Sunday, May 11, 2014

A Classic Mother's Day Ritual In My Family: Spenger's in Berkeley; Memories Galore and The Bread, The Bread!

 Today like a lot of you I'll be celebrating Mother's Day with my great mom, my rock, my heroic woman.


We had a ritual on this day--a visit to an institution: Spenger's, in Berkeley. The greatest restaurant in the world until, naturally, new owners a few years back renovated and restored the old place--essentially yuppified it and totally wrecked the joint.


Those twelve of you that don't know Spenger's should understand it wasn't merely a seafood place--that would do it a mother of all injustices.


It had a vibe, a presence --Mother's Day, Father's Day, hell, any day for that matter, Spenger's was the place to hang out and eat. The prices were ridiculously reasonable and the loaf of sourdough bread alone was worth the price of admission. I grabbed 3 or 4 loafs and gave the union waiter a couple of bucks and he nailed me some and placed them in a bag with enough butter to last through a month. Gosh, how good that bread was but bread was just the start--assuming of course you managed to get in.


At Spenger's, the wait, on a good night, was 45 minutes. On Sunday, at least two hours. My late brother, Michael would have none of that. It eventually came to my family's notice that Mike had to have slipped the hostess a 10-spot because we always seemed to get a table right away. Da-dum!


Mind you sitting in this place was only the beginning. Every room had a name. The waiters wore classic white aprons --real old school. And everything tasted great. You like sand dabs? You got great sand dabs. Me being a traditionalist  always went for the old stand-by: the CAPTAIN'S PLATE! Nirvana. Abalone, (the real stuff then), shrimp, regular deep-fried stuff that was enhanced with globs of tartar sauce and fries. I was in heaven. Mom always ordered the filet of sole. No mater what. Mel, my dad, had a thing for salmon. My sisters, I had no clue what they ordered because I was too busy on the Captain's Plate and my brother was nailing the swordfish and clam chowder, white, by the way, always, along with the bread. That was just the start mind you between the people-watching and our own table of screamers and yellers, mind you we're talkin' Jewish family here. Fortunately, the noise inside diffused our own Lieberman noise and that's a good thing. We hadn't made it through dessert before my mom and sisters were screaming and yelling at one another. Fortunately coffee saved the day. And if I was good, a second Mickey Rooney from the bar was on its way. If you're a young kid at Spengers, a Mickey Rooney was your kiddy vodka. It tasted just right and the compelling cherry on top was the topper.


Spenger's brings back pleasant memories. Family. Friends. Sunday evenings. It all seemed too good to be true. The joint was always jumpin' and the old-fashioned foodie virtues were one of a kind. Damn, some of the wildest memories. My late Uncle Al, Aunt Claire and Duddy. My brother's friend, Alan and the rest of the clan. It was Berkeley old-school but really more a Bay Area institution and it did a helluva business--breakfast mind you was a classic. And the crowds were decent enough that you didn't have to wait--again we had a luxury in that department with Mike, my brother but you get my drift.


Today, we will saunter over to my sister's place and celebrate with Mom on this day with a little BBQ in the backyard. I wish I could go back in time and get a table for 8 in the, I think they called it the "Teak Room?"--something like that. Even Herb Caen was a regular at Spenger's--the old place, not the rubbery fake one that stands today but times, yes, they-a-changin'.


I hope all of you have a great day. Say hi to mom for me and enjoy.


*Follow me on Twitter

19 comments:

  1. Thanks for the Spenger's reflections. What a great place for food and it's unique atmosphere-now gone forever..

    ReplyDelete
  2. I have taken Rich to task for his on-air work and blogging. At the same time, I highly praise him for insightful, classic and meangingful writing. This happens to be one of those "classic Lieberman" pieces. If only I could write like he does here.

    Rich, I'm no seafood fan, but you made Spengler's of old a joint to behold, no matter the day. You made everything for a family delicious in your description and fond memories. Your notes on your family are warm and full of heart.

    Though many have taken fault for whatever the reason, it's moments like this essay that make it clear. He's not in this blog to merely inform, dabble in, or skewer local media with a sharp pen like three-dot Caen, who we miss. No, Rich is to draw us in, then, unleash his incredible writing talent at the right place at the right time. He writes like that Captain's Plate he deliciously describes.

    Your Mom has, at 91, has been through a lot in the last year or two, as have you, Rich. You share this day with her and your family in the backyard on what, hopefully, is a glorious day.

    Frame this essay, picture and all, and give it to your Mom. A better card for Mother's Day can't be found anywhere.

    Share more like this. You did here without mentioning Radnich, KTVU, Knibber, Cumulus and some low lifes from the awful stew you are so determined and dedicated to write about each day. This is what "fresh air" is, Rich. Well done.

    Thanks for touching us for Mom's we may have still, for those we miss in loss and as should be with abundant love. This is the gift that Mother's want this day. I look forward, hopefully, for a favorite song of yours to post - a lot like that "cherry on top."

    Good going, Big Vinnie! Thanks, again. - JB

    ReplyDelete
  3. Different times, different areas. More people than you think don't know what Spengers is just as you probably don't know Val's and others don't know Original Joe's. Just depends what part of the bay area you grew up in. Sadly the way it is now in the bay area, thirty years in the future people will be reminiscing in this way about a Chinese, Indian, or Korean bbq joint

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. SW in Santa CruzMay 11, 2014 at 12:25 PM

      Great choices! I don't agree that many don't know the Bay Area eateries. I was raised in Oakland but ate all over the Bay Area.

      If you mean Val's in DC, many lunches there for fried oysters or the best French Dip in the Bay Area.

      Original Joe's was a favorite dinner stop of my fathers when he took the family to the Cow Palace to see any number of Scottish pipe bands perform in the '60's (when the Hamms neon was still there). Now in business in the South Bay, Joe's in San Jose isn't bad.

      Spengers was an every Friday lunch place for me and a buddy when I owned a contracting company in Walnut Creek. Rich is correct... The bread! All you wanted. Always perfect with chowder and a whole cracked crab. Sadly, I tried it once after the owner change and never went back. Val's, OTOH, is still alive and well.

      Delete
    2. Vahl's in Alviso which is now part of San Jose

      Delete
  4. Coincidentally, I found myself at Spenger's last weekend for the first time in many years. It was surprisingly empty and I found out why. Mediocre food and really bad, indifferent service. I can't imagine going back.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Agree with 10:55. I've heard of Val's (in Hayward? - too far to drive for a burger) and for me Original Joe's is in San Jose. Growing up in the South Bay we had Buy-th Bucket in Santa Clara.

    I liked the old one. Not the rubbery fake one they built in the 1980s. The old one had a juke box, bench seating, items by the bucket, and shared the lot with a Texaco gas station.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Where was the Texaco in relation to by the bucket? The restaurant sits right on the corner on Stevens creek currently

      Delete
    2. Texaco was exactly where the restaurant is now. The old Bucket was over to the west side of the lot. It's on the east corner now. Across from Woodhams, where I grew up was a Mobil Gas station. Next to the west side of that lot was a Red Barn restaurant and Selix tuxedo rental.

      Delete
    3. Nice to hear about the history of the area. I'm guessing the Mobil station you speak of is now the used car lot sitting under the large billboard at Woodhams and Stvns. Creek. The little building that sits on that corner lot looks like it might have belonged to a gas station at one time. Santa Clara billiards occupies a large building in that shopping center currently (that was put in around 1993). I'm guessing the Red Barn restaurant sat right on the end of that shopping center bordering Woodhams. Across the street from all of this is of course dealerships.

      Delete
    4. Yes, you are correct. The building is still the same. The wall of that building, the northside was where the restroom door was. At one point in the early 70s there were 4 gas stations on those 4 corners connecting to Stevens Creek Blvd. Oddly there was another Texaco station located at Stevens Creek and Lawrence. Had a very tall sign.

      Delete
    5. Actually Red Barn was further down West on Stevens Creek. Just about 50 yards from the old Buy-th Bucket. Santa Clara Billiards use to be in the lot on Stevens Creek and Lawrence, same area as Futurama Bowl. I had a PE class for one semester at the old SC Billards. At the time it was owned by a lady who was a 6time world champion. She gave me some good pointers.


      Where SC Billiards is now use to be a Woolworth yarn mart. The bar at the end of the lot is still the same and unchanged since it was built.

      Delete
  6. The french bread & butter was great, the seafood okay (even though it was fresh, too much fried stuff on the menu for me) but the atmosphere was unique and had a vibe that insured a return visit. I went there once before a Big Game (at home) and the place was electric with Old Blues chanting every 5 minutes some 30’s or 40’s cheer that this ’81 grad had never heard. I went once or twice to the “new” Spenger’s and have to agree that the magic is gone even if the interior looked a bit nicer.

    ReplyDelete
  7. The old Spenger's did a great Petrale Sole, prepared the classic way Bay Area way (lightly pan fried) with capers. I won't go to the new restaurant. It's Spenger's in name only. Had only one meal there and it was bleh.

    ReplyDelete
  8. What a great piece, Rich! Your writing reminds me of Herb Caen!
    Wish you would tell us more stories along this line of your childhood memories.
    As someone suggested, you really should give this wonderfully written piece to your Mom while thanking her for giving you such fond and fun childhood memories.

    ReplyDelete
  9. I hope that you, and your Mom had a wonderful Mother's Day Rich, and its good to know that she is doing better health wise.

    ReplyDelete
  10. Wow, I moved away from this bay area as a young teen and never looked back. Spengers held an ominous place in my memory. Almost like a old terror film. My Mom would sneak out at night and go to Spengers Bar and drink... I was taken with her, sat at the end of the bar with a Shirley Temple... and watched my Mom drink to the point where she had no business being in charge of my care, let alone driving us both back home later in the night. Yup... the thought of this place used to make my stomach hurt. Seeing this picture as a older retiree, brings a flood of memories and almost as if I was transcended there, back in the day... I never drank, pretty much my whole life. Never had alcohol in my home. I taught my children that they would never have the luxury of drinking a beer with their friends, because we had THE GENE.. yes, the ALCOHOLIC GENE... I find it quite interesting how I made Spengers out to be the root of this evil.. All I wish now was that I had some good experiences there, so I would have the same feelings expressed by so many comments here... Well, I have a child who became a binge drinker and left his career, marriage and life behind to live on the streets. We all love him and would do anything for him.. but he doesn't want it. He has created a fixation on the family history of alcoholism and seems to feel that he belongs to a club of some sort. and the first rule is, that Non-drinkers are not welcome. We just don't understand. If I told him about my history with Spengers, he would most likely want to go there and live in the parking lot. I am sorry Frank Spengers; You never were the cause of my families drinking. You have a very well endorsed establishment of good memories for most. In the end; I wish Spengers well....

    ReplyDelete
  11. I don't think I've ever read, in six years, something as beautifully written with the, passion, pain and presence of this person above - especially at 12:06 in the morning. Thank you for this and I somehow believe that their were a few tears shed in writing this and a few guts were tightened by it. Thank you and know you are not walking alone. Be well, my friend. Be well..

    ReplyDelete
  12. Great memories of the "real" Spengers - have been there once since the new ownership - and will never go back - prefer to keep my memories of my young childhood growing up in the East Bay in place.

    ReplyDelete