Berkeley is often called the Gourmet Ghetto of the Bay Area. The moniker reflects the impact of restaurants such as Chez Panisse and the plethora of chefs currently cooking in city kitchens. On the eastern side of town near UC Berkeley and built in the Berkeley Hills is Limewood, the restaurant of the Claremont Club & Spa, a Fairmont Hotel.
I recently enjoyed a creative, delicious dinner with a friend at Limewood which serves hotel guests, locals, and destination visitors. When I first moved to the Bay Area, I soon heard about the “White Castle,” the Claremont hotel’s local nickname. I dined at Jordans restaurant, later renamed the Meritage where I enjoyed sumptuous brunches with grand views of Berkeley, Oakland, and on a clear day, the Bay Bridge and skyline of San Francisco.
I continue to visit the Claremont for the beautiful vistas and meals at the “white castle.”
The evolution of Claremont dining to Limewood, named for a local tree, mirrors the history of the Bay Area. A gentleman from Kansas who struck it rich during the Gold Rush bought a large property in the Berkeley Hills and built what looked like a castle for his family. After several owners and a fire, the Claremont Hotel opened in 1915. A major renovation in the 1980s brought new exotic fauna, tennis courts, and a pool. In the mid-2000s the owners transformed dining from white tablecloth continental cuisine to modern décor and more diverse, farm-to-table cuisine. In 2016 new Fairmont management launched Limewood Bar & restaurant as the hotel’s dining venue.
You enter Limewood through the lively and upbeat bar with colorful hexagonal floor tiles.
On a sunny and warm spring evening, my friend Joss and I dined on the deck. The beverage menu carries well-crafted cocktails, many local beers, and a hand-curated wine list. To cool down after a busy day, I chose the light and easy Bubbles & Berries with Absolut ELYX vodka, cassis, lemon juice, and Chandon sparkling wine.
Our other choice was the Oakland Bramble with Hendrick’s gin, St Germain elderflower liqueur, lemon juice, blackberries, club soda, and mint. “To me, mint and lemonade just go together,” said Joss. “Add gin and elderflower make it much better.” The bartenders, we were told, will listen to your favorite flavor profile and then create your own cocktail.
Thirst sated, we studied the menu starters and faced difficult decisions. With only two of us, we eschewed the cheese board, charcuterie board, and large sunset seafood platter. We looked longingly at the roasted bone marrow tartare with beef tartare and sourdough. But we chose the lamb ribs with cauliflower tabbouleh and green garlic yogurt and the maitake smoked feta, almond, chili, and garlic. Joss couldn’t understand how I declined my last designated rib, but I honored his high regard for lamb. That said, I dove into the gluten-free cauliflower tabbouleh with the fresh flavored yogurt sauce. The maitake mushroom was a study in umami deliciousness complemented with light chili spice.
Moving on to the entrées, we wanted more than two. The cioppino sang to us as did the sorghum mustard glazed pork shank and the Berkeley smash burger. But we designed our own surf and turf, sharing Steak Frites and diver scallops.
The ribeye steak with black garlic aioli was perfectly cooked medium rare and the Frites were light with a crunchy bite. Though the scallops only numbered three, they were giant-sized and cooked just enough to highlight the delicate texture of the fresh, velvety bivalve shellfish. Taking a break, I wandered around the deck and then into the main restaurant which features wood floors and glorious bay vistas with floor-to-ceiling windows.
An open kitchen overlooks the front section of the restaurant.
At the back of the restaurant is a semi-private room for gatherings.
The wine list from our dinner listed several well-known names and several smaller producers such as Sonoma Coast boutique brands Alma Fria and Radio-Couteau. With the scallops, we enjoyed a Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc from Trinchero and discovered a lively Room “La Neblina” Pinot Noir from Marin County to pair with the steak.
By dessert time, the sun was setting and drew guests from their food and chairs to enjoy the majestic scene.
Before our visit to Limewood, I had read the biography of Executive Chef Joseph Paire and looked forward to meeting him. Sure, many chefs read cookbooks and explore wine regions as a pastime. But as a poet myself, I was pleased to note Paire also enjoys writing poetry. His Claremont photo taken in the hotel’s lobby lounge area with its eclectic décor reflects his delight in working in the historic Berkeley environment.
Paire started working at the Claremont in March 2020 as Covid-19 shut down the Bay Area. With extra time to learn about the area, he discovered the quality of food products on his doorstep and beyond to serve at Limewood. “I enjoy working in Berkeley with neighboring Oakland close by,” said Paire.
A graduate of Johnson and Wales University in Providence, R.I., he has worked at high-end restaurants in Atlanta, Washington, D.C., and Alexandria, Va. During his culinary journey, he has worked alongside many talented chefs and was recruited to work for the Accor group, owner of the Fairmont brand.
Paire stopped by our table for a quick chat. Overseeing a large, unionized culinary operation with all-day dining, room service, and catering, Paire said, “Every day I serve as a culinary coach. I ask our line cooks, how shall with play with these ingredients and come up with dishes the guests will enjoy? We innovate and come up with creative plays on classic dishes,” said Paire. As an example, Paire and his team added barbecue spiced rotisserie chicken with a savory fried potato salad and blistered English peas with charred shishito topped with romesco sauce for the summer menu.
After we talked about food and poetry with Paire, we ordered dessert. The server learned about my excitement over the special-of-the-day, pavlova with raspberry sauce and Joss’ interest in the apple crumble with cheddar streusel. But he also brought out a lemon tart with Chantilly sauce that brought an excellent balance of sweet versus tart.
The Claremont Club and Spa is a unique urban resort. More than a luxury hotel, the public can join the social and tennis club to enjoy the fitness facilities and other programs. Limewood has evolved into a welcome respite for hotel guests and a destination for locals and visitors to enjoy seasonal, thoughtfully prepared meals.