Townie is the kind of place you might walk into if you were not from around here, but just checking out the neighborhood for a spot to relax. You wouldn’t know that the same building once housed somewhat of a local institution (Venezia) for a number of years, or that University Avenue doesn’t have a destination restaurant on every block. In fact, this may be the densest restaurant zone in all of Berkeley with, proportionately, the fewest great meals to be had. Townie, with its warm brick walls and dim lighting behind huge plate-glass windows, is just what it seems to be: a welcoming neighborhood hangout where you can get an excellent drink and a simply executed, affordable meal. Much thought has gone in to the relationship between the two.
Both the beverage and food menus are intentionally small, and thoughtfully curated. In homage to co-owner Nima Shokat’s divey Missouri Lounge, in West Berkeley, the drink list features a beer-and-whiskey-shot special every night for five bucks. The most popular cocktail thus far seems to be The Ginger Thistle (concocted by Diana Krell), a mix of Cynar, Citadelle gin, lemon juice, and Bundaberg ginger beer, which gives it an effervescent spice. Belly up or take a table; all the food and drinks are served both at the bar and at tables, both individual and communal. (The restaurant is about evenly divided between the two.)
Shokat and partner Maianna Voge have in mind a neighborhood spot, not a grand drinking or dining destination. And, despite having hired a chef with experience at duly lauded State Bird Provisions, they seem to have achieved just that.
All the food follows a shareable, small-plates format. We tried a variety of dishes, starting with two perfect Marin Atlantic oysters, served raw and topped with roasted corn and bay leaf, which paired nicely with a Spanish Brut Nature Cava. Next up were crisp, light croquettes of fluffy potato with Manchego cheese and Serrano ham, meltingly good. Homemade chicharrones are light as a feather, and dusted with a purple salt made from dehydrated sauerkraut.
The mussels in an aromatic broth with cubes of Spanish chorizo, served with toast, are not tricked out, just pure seafood and smoked-meat flavor.
We switched to a Greek Merlot (a surprising and delicious choice) with the seared hanger steak (perfectly rare) atop a smooth purée of potatoes, chunks of summer squash, and torn arugula.
It wasn’t until much later that I realized we hadn’t been offered dessert. That’s because the list is still in development, as are plans to offer breakfast and lunch. For now, Townie is wonderful hideaway in an otherwise culinarily sparse area of University Avenue.