Le Bateau Ivre is currently closed but aims to sail another day

The owner of this nearly 49-year-old ‘Old World’ Berkeley restaurant says she wants to stay in business to see its 50th year. She plans to reopen Le Bateau Ivre in a few weeks.

Arlene Giordano knows how to make things last. She opened Le Bateau Ivre with her late husband Thomas Cooper nearly 50 years ago in 1972. And although the longtime Berkeley French restaurant is currently closed for service, Giordano is holding onto hope that better times will come and the “Drunken Boat” will sail again soon. While times have been tough for the restaurant, this resourceful restaurateur may be one whose business will see the other side of the pandemic.

A history of resourcefulness

When Giordano and Cooper first came up with the idea to run a restaurant, the young couple just wanted to open the kind of place they would want to eat at, one that blended gentility and ingenuity with live music on the side.

“I was 23 and he was 30,” said Giordano, now 72 years old. “And I was already working a full-time job.” At the time, Giordano had recently been hired as a chemist with San Francisco Public Works.

“So when I told my dad we were going to do this, the first thing he said was you’re crazy, the second was don’t quit your day job, and the third was do you need any money?”

Money has always been tight at Le Bateau Ivre. But part of the secret to getting by is making do. Not so much cutting corners as finding the creative fix.

“We were great at recycling things,” said Giordano. “And a lot of my great uncles on my mom’s side were Sunset Scavengers,” she said, referencing the sanitation workers of old San Francisco. “So it’s in my blood.”

As evidence, she pointed to the fixtures of the restaurant. The floor of the fireplace room is built out of wood reclaimed from the old City of Paris department store in San Francisco’s Union Square. Several of the restaurant’s stainless steel features were pulled from the demolition of Playland at the Beach. Giordano also considers the restaurant’s earnings as being recycled, in a sense: “Everything we made we just put back in,” she said.

Le Bateau Ivre opened in 1972 in Berkeley, but the Telegraph Avenue building dates back to 1898. Photo: Pete Rosos

There have been decades of collective effort to keep costs down and the doors open. The building itself dates to 1898, and while the initial renovations were extensive to convert it into an operational restaurant, Cooper did all the plumbing, electrical work and maintenance himself until his death. Perhaps the best decision the couple made was to purchase the property in 1976.

“If we hadn’t bought the building we would have been out of business decades ago,” Giordano said.

And, it’s because she owns the building that Giordano was able to make the decision to close the restaurant in December, when the city amended its shelter-in-place order and shut down outdoor dining. Although the restaurant could offer takeout, Giordano kept the restaurant closed while on-premise dining was banned, explaining “takeout doesn’t cover expenses at all.”

This week, Alameda County (and Berkeley) announced outdoor dining could resume again, effectively immediately, but Giordano said it’ll likely be another few weeks before Le Bateau Ivre is back open, and not just because rain is forecasted for the rest of the week. Giordano said she’ll need the time to bring back staff, restock the restaurant and apply for more loans to restart service.

Giordano and her husband Thomas Cooper opened, operated and maintained the restaurant together for years until 2008, when Cooper died. Photo: Pete Rosos

In at least one respect, however, Giordano did take her father’s advice. She never did quit her day job. She retired from her Public Works job in 2008, after 37 years.

That same year, the Great Recession happened, and then her husband died.

“We were truly a partnership,” said Giordano. “Until he died, I was always in the background. I was never with people as much. Then after he died, I started getting involved with the customers much much more. And that’s been really meaningful for me and I think for them also.”

An inviting, warm place of connection

“There are places that just go beyond being an eatery,” said longtime customer Don Borges, who Nosh spoke to late last year, when La Bateau Ivre was still open for takeout and outdoor dining service. “They become part of the community. And the atmosphere that Arlene and her husband created was such a diverse, culturally inviting, warm place of connection.”

Borges has been a customer at Le Bateau Ivre almost since it opened. Until it closed in December, he made a point to eat there between eight to ten times a year, coming for dishes like its Boeuf Bourguignon. (“I’ll tell you the Boeuf Bourguignon is delicious,” he said. “And you’re not going to find better gourmet food in the area.”) While the restaurant serves a few French classic dishes, you’ll also find a Greek salad and spaghetti bolognese on its menu. It’s more European Old World, than traditional French — but its regulars have come for more than just the food.

“Hearts and connection,” said Borges. “That’s what I think of when I think of Le Bateau. You feel the intention of love and service in their food. In their smiles, in their graciousness, and in the decor.”

“I know they’re going through a rough time right now,” he said. “It would be heartbreaking if they ever had to close. It would just be a real loss to the community.”

A series of break-ins rock the boat

Le Bateau has gone through rough financial patches before. After the recession and Cooper’s death, business noticeably slowed. Giordano debated making some much-needed upgrades to the kitchen, but couldn’t afford more efficient appliances. In 2015, she launched an Indiegogo campaign to keep the restaurant going, posting a flexible goal of $60,000. The same year, she also applied for a $35,000 loan with the city of Berkeley. The fundraiser only raised around $13,700, and Giordano was denied the loan.

In 2020, as with most restaurants, Le Bateau was hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic. When indoor dining was banned in March, Le Bateau Ivre had to stop its live musical performances. The restaurant had been operating as a performance space for an eclectic collection of musical styles — from opera to bluegrass, R&B to gospel and Hawaiian — which was also a draw for customers, and takeout was not making up the difference.

And then in October, Le Bateau was burglarized three times in two weeks.

The first break-in happened on Oct. 17. The person or persons involved broke and entered from a window on the Carleton Street side of the restaurant, then stole a table cloth, two bottles of liquor and the drawer to the cash register. Not quite making out like a bandit, according to Giordano. The cash register was decorative. At most, it contained a few pennies. They hadn’t used it in years.

Then, on Oct. 25, another individual, or perhaps the same, broke in again through a separate window and with a similar tally of loss and damage: stolen curtain, broken flower pot, two more bottles of liquor gone. And, mysteriously, they had also taken down a mirror, then reversed it.

Giordano points out a spot where someone broke into the restaurant. Since Oct. 17, the restaurant has had three break-ins and has been vandalized. Photo: Pete Rosos

The following day, was the third break-in, “and somehow that was the worst emotionally,” said Giordano. The person had entered from the patio side, overturned all the tables and chairs from the cafe section, gone behind the bar and emptied all the fridges, spilled sugar and soda on the floor, smashed glasses and bottles, stolen another set of curtains, and turned on a burner in the kitchen and left it on.

They also left behind a foul memento in a to-go container in the doorway. Considering her previous career, Giordano had seen worse.

“I worked in a sewage plant for 37 years,” she said, “but it was just gross.” No entrepreneur wants to find someone else’s business inside of their business.

“That third break-in was just really demoralizing,” said Lucina Parada. Parada works as an immigration paralegal in Oakland, but also manages the social media for Le Bateau Ivre. She is also the daughter of head chef Raul Parada. In response to the break-ins, and with Giordano’s approval, Lucina launched a GoFundMe campaign to raise $3,000 to cover improved security measures for the restaurant, such as reinforced windows, better lighting, better alarm, and security cameras. The campaign not only met but exceeded its goal by more than $1000.

“This is forcing me to do things that I’ve neglected,” she said. “Things that I haven’t taken care of since my husband died. And that’s OK. You can sit and cry or you can sit and do something.”

Meanwhile, Giordano has applied for a grant through the Berkeley disaster mitigation fund of up to $2,500, has also put in for another grant from Alameda County, and for a loan from Berkeley of up $25,000. Earlier, she had applied for and received a Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan, “and that’s helped,” she said, “but after a while, it runs out.” She said she has applied another round of PPP.

“I’ll apply for anything that I can,” she said.

Giordano is still puzzled by the motivation of the intruder, but has a theory. While coronavirus has put extra stress on everyone, those who already had the least resources at the beginning of the pandemic have even less now, occasionally leading to desperate and even dangerous behavior.

“It’s just sort of an after effect of the pandemic,” said Giordano. “There’s more homeless out. There’s more drug people out. They don’t have the other people around to borrow and beg for food from, or just to beg from period. So it’s awful to have to deal with their after-effects, but they’re also very affected too.”

Seasons (and pandemic restrictions) steer the ship

Raul Parada says he bases Le Bateau Ivre’s dishes on what’s in season, but the new lockdown measures will also affect the menu. Photo: Pete Rosos

“This COVID era showed us a lot of stuff,” said Raul Parada, head chef at Le Bateau Ivre. “And I’m so grateful for the customers and the people in Berkeley showing us all the help they did when we have the break-ins.”

Parada fled El Salvador in 1985 to escape the violence of a civil war. He landed in San Francisco, where he began taking ESL classes and did his culinary training at San Francisco City College, receiving his certificate in Food Technology and Dining Services in 1989. He then began work at the Marriott Hotel in downtown San Francisco, and then worked 30 years at Sam’s Anchor Cafe in Tiburon.

In 2017, Sam’s Anchor was sold to new owners, who decided to bring in new staff, and Parada was out of a job. At the same time, Giordano was looking for a new head chef. It ended up working out for both parties, and has proven to be a very good working relationship. “Raul is such a blessing,” said Giordano. “We can talk to each other easily, there’s no tension between us.”

Parada said he keeps pace with the calendar to develop Le Bateau Ivre’s menus. “As the season moves, we move,” he said. But with the pandemic still raging on, Parada is rethinking what the menu will look when the restaurant reopens again. “It will probably be a limited menu,” said Parada, and more portable. “Items that are easier to package as we move along on these new closures.”

Le Bateau Ivre kitchen staff: sous chef Carlos Lopez, head chef Raul Parada and Max Castro. Photo: Pete Rosos

The goal is to keep afloat for 50 years

Neither Parada nor Giordano knows what the post-pandemic future will look like for the restaurant or for themselves, but Giordano at least wants to stay in the business long enough to see Le Bateau Ivre turn 50, which will happen next year. (Although Giordano and Cooper signed the lease for the space in October 1971, they didn’t open until March 5, 1972)

“The restaurant is kind of worn,” said Giordano, “like me.”

The relaxed Old World environment that patrons often comment on is not so much because of a conscientious emulation of Parisian bistros and Florentine trattorias. It is just the result of decades of use. Of a place being long-lived in and loved.

Giordano related an anecdote about the floorboards. After one of the October break-ins, a responding police officer had commented on the patina on the floor, noticing how it was grooved near the counter where it had been weathered by foot traffic. So many people, over so much time. That bit of wearing gave the place some sense of history. Or rather, of histories. Of dinners and diners, of chefs and owners, of relationships, of marriages and of individuals.

“People say it’s a Berkeley institution,” said Giordano, “but for me, it’s just my life.”

Le Bateau Ivre is currently closed for service and aims to reopen in the next few weeks for outdoor dining. Le Bateau Ivre’s GoFundMe campaign is still accepting donations.