press room



Local Watering Hole Celebrates Forty Years

By Jakob Schiller
04/06/04 – Berkeley Daily Planet
The last time bartender Joshua Cluff had to toss people out of the Albatross pub was because they were arguing too loudly about the Iraq war. Last Saturday, the Albatross froze as a woman yelled in triumphant glee, not because the University of Connecticut had made it to the NCAA finals, but because she had just won a game of trivial pursuit on an obscure geography question. At the table to the woman's right, Liz Guneratne and Tajma Evans sat drinking a flask of wine while their dog Luke munched on popcorn crumbs.
Sound like a typical bar? Probably not. But that's why the Berkeley's Albatross pub is special. Unlike any other local watering hole, the Albatross has created an alternative niche that fits in perfectly, Berkeley-style.
"It's kind of like a community center that happens to sell liquor,"; is how co-owner Wendy Halambeck would describe the Albatross. She and Linda Zsilavetz, the other co-owner, bought the pub seven years ago from brothers Bob and Val Johnson. This Wednesday, the Albatross turns 40, and all are encouraged to come out and celebrate both the old and new, the legacy, and what has quickly re-become a community mainstay.
Originally opened in 1964, the Albatross was hip during the '60s and '70s but afterwards fell into disrepair. Then came Halambeck and Zsilavetz. Along with refurbishing almost everything in the bar, the pair worked to create a new and unique bar-scene atmosphere that would foster comfortable socialization, not just drinking.
They kept the dartboards in the back, brought in a pool table, bought every board game imaginable, decided to allow dogs on leashes, put local artists' work up on the walls, and made sure to play the music low enough so you could hear the person talking with you from across the table.
On any given day of the week, you can walk into the Albatross and find a group of young men drinking beer and playing darts and immediately to their left a pair of older men talking philosophy. In the next room, college kids at their table will be screaming like 7-year-olds as they play "Connect Four." Tucked away in a corner, near the wood burning stove, are a couple enjoying the atmosphere and the fact that they don't have to go hoarse from shouting at each other.
Combined, all the patrons create a sort of balance.
"It's a weird hybrid of a coffee shop and bar," is how bartender Joshua Cuff describes the atmosphere. "People don't come here to drink, they come here to do things around drinking. It provides an opportunity for people to engage on another level."
Nonetheless, the drinking is still an important part. With 13 beers on tap (local, national and international), more than 50 bottled beers (there is an emphasis on Belgian beer), a variety of single malt and Irish whiskeys, and a certain class of mixed drink (absolutely no umbrella drinks), there is plenty to chose from.
Another perk is the Sunday night trivia competition. Hundreds pack into the back room to intellectually duke it out over pitchers of beer. Hosted by Jeff, another bartender, the game draws swarms of locals—intellectuals and non-intellectuals alike. There is also live music several nights a week.
The pub has drawn a host of interesting characters over the years. There is Funny Old Bruce, who has walked through the front door every day since the Albatross opened 40 years ago, and who drinks only root beer and Calistoga water. According to Halambeck, Sean Penn also stops by once in a while.
Along with the patrons are the stories. One that sticks out in Halambeck's mind is the time that the pub staff helped a young man propose to his girlfriend during trivia night. They set up the questions so that each answer was one of the words in the sentence, "Will you marry me?" As Jeff read off the answers, saying the sentence over the microphone, the man got down and proposed.
Another story is the one of a young woman who had come to the pub to work on her physics homework. The waiter serving her saw she was struggling and knew there was a physics professor in the other room, so the waiter brought the two together.
The pub has also gained notoriety outside of Berkeley. According to Cluff, the Albatross has become part of a larger well-known bar circuit with patrons coming from all parts of the Bay Area.
"You feel like you're part of a community when you're here," said Michelle Mulkey, who was with a group from San Francisco who had made the trip across the Bay just to come to the Albatross."I would give anything to have this in San Francisco." She added that she's glad it's not, "or I'd be an alcoholic."
Download Word Doc