The Ivy Room‘s iconic neon shines like a welcoming beacon as you drive north on San Pablo Avenue into Albany. The bar is the first of a few in the half mile-long stretch of the avenue between Solano and the El Cerrito border — Club Mallard, the Hotsy Totsy Club and newcomer Albany Taproom all share this space — but it has, for the last several weeks, been closed.
If you manage to peek behind the butcher paper taped on the windows, you will see a transformation taking place. Again.
Over the last decade, the Ivy Room has shifted hands — and identities — three times. Throughout the 90s and early 2000s, the bar was a small music venue and neighborhood watering hole run by Dot MacBeath and, later, her son Bill. In 2006, the MacBeaths sold the space to the owner of Kingman’s Lucky Lounge (now The Libertine), who transformed the dive bar into a lounge-like club. It continued to putter along in this way until 2012, when Tanya and Ronaldo Colli took over, decked out the space in reclaimed wood and rebar, and started pouring scratch-made cocktails.
When the Ivy Room reopens Dec. 12 it will take its cues from the MacBeaths.
New owners Lani Torres and Summer Gerbing want to honor the bar’s history, but bring it back to its roots as a solid, friendly neighborhood bar. It will still have live music. It will still have cocktails. But the new Ivy Room will, say Torres and Gerbing, be a timeless, approachable bar for everyone in the neighborhood.
“We want this bar to be be about the community,” said Torres. “We don’t just want 25- to 30-year-olds in here. We want everyone to come and for everyone to get along.”
These ideals translate into an emphasis on beer over cocktails and televised sports games over hip-hop. Torres and Gerbing will be pouring a solid list of local brews, plus whiskeys and mezcals. They will, said Gerbing, have a drinks list and a few good bottles of wine, but, unlike the nearby Hotsy Totsy, these will not be the focus. “We’ll have cocktails, but we’re not going to have, like, hand-made ice cubes,” said Gerbing.
“We’re going to be more of a shot-and-a-beer place,” added Torres.
San Francisco too expensive, a glut of bars in Oakland
The new Ivy Room is something of a passion project for Torres and Gerbing, who have known each other for over a decade. While both women have been managing bars for years, they had yet to open their own place. They finally decided to look for a place of their own about 18 months ago.
Torres said they initially looked for a bar in San Francisco, but the rent was too expensive. Oakland had too high of a concentration of bars.
“We wanted to look outside the box,” said Gerbing. “We really wanted a true neighborhood bar.”
Torres and Gerbing found the Ivy Room about six months ago, before it officially went on the market. They fell in love with Albany, as well as the bar’s rich history.
“So much can happen in this space,” said Gerbing.
When the Ivy Room re-opens, it will look like a whole new place. Torres and Gerbing have ditched the Venetian blinds covering the windows next to the front door, letting in lots of ambient light. They’ll also be adding tables and window seats in the window nooks. (“That’s where I would want to sit,” said Gerbing. “These are prime seats.”) They’ll be building custom booths and putting in a new pool table. A canoe full of hanging plants will sit above the stage.
The performance area, in particular, will be getting a makeover. Torres and Gerbing have partially closed off the stage area of the bar, creating, essentially, two rooms within the bar. They’re building a “proper stage” and fully soundproofing the walls. “We’re really going to be dialing in on the sound,” said Torres.
Getting the music right is particularly important to the new owners, who both have experience working in music venues. Torres has spent the last several years managing the bar at The Independent, the music venue in San Francisco. Gerbing worked for the Fox Theater in Oakland. They’re also bringing in Glenn Hartman, the former general manager at The Independent, to book bands, and have another investor, Brian Ziel, who is enmeshed in the punk rock scene in Santa Cruz.
They hope to book a wide range of bands, starting with the East Bay Brass Band, which will be playing the new Ivy Room’s first show on New Year’s Eve.
Torres is quick to note, however, that she doesn’t want the Ivy Room to be entirely synonymous with live music. “We want to make sure that we’re not just doing music,” she said, “We want to make sure that we’re doing the bar right.”
Upon opening, the Ivy Room will only have live music two nights a week. “It’s important to us that people can come in for happy hour and actually be able to have a chat and not have to shout over loud music,” said Torres.
During non-performance times, tunes will come from an old CD jukebox with a curated selection of around 100 discs. There will be a “wide range of music” said Gerbing, with something for everyone. Why CDs? Torres and Gerbing want to put music choice in the hands of the patrons, but they don’t want endless variety. They are building a specific culture in the bar, they said, and digital jukeboxes could “disturb that culture,” said Gerbing.
Torres and Gerbing will likely open without a food menu; they want to slowly build it in over time with input from the community. Torres is first to admit that neither of them know much about food service, and they want to make sure they’re offering nibbles that the neighborhood wants.
Gerbing has been in discussion with Bishnu Bhandari, the co-owner of neighboring Hamro Aangan, about potentially serving some of his restaurant’s popular Nepalese food after hours. Gerbing also mentioned the cheese wheel at North Beach’s Specs’ bar as snack inspiration. Ultimately, she said, she wants to offer food items that are different from what the other Albany bars serve. (Read: You likely won’t see burgers or a taco truck pop up at the Ivy Room any time soon.)
Their desire to offer something different makes it easy, Gerbing said, to get along with the other bars in the neighborhood. They’ve met with the owners of the Hotsy Totsy, and they say that they feel very welcome. “They aren’t our competition,” said Gerbing. “We think it’s an asset to have good bars next door.”