An energetic new chef brings the Claremont's centerpiece restaurant into the 21st century.
Photography by Alex Farnum
New executive chef Josh Thomsen
For the greater part of the 20th century, the Claremont Hotel Club and Spa was Berkeley’s queen, a fortress of elegance. But when Shattuck Avenue’s Gourmet Ghetto sparked a food revolution, the hotel’s regal white façade became a kind of liability. Alice Waters was the new grande dame of dining, and the hilltop hotel slowly slipped from the East Bay’s culinary esteem.
In 2001, the Claremont revived a bit by opening Paragon, a hip nightclub/restaurant with killer views. Jordan’s, the hotel’s showcase dining room, remained stuffy and dated. To recapture the resort’s royal luster, a bold marriage was in order, with chef Josh Thomsen playing the role of Prince Charming.
Last year, Jordan’s morphed into Meritage, which presents contemporary cuisine in the most relaxed, diner-friendly way possible. Thomsen has drawn on his experience at the French Laundry, Hotel Bel-Air, and, most recently, the $25 million Tao in Las Vegas, to create a farm-fresh menu with 18 main dishes (all offered in half portions) that are grouped into categories matching particular wine styles. The dining room’s grandeur—two-story high ceilings, plush booths, and panoramic views of the San Francisco skyline—is undiminished, but the food has turned fun and affordable.
I started one dinner with a warm, crispy terrine of chive-flecked Laura Chenel goat cheese layered with paper-thin slices of buttery potato. Completing the dish were glistening roasted baby beets, a nest of microarugula, and a dark spiral of aged balsamic syrup. With a half-glass of crisp Groth Sauvignon Blanc, the combination came to $15. For less than $20, you can order a small filet mignon Rossini by itself or a pair of steamed buns stuffed with ultratender Kurobuta pork belly and a half-glass of spicy Syrah. This is fine dining on a budget, indeed.
There are inconsistencies, however. One night, the crispy striped bass was the highlight of a multicourse meal. On another, the same fish fillet was thin and dried out. I’ve dined with spectacular views and energetic service, and I’ve been stuck in the center of the dining room with a formal, ponderous waiter. But changing a century-old philosophy, motivating longtime employees, and connecting to a food-savvy clientele can’t be accomplished overnight.
“In the beginning, it was rough,” says Thomsen. “It was a ghost town in here. You could shoot a cannon through the restaurant every day but Sunday brunch.”
That buffet brunch might be Thomsen’s biggest challenge. Even with the new dim sum and waffle stations, the food can seem a bit flat. On my spring visit, the service was slow, the omelet offerings ordinary, and even the fresh-squeezed orange juice lacked zip. On the other hand, silky smoked salmon, all-you-can-eat shrimp, and hand-carved prime rib can justify the high price ($56/adult). And the salads show off Meritage’s farm-to-table ethos.
Thomsen is rightfully proud of his Vineyard to Table prix fixe menu, where each course not only is paired with a different wine, but is made with an ingredient from that very winery. A recent four-course meal ($85, including wine) featured spring onions, Meyer lemons, honey, and aged Jack cheese. The Claremont can also be proud of Meritage’s beautiful new lounge, featuring live piano and a state-of-the-art Enomatic wine serving system.
Tellingly, perhaps, the word “Meritage” connotes a marriage that improves with age. It’s a blend of the words “merit” and “heritage,” coined in 1988 to distinguish California wines made in the Bordeaux style. No doubt, Thomsen has merit and the Claremont heritage, and Meritage already shows plenty of staying power.
At a Glance
WHAT MAKES IT SPECIAL: Contemporary farm-to-table plates, offered in half portions and grouped to match particular wine styles.
THE SPACE: Unmatched grandeur—in both the views and in the nearly century-old dining room.
WHEN TO GO: Brunch on Sunday, cocktails in the bar, dinner at sunset (be sure to request a window).
WHAT TO ORDER: Goat cheese terrine, anything seafood.
BONUS: Vineyard to Table prix fixe menu, featuring produce from the winery.CONTACT: 41 Tunnel Rd., Berkeley, (510) 549-8510, claremontresort.com or meritageclaremont.com.
HOURS: Dinner Tues.–Sat., plated brunch Sat., buffet brunch Sun.
PRICE: Half plates $8–$19, full plates $14–$38; Sunday brunch $56, includ-
ing Champagne (free flowing).
ALCOHOL: Full bar, exceptional wine list.