The intersection of Shattuck and Hearst avenues in Berkeley has gotten a fresh perspective of late. First, with the opening of fast-casual salad spot Sweetgreen last year and now, on the opposite corner, with the arrival of Les Arceaux Café and Wine Bar.
The contemporary, airy daytime café and night-time wine bar, located in the former Bistro Liaison space, is the latest from Mikha Diaz and Alana O’Neal, the business partners who came onto the restaurant scene with San Francisco’s unique café/bar concept Two Sisters Bar and Books in the Fillmore. The longtime friends outgrew that cozy San Francisco location, closing it to focus on their new venture closer to their Berkeley homes.
Les Arceaux, named after O’Neal’s favorite South of France farmers market in Montpellier, is a stark contrast to the Two Sisters Bar, which was plush and intimate. Spacious with clean lines, Les Arceaux features an open kitchen bordered by a wrap-around counter. Ocean-blue covered bar chairs provide a pop of color against the primarily white walls and marble counter tops.
O’Neal heads up the kitchen, developing a menu inspired by her time in France, where she enjoyed its traditions of farmers markets and seasonal ingredients. During the day, Les Arceaux has a casual format; diners order at the counter and get a number for the table, where the food follows.
At night, it’s a warm wine bar with sit-down service. The large bar in the middle of the restaurant, though, is a communal spot to simply drop in and snack on the house charcuterie and cheese selections and sip on specially made “spritz” cocktails created by Diaz. The three cocktails on the menu typically use wine (although one features vermouth and Campari) mixed with unique tonics and tinctures. The “Il Punto” I had with dinner was a refreshing and balanced sparkling wine spritzer with Gran Classico, Cardamaro and bay leaf tincture.
The evening menu isn’t very extensive, and includes a few Provençal-inspired dishes like mussels poached in white wine or fish of the day en papillote (fish cooked in parchment paper).
A dish worth trying is the chicken drumsticks in mustard and white wine sauce with purple potatoes paillasson. (You can order just two drumsticks or four to share.) The mustard and wine sauce has a complex and deep flavor, which works well with the meaty drumsticks. The paillasson reminded me of Jewish latkes; the purple potatoes are shaped into medallions and pan-fried to an extremely crispy edge like good hash browns. My advice is to dive into the paillasson right away because the sauce from the chicken can make them soggy after a while.
The lunch menu has a small selection of soup, salads and panini, and there’s the “La Formule” option where you can choose any two items for $12.75. The shredded chicken in mustard and crème fraîche with Comté cheese, cornichon and wilted spinach ($13) had toasty press marks, though the chicken flavor seemed almost absent. I could have been eating shredded pork and not even known the difference. A small creamy kabocha squash potage with Roquefort looked beautiful, with crispy shards of leeks and chives as toppings, but the texture was more pasty than creamy.
Being in Berkeley, Les Arceaux emphasizes its connection with the purveyors from whom it sources its ingredients. The quality of these is obvious, such as the flavorful fromage blanc that’s the base of a cheesecake with quince glaze ($9.50), one of three dessert options at dinner. For coffee, it offers the gamut of espresso drinks featuring Intelligentsia Coffee.
Les Arceaux is establishing itself as a neighborhood café, with a prominent corner spot and attractive decor that’s modern yet welcoming, supported by a friendly and professional staff. While the Provençal flavors sometimes seem like they need to develop a bit more, there’s a confidence in the kitchen that inspires one to believe that this will happen in the near future.
Benjamin Seto is the voice behind Focus:Snap:Eat, where he dishes on food at restaurants and shops in the Bay Area, in his kitchen, and from his culinary adventures.