The restored vintage Hotsy Totsy neon sign. Photo: Hotsy Totsy Club
Albany’s Hotsy Totsy Club is about to celebrate its 80th anniversary this Saturday, Feb. 23, even though the bar’s current owners are uncertain of the exact date it first opened. Co-owners Michael Valladares and Jessica Maria settled on the year 1939 “because it’s the first time we saw it in print being robbed,” said Valladares.
The source material is an article titled ‘Albany Man Fires on Tavern Burglar,’ from an issue of the Oakland Tribune published Saturday, Nov. 18, 1939:
“Edward Johnson, 40, owner of a tavern at 601 San Pablo Avenue, pursued a prowler with a rifle this morning and fired one shot which apparently missed,” the article begins.
“Johnson chased the man, but was outdistanced at the foot of the Albany Hill. Police dogs from Berkeley were used in an attempt to follow the trail, but the man was not found.
“The burglar obtained some nickels from a pin-ball machine,” the article concludes, “but Johnson did not know how much was taken.”
Both Valladares and Maria are very aware they might actually be celebrating the wrong anniversary at this weekend’s festivities but plan on going ahead anyway. They’ll host a classic Hollywood themed night with red carpet, searchlights, complimentary snacks from Tacos El Autlense, complimentary sparkling gin punch and an ice sculpture luge that will simultaneously mix and chill cocktails as the drinks slide down it into patron’s glasses.
This weekend will also mark 10 years since the couple took over ownership. When the two bought the bar in 2009 they were appreciative but selective of what elements of the former establishment they were going to carry forward.
“This has just been kind of a dingy landmark of Albany for as long as I can remember,” said Valladares, who grew up in the area. Though upon reflection, Valladares amended his choice of descriptor. “Dingy sounds like it’s dirty, and it wasn’t,” he said. “If I could choose my word, I’d call it sleazy.”
To this day I meet people in Albany that are like ‘Oh! I thought that was a strip joint.’
— Michael Valladares
“It’s always had a feel of being a little bit naughty,” said Valladares. “You never really knew what was going on there but you knew it was for adults only.”
The myth has been a persistent one. “To this day I meet people in Albany that are like ‘Oh! I thought that was a strip joint,’” he said.
Valladares and Maria aren’t just business partners, they’re life partners too.
“We cohabitate, we have a baby, we have a business,” said Maria.
“We did it all,” said Valladares
“Except for marriage,” Maria added.
Maria has a 25-year-long resume in the bar business, including as a bar manager at such venues as The Fillmore and The Warfield and Berkeley’s Cesar. In 2012 she was named a Bar Star by the San Francisco Chronicle. Previously, the pair had operated a bar from 2003-2005 on the island of Koh Lanta in Thailand.
Though they were not on the lookout to open another bar after moving back stateside, inspiration struck when the two dropped in on the Hotsy Totsy after a breakdancing class and noticed the place was for sale.
“We saw a ‘For Sale’ sign and got inspired,” said Maria. “Like, ‘the Hotsy Totsy Club can be ours.” She turned to Valladares in mock re-enactment, “Can it be ours?’”
Indeed it could. Anita Noble, the widow of previous owner Danny Noble, agreed to sell to Maria and Valladares, who were eager to revamp the club into their own vision.
The Hotsy Totsy was still a neighborhood bar when they assumed ownership, but one whose better days lay behind it.
“It had no…” Valladares struggled. “It had no…”
“Sex appeal,” said Maria.
“It had no sex appeal,” Valladares agreed. “It was basically Budweiser, neon Raider signs, a horrible jukebox and bright as hell.”
“And bartenders that were making drinks to get you completely messed up,” said Maria. “You know, fill a juice glass up with vodka, color it red with cranberry juice.” Though not exactly a den of vice or a criminal hangout, the bar was a cautionary tale. “You didn’t want to grow up and end up at the Hotsy Totsy Club,” said Maria.
The pair weren’t interested in preserving the Hotsy Totsy in the state in which they bought it, but transforming it into a cocktail-oriented destination, more akin to an even earlier version of itself, albeit with a good deal less infamy.
“We didn’t want to go down the whole rabbit hole of taking ourselves so seriously as a ‘hip’ mixology kind of lifestyle place. We didn’t want the Hotsy Totsy to be hoity toity.” — Valladares
Their timing was auspicious. The two had taken over just at the beginning of the cocktail revival. The whole “Edison light, tattoo sleeved, mustachioed, hipster, revealed brick wall thing,” as Valladares describes it. Though with an important qualification.
“We didn’t want to go down the whole rabbit hole of taking ourselves so seriously as a hip mixology kind of lifestyle place,” said Valladares, hooking his fingers in air quotes. “We didn’t want the Hotsy Totsy to be hoity toity.”
Instead the pair were after the dressed down atmosphere of a neighborhood bar, where patrons could feel just as comfortable ordering a pint as a pink martini, no dinner jacket required.
“We wanted to push it into a neighborhood, community feeling bar where you can get good cocktails, feel safe, and just [be] a warm and inviting place for adults,” said Maria.
“We wanted to make sure we brought none of the pomp of mixology culture, but offering something that’s better than just a Jack and Coke.” Valladares. “We decided to maintain the livability of this little Albany shack, but why can’t we offer better product?”
The list of better products includes more than 300 signature cocktails, available via rotating seasonal menus. The special menu for this weekend’s celebration features the top-selling cocktail from every year of the past decade, each of which is original, often idiosyncratic, to the Hotsy Totsy. Case in point, top-selling cocktail of 2009: the Bitter Rivers.
“It’s named after a friend of mine, Kelly Rivers,” said Maria. “We named it after her because…she’s…”
“She’s bitter,” Maria agreed. “It’s a gin-based cocktail.” The drink features gin, Aperol, grapefruit, lime and rhubarb bitters. It is then carbonated and bottled in-house for patrons to crack open and enjoy at the bar.
“It’s not hyper-sophisticated, but it’s damn good,” said Valladares, a descriptor he hopes might also apply to the club.
The Hotsy Totsy Club is open 3 p.m. to 2 a.m., Monday through Thursday; noon to 2 a.m., Friday through Sunday. The 80th anniversary celebration takes place 7 p.m. until close, Saturday, Feb. 23.