Elegy for a Watering Hole

The first place I went out and had a drink in Berkeley after I got here in the mid-’70s was a bar down under the University Avenue overpass called Brennan’s. “Had a drink” is true if a little off the point, because the reason friends took me there, and the reason the place was probably very profitable, was the Irish coffee it served.

Besides the Irish coffee and beer and the rest of the alcohol, it also featured — still does — a cafeteria-style buffet; and the buffet featured turkey and corned beef and mashed potatoes and gravy; you know, stick-to-your-ribs stuff, and cheap. The bar is a 50-foot-long ellipse down by the buffet line, and the rest of the barn-like room is open and filled with plain, low wooden tables and chairs and a couple big-screen TVs. The walls are hung with large photo portraits of a jowly but good-natured-looking middle-aged guy with assorted family members and an assortment of bovines in cattle-show settings; I figure he’s the Brennan who started up the bar.

When I first started to go down to Brennan’s — often enough but never too often — it always seemed to have a crowd. If you happened in at noontime, local workers (Berkeley had an industrial district back then, though one that was already in decline) were loading up on turkey neck lunches and grabbing beers. Early in the evening almost any night you’d find families enjoying the cheap eats. Later, the place would get going; on Friday and Saturday nights it wasn’t unusual to find virtually every seat at every table taken and a crush of bodies waiting for drink orders that four or five bartenders would be hustling to fill. The business seemed to run full bore nearly till closing time, 2 a.m.

Tastes and habits change. Over time, going into Brennan’s after a softball game, maybe, or when Kate and I would go in for an Irish coffee after an evening out, we started to notice the crowds weren’t quite so big. Some nights, just two bartenders were working, even on the weekends. Then just one. And the place would be virtually deserted by midnight; and then, if you got there at midnight, it would be closed. It would take a long time-lapse to capture the process, but the night-time business has evaporated.

It’s about to change in other ways, too: A developer showed up and bought the property upon which Brennan’s plebeian box of a building sits. A big residential and commercial project is planned for the site. As part of the deal, the bar will be relocated to the old Southern Pacific station across the parking lot, a building that last housed a very good Asian fusion restaurant called Xanadu that went belly up several years ago.

I’m not sure where everyone went. Probably to establishments that are about more than getting a drink, draining it, and getting a refill and another refill and another, long into the night, talking about whatever you’re going to talk about as you get less lucid and more eloquent. Berkeley has some nice bistros that serve food in elegant and pricey bites; you order alcohol off a wine menu or choose from a list of microbrews and retro and nouveau cocktails. Everything is well thought out and modern, everything tastes good, and the atmosphere tends toward the genteel; enough so that I think you’d get a funny look from the sharply dressed drinkologist across the zinc bar if you asked for an Irish coffee.

Last night, after a day of little jobs around the house and finally getting the taxes done, Kate asked if I wanted to go out and get an Irish coffee, shorthand for, “Do you want to go down to Brennan’s?” Through one thing and another, we didn’t leave the house until just after 11. We drove over to University, then headed west toward the freeway. When we got to Fourth Street, the Brennan’s corner, I looked over at the place. The lights inside were on, but there was something about the scene that said “closed.”

We parked and went up to what used to look like the main entrance. The doors were locked. But we could see people inside, and we knew that sometimes those doors aren’t used at night. So we walked to a side entrance off the street. Locked again. Then around into the parking lot, and finally, an open door. It was 11:20, and there were about eight people inside, mostly grouped in pairs.

We walked up to the bar, where one of the proprietors, a woman I believe is one of the founders’ grand-daughters, kept her back to us as she studied papers on a clipboard. Then a guy who might have been the bartender, said, “Sorry, folks, we’re closed.” So no Irish coffee for us. We drove around Berkeley a little afterward and decided that there was no place we could think of that would both serve an Irish coffee and fit our notion of comfort. So we wound up stopping at the store, buying the ingredients, and making our own at home.

But: a real, honest-to-goodness bar locked up at forty minutes to midnight?

On one hand, you can hardly blame the proprietors for saying “last call” as they watch eight die-hards nurse their drinks as the clock drags toward midnight. That level of patronage doesn’t even pay the electric bill. On the other, the whole point of Brennan’s for me was a place you could stop by without thinking about the time. That part of the business is dead, and it’s hard to imagine that new quarters, without some fundamental change in the business — Brennan’s bistro? Chez Brennan’s? — will bring it back.

I know: a small loss in the big scheme. The meaning is entirely personal. Still, the place had a good run, and it gave me somewhere to make a proposal one night a long time ago. Long life to the memories.

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5 Replies to “Elegy for a Watering Hole”

  1. If you ever find yourself proposing again, Pat O’Brien’s in the French Quarter in New Orleans serves a great Irish Coffee. I recommend the piano bar or the courtyard. Sorry to hear about Brennan’s. Sounds like my kind of place.

  2. And not even a small uprising in the name of nostalgia. Brennan’s had a good, long run. Whereas, “establishments that are about more than getting a drink…” these days oftentimes rarely make it past the two year mark.
    Love the ending to the story.

  3. I paid my first visit to Brennan’s and had my first Irish Coffee there on St. Paddy’s Day, just last month, on a late afternoon after sampling sake at the brewery across the parking lot. Brennan’s was full, but certainly not packed. The drink was so good, we wondered why we didn’t know of the place before! Our group remarked that Brennan’s coffees were far better than the famous coffees of SF’s Buena Vista. Of course, then we headed out to one of the new fusion bistros down the block for an overpriced dinner with mediocre service (and bad drinks).

  4. Way to do actual on-the-ground reporting, Endo. I haven’t been down there during the day for years. But logic would suggest — not that I have a lot of logic knocking around — that that’s where the business is still worth doing. It’s heartening to hear the place was full — though we are talking about St. Patrick’s Day on a Saturday, right?

  5. I was at Brennan’s one time, some twenty years ago. It was the one and only time I had an Irish coffee. I liked the grittiness of the neighborhood. It had the same feel as the area in Brooklyn, over by the Brooklyn Bridge. I felt as though I was in a “place”; an unmistakable setting, at a time when so much of the country was getting the homogenized look with which we are now so familiar. Brennan’s reminded me of The Berghoff in Chicago or Peter Luger Steakhouse in Brooklyn.

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