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40-year-old Berkeley bar enjoying a second youth – The Albatross is home away from home

by Carolyn Jones
01/30/2004 – San Francisco Chronicle
It's Friday night at the Albatross. At the bar, patrons in their 70s are chatting with those in their 20s, sipping Guinness on tap or single malt. In the back room, a group of European tourists is playing darts.
In the middle room, some grad students are chatting by the fire, munching popcorn and playing Scrabble. There are a few well-behaved dogs underfoot, and a few people have brought dinner with them.
Bluegrass music is playing, but the bartender keeps it down so people can hear themselves talk.
"The Albatross is sort of a non-bar bar," said co-owner Wendy Halambeck. "It's a community center that happens to sell alcohol."
One of Berkeley's favorite watering holes, the Albatross is turning 40 this year. And like a lot of 40-year-olds, it has weathered some storms but is completely rejuvenated.
Located at San Pablo and University avenues, the Albatross sits at the edge of the 1-mile radius from the UC Berkeley campus where alcohol sales were once banned (if you go exactly 1 mile from campus in any direction, you'll find a cluster of bars). Through the years, it's been a hangout for students, professors, neighborhood people, artists, musicians and anyone else who might prefer conversation to loud juke boxes and drunks.
"Everyone needs a third place," said longtime customer Lisa Beerntsen, who recently moved from Berkeley to Sebastopol. "You've got work, home and you need a third place you can go to be comfortable. The Albatross is the third place."
Beerntsen, whose artwork is displayed on the wall at the Albatross, said it's a great place to meet friends, because there's usually a place to sit, the music's not too loud and it doesn't have that "we're-just-here-to-get- drunk feeling."
That atmosphere is what bartender Jeff Gouin likes.
"It's a good mix of people, and most of them are really interesting," he said. "There's a lot of regulars. I don't know all their names, but I know what they drink."
They can choose what they drink from among 13 draft beers (local offerings as well as English, Irish and Czech imports); more than 50 bottled beers (specializing in Belgian beer); a variety of spirits (lots of single malt and Irish whiskey); and the house specialty, a mixed drink called"Moscow Mule," which is vodka, ginger beer and lime juice. You won't find anything with umbrellas.
For Jules Spilman, the Albatross is "the last stop of the evening."
Spilman, a sculptor who owns an antiques store down the street called the Family Jewels, started hanging out at the Albatross shortly after it opened.
In its heyday in the 70s, it was packed every night with crowds from the music clubs across the street that didn't serve alcohol. Between sets, people would swing by the Albatross for a beer before heading back to the music.
For most of its existence, the Albatross was owned by brothers Bob and Val Johnson. Although it's always been a favorite spot for students and neighborhood people, its fortunes did tend to mirror those of the area, which has seen its share of hard times. But when Halambeck and LindaZsilavetz took over six years ago, they made a few improvements (such as changing the dark- wood exterior to a lighter wood, reupholstering the furniture and lowering the bar 6 inches so people could sit there comfortably), and it's now enjoying a sort of renaissance.
On Sunday nights, about 100 people pack the bar for trivia games, Thursday nights a group of Czechs gather to socialize, a dart league meets Wednesday nights, and several nights a week, there's live jazz, bluegrass or Irish music.
"It's a complete mix of Berkeley," Halambeck said. "You never know who you're going to sit next to."
The Albatross, owned by Wendy Halambeck and Linda Zsilavetz, is at 1822 San Pablo Ave., Berkeley. (510) 843-2473 (510 THE-BIRD) www.albatrosspub.com.

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