When you enter the world of the East Bay Spice Company, allow yourself to be transported to a place far beyond the edge of the Berkeley campus.
While the tree-lined west side of campus is clearly visible from the window that looks out on Oxford Street, the interior will remind you of anything you might have learned about the spice trade. Scattered along the shelves lined with spirits behind the bar, you’ll find blue and white porcelain spice jars, wooden mills, glass jars full of nutmeg and other spices, and a large old-fashioned brass scale — along with a variety of nautical-themed items we couldn’t readily identify.
On a Friday night at the beginning of a holiday weekend, every available table and barstool — inside, outside, and upstairs — seemed to be occupied. We came into the intimate space in a celebratory mood, owing to the spring weather, the holiday ahead, and finding a place to park right across the street. After a brief wait, we settled at the bar and studied the menu. We are fond of clever titles and literary references on drink menus, and found several here that intrigued us.
While we certainly care the most about the composition of our cocktails, we are initially attracted to a play on words, which is why we hesitated briefly when we saw the Last in Translation (Wild Turkey rye, Green Chartreuse, Star Anise Porter reduction, and lemon) — before settling on the more literary Portrait of a Lady (Anchor Hophead vodka, Tru Organic gin, Weiss Cream ale, honey, lemon, and fennel bitters), a book which we are determined to finish reading some day.
We were curious about the combination of ingredients, and were delighted at the way each element complemented the others: light, citrusy, not too sweet, picking up color from the spiced ale — with the hint of licorice from the fennel to balance the elements. If we felt smarter after our last sip, we can point to the Greek myth alleging that knowledge was delivered to man from Olympus in a fennel stalk.
As it turns out, many of the specialty drinks on the menu have some relation to India or to the spice trade. The Sir Herbert Baker is named for a British architect who designed several government buildings in New Delhi in the early 1900s, and the Florence Nadira (Zucca & Grand Poppy Amari, Contratto Bianco vermouth, 5 Spice Ginger cordial, absinthe, lemon, and soda) honors an Indian film star whose Bollywood career began in Mumbai in the 1950s.
We were fortunate to have the attention of Adam, the co-manager and bartender on duty, who graciously answered our questions about the bar between mixing drinks for the pre-holiday crowd.
Only open nine months in what used to be an Indian buffet, the East Bay Spice Company is open until 2:00am seven nights a week. As Adam explained, this makes it a natural industry hangout, with staff from the many neighboring restaurants stopping by after their shifts. A typical crowd might also include Cal faculty, grad students, and an older faction of undergrads. Even without advertising or a big opening, word spread quickly about the new Indian-influenced cocktail bar and restaurant on this vibrant block of Oxford.
The food menu includes Indian street food favorites like samosay cholay and puri cholay, as well as a selection of tandoori dishes and curries.
We asked Adam about his most popular drinks, wondering if there had been time for crowd favorites to be established yet. He assured us that the current crowd-pleasers are the Royal Charter (Evan Williams bourbon, Cocchi Americano, Becherovka — a Czech liqueur with the distinct flavor of cinnamon, anise, cloves, and ginger — coconut chai syrup, lemon, bergamot bitters, and mint), and the Oxford Street Gimlet. But, he added, the drinks menu will rotate every four months or so to correspond with the Bay Area’s version of seasons. He will occasionally make a drink “off the cuff” if a patron asks for something a little different. But all the bartenders agree that the classics — whether a Bee’s Knees or a Margarita — will be made the same way each time, no matter who’s behind the bar. Just for fun, your drink may be embellished with a tiny umbrella. Ours was not.
We looked over our shoulder at one point and noticed a movie projected high on a rear wall. The staff offers input as to the film choices, which are usually comedies, shown without sound. According to Adam, “It’s one way to deflate the pretentiousness around cocktails.” The bartending staff takes cocktails seriously, he says, but after all, “It’s a bar! People should have fun here.”
We learned about some new developments that will employ the special talents of current staff: a revised menu will be hand-sketched by artistic staffer Umar. Live music, currently featured on Saturdays from 3:00-6:00 p.m. (and soon to be added on Sundays) showcases the musical talents of others staff members.
The East Bay Spice Company takes you on a short journey to a place and time redolent of the days when spices were a treasured commodity — and you don’t even have to leave your place at the bar to get there.
The vibe: Energetic, casual, and fun
The crowd: A combination of campus/community/industry folks
The drink: Portrait of a Lady
To try next time: The Oxford Gimlet
The Deets: East Bay Spice Company, 2134 Oxford St., Berkeley
Are you a cocktail aficionado? Read previous Ms. Barstool reviews of Bourbon & Beef, Penrose, Gather, Tribune Tavern, the Paragon, Boot & Shoe Service, Picàn, Hopscotch, Five, Revival, Flora, and Prizefighter — and check Berkeleyside Nosh’s Guide to Drinking around Berkeley.
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