This year, Brennan’s Restaurant in Berkeley celebrated its 60th anniversary. As the story goes, founder John Brennan, a Berkeley resident, built the original restaurant in 1958, five years after he retired from his job as a contractor. Even though he didn’t have prior restaurant experience, he knew what he liked to eat and decided that’s what he’d serve at the place he built. Brennan’s opened on Jan. 16, 1959, on John Brennan’s 69th birthday.
Brennan’s has been family-owned for three generations. In 2008, it moved from its original location to a Mission-style building next door at 700 University Ave. The historic Southern Pacific Railroad building is a city of Berkeley landmark that was constructed in 1913. Although it’s steps away from the posh Fourth Street shopping district, Brennan’s has maintained its reputation as a reliable, no-frills watering hole and hofbrau, a place to get a beer or an Irish coffee, watch a game and get a hearty, hot plate of food after a hard day’s work. But those days will soon be over, as Brennan’s will be closing on Sept. 15.
Employees were told of the impending closure on Wednesday, Aug. 15 before the restaurant opened at 11 a.m. They were told that the rent on the historic train station building is being raised 25% and the owners have decided to close the business instead of continue.
We spoke with Brennan’s co-owner, Margaret Wade, granddaughter of John Brennan who confirmed the news, but said that the rent increase was just one factor for the closure.
“Everything is expensive here; we’ve had a struggle,” Wade said. “People don’t go out to lunch every day anymore. And maybe for the better, but people don’t have three-martini lunches anymore, either.”
Wade explained that the restaurant’s move 10 years ago has caused issues. Some customers didn’t know they moved and just thought they had gone out of business; others have a hard time finding it, even if they know it’s still around. “Visibility is really tough behind the overpass and the apartment buildings,” Wade said.
Still, Brennan’s has always had its regulars, from those who come every day to others who come three times a year. “We have a lot of familiar faces who’ve known us for a long time,” said Wade.
And although Wade said she hopes any and all Brennan’s fans will stop into the restaurant at least one more time before the restaurant closes on Sept. 15, she said she’s most worried about her staff. Several of her 20+-person staff have worked at Brennan’s for years — a carver has been there since 1996, a bartender since 1997 and her longest-employed staffer, an opening cook, has been there since 1995.
“The people are really wonderful, really gracious and understanding,” Wade said. “I had a friend who was in this business tell me, ‘Don’t be surprised if the staff is not so nice about [the closure],’ but that has not been the case at all. They are all really lovely, hard-working people, and anyone who is looking to hire should be looking to poach my staff… after Sept. 15.”
Wade has been working at Brennan’s since 1982; she took over the family business in 1992 with her brother, Barney Wade, who is now retired. At 53 years old with children to support, Wade said she will have to find a new job herself once Brennan’s closes. For now, she doesn’t know what that job will be.
“I haven’t looked at that yet. I just want to focus on doing my best job to close this place as well and as gracefully as I can.”
Brennan’s will be open every day (except Labor Day) through Sept. 15. The food line will close at 9 p.m. on that day and the bar will close later.