by this snake, frog, lizard, tarantula, scorpion and turtle emporium a block off Fourth. Stocked to the gills with such catches as the Greek tortoise, green iguana, albino Colombian boa ($2,200), and Hypomelanistic Brazilian rainbow boa ($7,000), the Vivarium is sort of like the reptile room at the zoo, only way more crowded with creepy crawlies. Our newfound favorite animal of all time based on name alone? The blue-tongued skink. We’ve definitely felt skink-ish and blue-tongued ourselves. Just watching it snap up crickets is way better than a trip to the multiplex! 1827 C Fifth St., (510) 841-1400,

What to eat

7  O Chamé Restaurant and Tea House
    Feel like some delish Japanese fusion-comfort food? O Chamé will fit the bill. This restaurant’s lovely presentation (chopsticks resting on smooth river-worn pebbles, Ikebana-style flower arrangements and a walled courtyard for outdoor eating) matches its lovely, flavorful food, including a variety of fish-broth noodle soups. The corn and green-onion pancakes are a perennial lunch favorite (about half the diners seem to be savoring them at each trip we’ve made to the eatery), but the smoked trout, spinach and enoki mushroom soup is our personal fave. Dinner brings its own variety of soups and nibbles. Sakes, teas, wines and more are available for quaffing. 1830 Fourth St., (510) 841-8783,

8  Spenger’s Fresh Fish Grotto

    The granddaddy of Fourth Street, Spenger’s has been around since 1890. Now owned by McCormick & Schmick’s, the famed fish spot still prints its menu daily, specializing in the freshest available seafood. Either eat in the very reasonably priced dining room (decorated with a wide variety of nautical-type knickknacks and paraphernalia), or buy the fish at market prices direct from the attached retail store. Items to sample include fresh oysters from up and down the West Coast, San Francisco-style cioppino and, of course, fish and chips. 1919 Fourth St., (510) 845-7771,

9  Sketch Ice Cream

    After all that fish and onion pancakes, it may be time to tickle your sweet tooth. Head pronto to Sketch for some absolutely delicious Italian-style gelato or granità. Burnt caramel is a particular favorite of Block Party, but knock yourself out with Sketch’s cardamom, Earl Grey tea, Straus Family Creamery yogurt or organic coffee flavors of granità. A single scoop bowl will set you back $3.50; doubles are $4.50 and triples, $5.50. And while you’re at it, scope out the baked goods, including chocolate pudding cake, walnut sandies, maple shortbread and more. Or why not combine the two with a custom-made ice cream cookie sandwich for $5.50? 1809 A Fourth St., (510) 665-5650,

By Elise Proulx
–Photography by Jenny Preiffer

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