The Starry Plough
3101 Shattuck Ave. (at Prince Street), Berkeley
Opened by Irish revolutionaries in 1973, Berkeley’s Starry Plough bar — a pub named after the flag adopted by folks seeking independence from British rule over a century ago — weathered Berkeley’s changing times and tides for 47 years before temporarily closing its doors when the Bay Area locked down in March 2020. It’s remained closed in the two years since, but will reopen on Thursday to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day once more.
The pub at the corner of Shattuck and Prince has been an arts destination for ages, which is one of the reasons that even as many Bay Area bars and restaurants reopened, the Starry Plough remained shut. According to updates posted by Shahin Naima, the son of Starry Plough owners Rose Hughes and Mehrdad Naima, fears of a new COVID-19 wave prevented them from reopening last June, and as “our space and staff are small while our community is large … we want to be confident we will not be putting anybody at risk.” As anyone who recalls the delta and omicron outbreaks in the fall and winter, those worries seemed well-founded.
Hughes (an Irish descendant of the bar’s original owners) and Naima (an Iranian American who met Hughes at the bar long ago) have owned the Starry Plough since 1985, establishing it as not just a live music venue but a spot for events like the West Coast’s longest-running poetry slam. It was so well known as a performance venue that an earlier reopening at lowered capacity and restricted performance wouldn’t have made “sense financially as most of our business is based around our in-person events,” Naima said.
To stay afloat during the two-year closure, the bar applied for an emergency grant from the city of Berkeley. They were awarded funds, but only in the amount of $2,500, the Daily Cal reported in 2020. This was a disappointment to the Starry Plough’s owners, as Naima said that Mayor Jesse Arreguín had told them that the bar could be categorized as an arts space, placing it in line for ten times that.
“The last two years were a crash course in how arts groups were funded compared to businesses,” Naima told Nosh. Eventually, the venue secured more funding through the Berkeley Cultural Trust, and was also awarded grants from charitable efforts like Hardly Strictly Bluegrass’s venue fund. The Starry Plough also turned to GoFundMe, raising over $65,000 in the last two years.
All those revenue streams were enough to keep things going behind the scenes, Naima said, and now the bar is ready to slowly come back to life. The Starry Plough will reopen at noon on Thursday, March 17, to serve corned beef and cabbage, as it has for 49 years (last year, they even handed out plates from the then-shuttered business). “We’ll keep serving until the beer runs out,” Naima said, and unlike pre-pandemic years, no cover will be charged.
Specials for the holiday include a corned beef and cabbage dinner for $20 that includes potatoes, carrots and Irish brown soda bread. Entertainment will include performers from the McBride Irish Dance School, the Starry Plough Irish Dancers and musicians, and Klezmer/Irish musician and guitarist Lewis Santer. Proof of vaccination will be required for all.
After the St. Patrick’s Day kickstart, the Starry Plough will close again for two weeks, Naima said, and will reopen with more regular hours on April 3. For the next several months, it will only be open on Sundays-Thursdays, the days that for years have been reserved for its community events. “We’re going to hold off on Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays until we see if there’s going to be a fifth wave, a sixth wave,” Naima said, as those are the evenings when the bar was typically wall-to-wall people in close quarters.
Right now, the Starry Plough’s only employees are Naima and his mom and dad (though some previous bartenders will be back for Thursday’s reopening night). “We still need to restaff,” Naima said, which means that even when the bar reopens in April, the menu will be far more limited and they’ll be serving beer from fewer taps.
“We’re going to keep it simple for now,” Naima said. “The important thing is to get back to being a space for the community, a space for community events.”
Other great ways to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day in the East Bay
Alley & vine, 1332 Park St. (near Alameda Avenue), Alameda
What: A three-course St. Patrick’s Day menu for $49, optional beverage pairing is an additional $25. Reservations are available via Opentable
Highlights: Corned beef that’s cured in-house, colcannon soup with bacon
The Kensington Circus Pub, 389 Colusa Ave. (at Berkeley Park Boulevard), Kensington
What: A special menu starting at 3 p.m., with “copious amounts of Irish Whiskey” promised
Highlights: In addition to the classics, there are corned beef tacos and Guinness beef stew
Market Hall (Rockridge, Berkeley)
What: Both locations’ delis will offer a special menu of prepared housemade mains, sides and desserts
Highlights: Irish soda bread ($6.95), shepherd’s pie ($21.95, serves three) and Irish cream pudding ($5.95)
Rudy’s Can’t Fail Cafe, 4081 Hollis St. (near Park Avenue), Emeryville
What: A special St. Patrick’s Day menu and drink specials all day
Highlights: Traditional corned beef and cabbage ($15.95), Guinness pints are $4.50 from 4-10 p.m.
Slainte, 131 Broadway (near Second Street), Oakland
What: A four day celebration, March 17-20
Highlights: The menu is TBD, but there will also be Irish dancing and music