By Naomi Nishihara
Le Bateau Ivre (The Drunken Boat) a French restaurant, bar and coffeehouse in an 1898 home on Telegraph Avenue, has witnessed decades of first dates since it opened in 1972. But after the recession, its co-founder’s death and dwindling foot traffic, the fabled Berkeley hangout is losing money and struggling to survive in a changing landscape.
Owner Arlene Giordano, who founded the restaurant 43 years ago with her late husband, Thomas Cooper, launched an Indiegogo campaign in September, hoping to crowd fund $60,000 to pay bills, replace kitchen appliances and get the business back on its feet. But the campaign, which ended in November, raised less than one-quarter of her target. Now Giordano is seeking a small business loan from the city to keep her restaurant alive.
“I got a lot of support, just in small amounts,” Giordano said. She also said she thinks donors on Indiegogo might prefer to support new ventures rather than businesses that already exist.
Restaurants are expensive enterprises to keep running, however. At Le Bateau, operating costs run about $45,000 a month, she said. “You’ve got labor, you’ve got insurance, you’ve got food and just general maintenance. I don’t think people realize how many things there are. Just PG&E here is $1,500 a month, and that’s being pretty watchful,” Giordano said. The restaurant is now losing about $3,000 each month, and if Giordano can’t turn it around, she said she’ll consider selling.
Giordano and Cooper were partners in the venture for four decades until his death in October 2008, just as the economy plunged into crisis.
“That’s just about the same time as the recession,” Giordano said. “[The restaurant] was hit in a lot of ways. The business went down considerably over these last few years.” Giordano said her husband had done all the electrical work, plumbing and maintenance around the restaurant. Now she handles everything herself, although it’s been difficult.
A small business loan could provide about $35,000. Giordano said she expects to hear from the city in the next few months. If she gets the loan, she said, she’ll start replacing the stoves, which are more than 40 years old, and the walk-in refrigerator, which her husband built in 1973.
Replacing aging equipment with energy-efficient appliances as a long-term investment would help revive the restaurant and save money in the future. “We’ve been good caretakers of the property,” she said. “It’s a beautiful building. And we respect that.”
Before she and her husband began renting the place in 1971, Giordano said the building had been empty for almost a year. Its structure was in disrepair, with its walls painted a flat purple, green and orange, and five or six doors missing. But the couple was undeterred.
“He just asked me if I wanted to have a restaurant, a coffeehouse, and—I just, you know, when you’re young, you don’t think—I said ‘Sure, why not?” Giordano said.
They built Le Bateau Ivre in stages, opening in 1972 with coffee and pastries. In 1973 the kitchen was finished and they laid the wood floor of the back room.
“As we made a little bit, we put more into it,” Giordano said.
Their work transformed the building, and today the restaurant is quaint and elegant. The front rooms are quiet and lit with lace-curtained windows, and the back room has brick walls and a fireplace. Outside, a large brick patio has additional seating on warmer days.
But Telegraph Ave. has changed with time. “Different areas of Berkeley are popular at different times, and I think the fact that Telegraph has been neglected for so long makes people hesitant sometimes—students especially are hesitant to come down Telegraph to here,” she said.
Le Bateau Ivre is located at 2629 Telegraph Ave., between Derby and Parker.
Polly Armstrong, chief executive officer of the Berkeley Chamber of Commerce, agreed that Telegraph has struggled. An anchor tenant, Cody’s Books, went out of business in 2008. Alternative locations, like Center Street, were designed and developed to appeal to students.
“It’s been on a decline for decades, but in my opinion, the departure of Cody’s was, for retail, one of the more serious blows,” Armstrong said.
However, she said a new era of Telegraph is underway, and that in five years it is going to be a very different place.
“Properties that have been left for dead are being purchased by developers who want to create more housing, and, of course, when you create housing you create foot traffic,” Armstrong said.
But even such prize-winning destination restaurants as Chez Panisse on Shattuck acknowledge the challenges posed by the economy and changing dining habits.
Chez Panisse’s general manager, Jennifer Sherman, said they made it through a hard hit in 2008 by limiting end-of-year spending and redoubling efforts to be careful with every expenditure. But Sherman cautioned that excessively squeezing costs to save money can hurt a restaurant.
“Trying to cut spending too dramatically often results in diminishing quality in the final product, which only leads to customer disappointment and speeds the spiral down,” Sherman said.
At the moment, there are over 300 customer reviews for Le Bateau Ivre on Yelp, averaging 3.5 stars out of five.
“Sunlight flooded dining rooms and shaded patio seating attract everyone from the solo writer to larger family brunches,” wrote Yelp reviewer Caroline W. on Feb. 4.
Other reviewers call the restaurant a “Berkeley gem” and praise Sunday brunch.
“I don’t write reviews often, or ever. But I wanted to note how wonderful this little place is—whenever I sit down, I feel like I’ve been transported to my grandmother’s house back when she was alive,” wrote Yelp reviewer Jonathan S. on June 30. “I can smell the wood of the old house, and something about that brings me home.”
Like the 19th-century French poem by Arthur Rimbaud whose name it bears, the Drunken Boat evokes an era and a culture.
“It’s a restaurant but somehow it’s more. It’s a place where people just come to be and meet people,” Giordano said. “It’s amazing the number of people who said they had their first dates here and now they’re married with kids, or married and divorced. Sometimes second generations of families come in.”
Naomi Nishihara is a master’s candidate at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, specializing in health and business reporting.
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