After nearly 60 years in business, the Albatross Pub on San Pablo Avenue has finally gone quiet, with precariously stacked trinkets and photographs filling once-bustling dart lanes, and empty tables gleaming in the eerie darkness.
The storied pub, also known as “The Bird,” announced over the weekend that it would be closing by Nov. 30 because it couldn’t weather the financial hardships of the COVID-19 pandemic. While restaurants and bars that sell food have been able to reopen at limited capacities, liquor venues and clubs are of the last frontier for re-openings locally.
Albatross Pub opened in 1964 and changed hands a couple times before ending up with Andrew McGee, who began working at the pub in 2004 as a card-checker at the door, and took over from Wendy Halambeck in 2018.
He and co-owner Linda Zsilavetz, who bought and restored the bar with Halambeck in 1997, strived to maintain its inviting warmth, a gathering place where you could bring your parents — or a date — to enjoy conversation, trivia nights, a few drinks and the comforting drone of music (at a reasonable volume).
On Monday afternoon, one day after announcing its closing, McGee peered out into the ghostly quiet from behind the bar and bubbled over with stories as he parsed through memorabilia, knick-knacks and art set aside for storage.
There was the collection of photographs showing a smartly dressed group of youngsters chatting away in the late ’60s, the Scrabble dictionary that had to be replaced every year (to remain current, and because of inevitable, recurring theft), and the “Albatboss” sign — an art project mishap from an upstairs neighbor that ultimately became a year-round April Fool’s joke.
“Wait a minute, that’s Horst!” he shouted minutes later, dashing back to the collection of photographs.
Horst Duhnke was a longtime regular who was honored with a gold placard at his favorite bar seat after his death in 2005. McGee remembers him as one of the grumpiest regulars he had the pleasure of serving, but, in the photo, Duhkne is 42 years old and deep in conversation, laughing with a stylish woman noted in neat letters as “Arlene.” Other regulars given plaques were Bruce Goodell (1929-2013), Howard Albe (1911-2004) and Kevin Lyman (1944-2003).
This history and the cozy, congenial atmosphere is what everyone came back to Albatross Pub for year after year. But for a cavernous, enclosed gathering space that “notoriously didn’t have the best ventilation,” as McGee puts it, shelter-in-place and social distancing orders spelt doom.
“Even before the pandemic, we were not making tons of money, the profit margin was pretty slim.” — Andrew McGee
Restaurants in Berkeley were allowed to reopen for outdoor dining in June (then again in July), and indoor dining at 25% capacity in late October. McGee and his wife also run Thai Table at 913 University Ave., and considered collaborating on meals to sell drinks, but not having an outdoor space for diners at 1822 San Pablo Ave. (at Hearst) was a huge setback, as well as the amount of drink sales the bar would need to survive.
A successful GoFundMe crowdfunding page set up by customers secured McGee and Zsilavetz budgeting through the fall, but the final blow was their landlord’s decision to withdraw a 50% rent discount offered since March. On top of that, Albatross Pub was charged immediate back rent for the entire year.
“Even before the pandemic, we were not making tons of money, the profit margin was pretty slim,” McGee said, but the owners were scrambling to make things work when their landlord informed them of what was effectively an eviction. “We just didn’t make it, time just kind of ran out.”
For Zsilavetz, who has mostly handed over the reins to McGee and was poised for departure next year, the timing was heartbreaking.
“Drew was gonna be the next generation there, that’s what I felt really bad about,” she said. “That’s the sad thing, that it’s not going further with new blood in it.”
Both owners spoke warmly of the “loyal” group of 14 or so employees — many of whom were artists and creatives — that celebrated holidays together, had annual bowling parties and were promised the Albatross as a reception venue if they met their partner there, Zsilavetz said. McGee informed them of the closure over the weekend. He said many had established side-gigs and other jobs during the pandemic, but most had hoped to return. The news also trickled out to customers, who responded with dozens of stories of trivia nights, community gatherings, birthday parties and celebrations.
found out Berkeley's Albatross Pub will close forever. what a storied bar, what a home. 💔🍺🍿 pic.twitter.com/YIqdkKR6qW— Liam Curley (@liammcurley) November 8, 2020
Zsilavetz, now 61, and Halambeck were among few women to own a bar in Berkeley in the ’90s, and they worked hard to maintain the vision of the the brothers, Val and Bob Johnson, who ran it for the previous 30 years, as well as original owners Bill Scanlon and Phil Randall. “He really didn’t like when people were having too much fun there,” she joked about one of the Johnson brothers.
“In the beginning when Wendy and I took over, everyone was like, ‘Oh my god it’s gonna be a lesbian bar!’ But, you know, we tried to keep everything that was there and make it better,” she added.
Zsilavetz and Halambeck were responsible for renovating the street-front of the bar, expanding its liquor license to hard alcohol as well as beer and wine, adding pool tables and snazzing up the dart lanes (though the boards never became digital like other venues.)
There was live jazz two Saturdays a month, bluegrass every Wednesday, the famous Sunday trivia nights and Scrabble on Mondays. Some of the rowdiest moments happened during chess games, McGee said, marveling at the high-stakes, heated intellectual matches the bar invited. This was the Bird’s vibe, originally designed like an old-timey British pub, differentiating it from nearby sports bars that built community over a love of basketball, football and Cal games.
The Albatross became a semi-regular hangout for Klay Thompson, who … probably enjoyed that everyone left him alone while he played his chess games and chilled with friends.
Sometimes this alternative atmosphere resulted in hilarious encounters.
McGee recalled a night when a new customer visited the bar to grab a drink and catch a game of chess. But he had forgotten his I.D. at home. The doorman shrugged at him — to the guest’s shock, and mounting laughter and jeers from people gathered outside — and said he needed his driver’s license to be allowed inside.
The guest was frustrated, but motivated, and came back another day with his license. Ultimately, the Albatross became a semi-regular hangout for Klay Thompson of the Golden State Warriors, who McGee said probably enjoyed that everyone left him alone while he played his games and chilled with friends.
Similar gems of past and present history are abundant at the Albatross Pub, and its rich lifespan is one of the things that gives McGee optimism when looking toward the future.
When The Bird first set up shop, a prohibition-era law banning liquor sales one mile from the UC Berkeley campus was still in effect. The Albatross was far enough away that it became a student hotspot and benefited from a rich San Pablo Avenue bar scene until the law was repealed in the late 1970s, and was later revived by Zsilavetz and Halambeck to keep up with the changing times and needs. But, as this proves to McAgee, “Berkeley didn’t start in 1964, this was a new spot,” and it can return as a new venture again.
The owners are planning to set aside a couple days to invite regulars into the space to pick up small items they may have attachments to, and are thinking of a later event at an outdoor venue to have one last drink for the Albatross (pandemic conditions given). Everything else —like Hagar, large paintings and the Albatross mosaic behind the bar — will go into storage until the Bird is alive once more.
McGee is happy to adapt to the times. He recently hired a bartender who had a particular talent for craft cocktails, and, though the Albatross never sought to compete with buzzy, local cocktail bars, it offered up its own version of drinks like “New Rose” (gin, elderflower, fresh grapefruit juice, named after a punk rock song.)
What bugs him, though, is that he feels like new bars now seem to require an “angle.” Sometimes new customers would ask, “What’s your thing? What do you do?” But for the Albatross Pub, McGee said the the angle is hiring people who are treated well, and cultivating a space people want to return to.
“I struggle with — I feel like — the Albatross is this space and I don’t know how I would set up the Albatross in another spot,” McGee said, letting his gaze pass over the wide bar and meditating on a possible return in the future. “But I would take everything that we have, and stuff it into whatever spot it was.”