Spenger’s Fresh Fish Grotto in Berkeley. Photo: Joanna Della Penna

Anyone hoping to pop into Spenger’s restaurant Wednesday for a cocktail and oysters or full seafood dinner was greeted by darkness. A white paper sign posted on the locked front door read, “Spenger’s has closed its doors permenatly (sic)! As of today Wednesday October 24, 2018. Sorry for any inconvenience this may have caused you!”

When Berkeleyside called the West Berkeley restaurant, Kevin Campbell, who said he was with the Kelly Restaurant Group, which owns — or owned — Spenger’s, picked up the phone: “Thank you for calling the former Spenger’s.”

Campbell, who is from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where Kelly Restaurant Group is based, said he couldn’t say much at this time but confirmed the restaurant had been transferred back to “the owners of the development.”  The owner, according to the city,  is Jamestown L.P., an investment company specializing in “high-quality” real estate. Jamestown counts Ghiradelli Square, the Alameda South Shore Center and several San Francisco buildings among its Bay Area portfolio.

A family, who came for an annual dinner at Spengers, were surprised to find the restaurant closed on Wednesday, Oct. 24. Photo: Joanna Della Penna

Spenger’s Fresh Fish Grotto, Berkeley’s oldest restaurant, in a building that’s a city historical landmark, was originally the home of Bavarian immigrant and fisherman Johann Spenger. He started selling clams and beer from the front of the building in the 1890s. The eatery at 1919 Fourth St. expanded through the years and over the Spenger’s generations, becoming a full-service restaurant in the 1930s. It’s always specialized in fresh seafood and was known for thick clam chowder served with baskets of crusty San Francisco sourdough bread on the side.

Frank “Buddy” Spenger Jr., grandson of Johann, ran the restaurant in its prime, from about 1940-1998. Buddy lived above the restaurant until his death in 2003. Around 1998, in ill health and facing declining profits, he sold his family business to McCormick & Schmick’s, then based in Portland, Oregon.

In what’s likely a reflection of the challenges of the chain fine dining business, at least some McCormick & Schmick’s restaurants are now a brand or “concept”, as it says on its website, of the Kelly Restaurant Group.

(There are other McCormick & Schmick’s establishments not owned by Kelly.)

According to Campbell, Spenger’s was sold to Kelly Restaurant Group a year ago by Landry’s Inc., a hospitality company based in Texas.

The West Berkeley block where Spenger’s is located has seen an overhaul in recent years, adding retail shops, office space and parking. The Spenger’s footprint may have shrunk as part of that project. During construction on the block, workers found ancient Native American remains buried underground.

The vast Spenger’s parking lot across the street, which had been slated for a large housing and commercial development and has a different owner, has been the site of a major controversy around its landmark status as an Ohlone shellmound.

In September the developers of the project gave the rights back to its owners, after failing to use a state law to fast-track a building permit.

Update, Thursday, Oct. 25, 11:40 a.m. Berkeleyside received a few updates on the Spenger’s situation Thursday.

First, contrary to rumors, the restaurant isn’t going to become a Joe’s Crab Shack, according to Fallon McLoughlin, spokesperson for Jamestown, the investment and management company that owns the Fourth Street development, including Spenger’s. (Ownership information has been updated in story above.) “We can’t comment on who is going to be coming into that space,” McLoughlin said.

And Spenger’s most recent owner, the Kelly Restaurant Group, released this statement:

“We are sad to announce the closure of Spenger’s Fresh Fish Grotto in Berkeley, CA. Cost prohibitive employee and labor costs in Berkley were a significant factor in the closure of the restaurant and we were left no choice but to discontinue operations.  Thank you to all the customers for their many years of support.”

According to a woman who answered the Spenger’s phone Thursday morning, the restaurant had about 75 employees. She identified as an employee. When asked if workers were getting any kind of severance, she said she didn’t feel comfortable commenting. She said she was packing her things.

Update, Thursday, Oct. 25, 12:30 p.m. This comment just came in from Jamestown, the owner of Spenger’s and the development its part of.

“We look forward to repositioning Spenger’s with an innovative concept that makes the most of the DNA from the pre-1950s,” said Michael Phillips, President of Jamestown.

If we get more updates we’ll post them. Share news tips with Nosh anytime. Read more about Berkeley’s Fourth Street neighborhood.

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Freelancer Catherine "Kate" Rauch has been contributing to Berkeleyside for several years. Her work as a journalist has encompassed everything from 10 years as a daily news reporter for the East Bay Times,...