Venus has a bright energy and warmth that draws you immediately into a comfortable gathering of locals and visitors, hosted by sparkling yogini-owner Amy Murray. She, like the restaurant, is gracious and very approachable. Venus is a beacon for people who love organic, fresh, seasonal, quality cuisine along with lively conversation and relaxed ambiance. The menu is primarily “California comfort cuisine,” offering a good selection of lower-fat dishes, but also many chances to splurge with the likes of caramel banana French toast and fabulously indulgent chocolate cake.
The restaurant’s brick walls and artisan star-punched candleholders create a romantic atmosphere at night, and the all-window storefront in downtown Berkeley brings a light and airy feeling during the day. There is a friendly buzz of noise that can be contagious, or can provide the backdrop for an intimate conversation. The restaurant is compact, with about forty seats, yet feels spacious because of the high ceilings, wall of glass and attentive service. Art from selected artists decorate the restaurant’s walls and add color to the baseline of earth tones.
Flavor and nourishment clearly are high priorities throughout the menu. Farmers’ market vendors deliver their goods directly to the restaurant each week, and words like “heirloom,” “wild-crafted” and “homemade” frequently appear on the menu in descriptions of the dishes. The fare is quality and designer-healthy, fitting comfortably in the food tradition of Chez Panisse but making less of a dent in one’s wallet, with dinner entrees ranging $13-20. Appetizers fall within the $5-10 range, and a glass of wine from the selection of largely organic, biodynamic and sustainable array is between $6-8. The menu offers a variety of options for vegetarians, although vegans may have fewer choices beyond the salads.
Without fail, every dish I have tried at Venus has been appreciated by the taste buds and the body. From a Saturday morning brunch of decadent caramel and banana French toast stuffed with ricotta cheese, to a brown rice and veggie stir-fry, to a make-you-melt mushroom tart with hints of oregano and layers of pastry dough, Venus is dependable for any meal, any day. The menu changes with the seasons in a slightly macrobiotic way, backed up by mainstays like the popular blackberry lemonade – a sweet and fresh tasting delicacy one must try in any season.
Venus dishes are as beautiful as they are tasty, because they are naturally colorful and full of life. With Mother Nature’s finer creations, including delicacies such as mission figs and heirloom apples, dishes are brought to life in a literally organic fashion. Details seem to make all the difference in the dishes here, where the heirloom apple salad was graced with a light sprinkling of candied pecans and goat cheese patties, and where ingredients such as fennel, saffron and polenta will leave you impressed and inspired to be more artistic in your own kitchen. Endives grace many of the dishes, giving them a European flair that subtly accompanies more familiar tastes.
Venus opened in May of 2000, an auspicious time for such an event, according to the Vedic astrologer whom owner Amy Murray consulted prior to the grand opening. The name Venus is owed partly to the position of the astral bodies, as the planet of love and nurturing was passing particularly close to earth at the time, but the restaurant’s official namesake is the Earth Mother or Mother Goddess, Venus of Whillendorf, whose matriarchal representation resides at the front of the restaurant.
There’s no doubt that Venus has become a local landmark in Berkeley and will continue to nourish and delight diners by day or night.