The Bateau Ivre celebrates its 50th anniversary in Berkeley
The drunken Boat
2629 Telegraph Avenue (near Carleton Street), Berkeley
Thursday-Friday: 11:30 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Saturday: 10 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Sunday: 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Restaurants and hotels called The drunken Boat can be found all over the world. Arlene Giordano, co-founder and current owner of Berkeley’s version, displays photos of several of them in a display case behind her restaurant’s front door.
Stuck in charming disarray over the years, the faded photos signify camaraderie with sister restaurants from New York to the Caribbean, France (where there seem to be 14!), Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands to Peru – and beyond.
This is fitting, as Giordano believes the main purpose of the restaurant is to be a haven for peace, friendship and connection. Considering the news these days, you might agree that society as a whole urgently needs places like this. And they are becoming extremely rare.
Entering the European farmhouse building with mullioned windows and white painted shutters under mature liquid amber trees adorned with the tender new leaves of spring was like calling on an old friend.
I pushed open the front door and found myself in a tiny antechamber, greeted by a vase of fresh lilies and a dimly lit lamp perched on a delicate round table. Incredibly, I heard a phone ringing (a real phone, really ringing) – the hoarse tone of a landline that many young people have never heard. A round-faced waiter rushed across the room to pick up the receiver. In English with French accents and a good dose of joy, he wrote a reservation in the book open for this purpose on the desk.
It was all more than refreshing. In a time when it seems like every task requires the cell phone or the laptop, I’m worn out with devices. Repetitive stress injuries in my right shoulder from endlessly tapping letters on a small screen and in my neck from the perpetual downward gaze required sound like a warning. Nothing appeals to me more these days than the thought of putting those damn things away for a while.
At Le Bateau Ivre, it’s easy to do, not least because the devices don’t seem out of place in the restaurant, where, it seems, time has stood still, almost to a disorienting degree. But, I assure you, it’s a welcome change of scenery, a delighted change of scenery. Cell phones and the behaviors that go with them just don’t suit the environment of Le Bateau Ivre, and that alone is a great reason to visit the restaurant. Enter and be transported to an earlier time, a time before technology became ubiquitous.
See what effect clean and worn hardwood floors have on you. Notice the intimate round tables, the mismatched wooden chairs, some with armrests, some without armrests, the dappled sunlight filtering through white lace curtains, the candles. Notice the eclectic collection of paintings, each of which tells a story. An unexpected Popeye cookie jar filled with dog treats sits on a shelf behind the compact bar, where a sparkling espresso machine takes up half the footprint.
Nearby, an impressive antique table with a marble top anchors the wall. Notice the hushed, sacred hallways, the painting of a topless woman behind the bar door. Don’t miss the old cigarette case on the way to the back room, now used to display wines being served and a collection of photos of staff and customers over the years.
Opened in 1972 by Arlene Giordano and her late husband Tom Cooper, Le Bateau Ivre is many things to many people. Originally a café serving Viennese and Italian coffees (with separate menus for each) and pastries, it has grown into a full-service restaurant serving a pan-European menu that includes French onion soup, beef bourguignon, lasagna with homemade pasta, a classic Caesar salad, salmon with aioli, rib steak with caramelized shallots, chocolate mousse, crème brûlée, chocolate cups and cookies of the day to loyal customers who have been coming for years.
I met Giordano and his social media manager, Lucina Parada, one sunny spring day, just after the lunch rush. We sat at a table near the bar, next to a bright window overlooking a brick patio and garden. Dressed in a nubby green wool sweater, Giordiano sat in a beautiful carved wooden armchair and told me the story of the restaurant’s beginnings.
The restaurant was Tom’s idea, she says. “Tom found the place. We had no experience, none.” Raised on a farm in the Kentucky hills near Appalachia, Tom managed to avoid conscription by attending college in Athens, Greece, and the rest, as they say, belongs to history.
He learned German at the Goethe Institute and began to travel, inadvertently crossing the Bulgarian border in 1967. Imprisoned for eight months in Sofia, he learned to read Cyrillic and fell in love with Bulgarian folk music – a mainstay for years at the restaurant, and something Giordano plans to take over.
Giordano grew up on the peninsula, about 30 miles south of San Francisco, when technology didn’t rule and orchards and farmland were plentiful. With grandparents from Sicily and Genoa, Giordano was raised with the notion that “food is love – and care”, and the family table was blessed with farm-fresh food every day.
Family is also where Giordano learned to recover like a pro. In fact, she brags about it, it’s in her line. Many of his relatives were Sunset Scavengers. “The Genovese were the garbage teams in San Francisco back then. In those days, each ethnicity had its industry.
These innate skills came in handy in 1972, when the young couple – Giordano was just 23 – opened Le Bateau Ivre. “We were basic all along. It was just us, me and Tom. We have done everything.
That meant furnishing the place from garage and estate sales, remodeling the kitchen with repurposed stainless steel fixtures from San Francisco’s old Playland at the Beach, and turning the back room into a romantic daydream, with a secret compartment for letters and missives.
Originally built in 1940, the back room is also where Le Bateau Ivre holds concerts and private events. A beautiful brick and stone patchwork wall gives the room incredible acoustics. Skylights, an interior balcony, and a fireplace further up the romance quotient. The couple painstakingly installed the new floor with planks salvaged from the former City of Paris department store in San Francisco.
A chemist for 37 years, Giordano preferred to stay in the background and let Tom talk outside the house. But when Tom passed away in 2008, just six months after Giordiano retired from his scientific work, the restaurant became everything to her. “When Tom passed away, I had to step in.”
Intensification turned out to be the medicine she needed. “It provides an example of how to get your life back on track after a difficult loss. I made a special effort to connect, and I couldn’t believe the stories I was hearing. Little old ladies were telling me their adventures in Russia, India, Africa. The restaurant keeps me alive and engaged. Staying connected with people is so important.
The pandemic has driven this home for her. She goes crazy telling the story of a longtime patron who recently celebrated her 100th birthday at the Bateau Ivre, where she recited the entire Am I not a woman, from Sojourner Truth, bringing tears to Giordano’s eyes. Giordano feels deeply honored to host occasions like this, she said.
On a recent Saturday evening, a dining hall full was buzzing with guests. A group of about ten people seemed to have chatted and relaxed for hours in their own private dining room. Le Bateau Ivre is clearly a place where connoisseurs come to pass the time, a place they don’t have to book in advance (with a credit card, beware), only to be rushed exactly 90 minutes later.
The atmosphere was friendly, as if the guests knew each other, and perhaps they knew each other, at least by sight. It felt like the dining room of a spa, lodge, or retreat, where trust, relaxation, and a kind of quiet concern reigned. The staff tend to be equally dedicated. Giordano tells me about Doug, who served at the restaurant for 32 years, and Hervé, the restaurant’s chef for over 42 years. “Bianca and Kitty,” she said of two others, “stayed there for 12 years.”
The north side of the building is the cafe, which doubles as extra seating for dinner. During my visit, I was shown to a charming round table next to a beautiful bay window in the cafe. Vibrant English ivy burst through the wall behind me. Giordano joined me for a while, his hair still damp from an afternoon swim. A bit shy, Giordano’s behavior can sometimes be mistaken for indifference. This may explain the somewhat divergent reviews I’ve read on the internet. Customers seem to either get rhapsodic or leave angry.
Of course, that’s part of the appeal of a place like Le Bateau Ivre. It’s the kind of place with a suite. A mirror donated to the restaurant by a diner adorns one wall. New lace curtains from a longtime customer hang in the back dining area. The purchase of a new Diadema espresso machine was also made possible by a regular customer. “It takes a village,” Giordano said.
When asked what she wants for the restaurant in the future, Giordano doesn’t hesitate. “We want to get to 100.” However, they face challenges. The pandemic was no picnic, and like so many others, Giordano is struggling to hire help. Raul Parada, Lucina Parada’s father and the restaurant’s chef for five years, needs a sous chef and a kitchen assistant, and the front of the house could also use some extra hands. They’re definitely hiring, says Giordano, but it’s a certain kind of person who thrives at Bateau Ivre — someone who understands what’s special about the place and can handle the calm, friendly atmosphere.
the original The drunken Boat from which all the others are derived is a verse poem of 100 lines written in 1871 by Arthur Rimbaud. Told from the perspective of an unmanned ship sinking at sea, it describes a series of transcendent sensory experiences. As a namesake, it fits. Berkeley’s Drunk Boat looks a lot like the first small Drunk Boat – vulnerable, magical, and utterly unique.