Le Bateau Ivre
2629 Telegraph Ave. (near Carleton Street), Berkeley
Thursday-Friday: 11:30 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Saturday: 10 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Sunday: 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Restaurants and hotels called Le Bateau Ivre can be found all over the world. Arlene Giordano, co-founder and current proprietor of Berkeley’s version, displays photos of several of these in a glass case behind the front door of her restaurant.
Tacked up in charming disarray over the years, the faded photos signify a camaraderie with sister restaurants from New York to the Caribbean, from France (where there appear to be 14!), Germany, Belgium, and the Netherlands to Peru – and beyond.
This is fitting, for Giordano believes the restaurant’s key purpose is as a refuge for peace, friendship, and connection. Given the news these days, you may agree that society as a whole is in dire need of places like this. And they’re becoming vanishingly rare.
Entering the European farmhouse building with mullioned windows and white-painted shutters beneath mature liquid amber trees decked out in the tender new leaves of spring was like calling on an old friend.
I pushed open the front door and found myself in a tiny anteroom, welcomed by a vase of fresh lilies and a softly-lighted lamp perched atop a delicate round table. Incredibly, I heard a phone ringing (a real telephone, really ringing) — the jangly tone of a landline many young people have never heard. A round-faced waiter hurried across the room to pick up the receiver. In French-accented English and a hearty dose of cheer, he penciled a reservation into the book spread open on the desk for that purpose.
All of this was beyond refreshing. In a time when it seems every task requires the cell phone or the laptop, I’m exhausted by devices. Repetitive stress injuries in my right shoulder from forever tapping out letters on a tiny screen and in my neck from the required perpetual downward gaze sound a warning. Nothing attracts me more these days than the idea of putting the damn things away for a while.
At Le Bateau Ivre, it’s easy to do that, not least because devices feel out of place at the restaurant, where, it seems, time has stood still–almost to a disorienting degree. But, I assure you, it’s a welcome disorientation, a delighted disorientation. Cell phones and the behaviors that accompany them just don’t suit the environment of Le Bateau Ivre, and that alone is a great reason to pay the restaurant a visit. Step inside and be transported to an earlier time, a time before technology became ubiquitous.
See what effect the clean, worn wood floors have on you. Note the intimate round tables, the mismatched wood chairs, some with arms, some without, the dappled sunlight filtering through white lace curtains, the candles. Note the eclectic collection of paintings, each of which tells a story. An unexpected Popeye cookie jar full of dog treats sits on a shelf behind the compact bar, where a gleaming espresso machine takes up half the footprint.
Nearby, an impressive antique, marble-topped table anchors the wall. Note the hushed and hallowed hallways, the painting of a topless woman behind the bar door. Don’t miss the old cigarette case on the way to the back room, now used to display wines currently being poured and a photo collection of staff and customers over the years.
Opened in 1972 by Arlene Giordano and late husband Tom Cooper, Le Bateau Ivre is many things to many people. Initially a cafe serving Viennese and Italian coffees (with separate menus for each) and pastries, it became a full-service restaurant that serves a pan-European menu that includes french onion soup, beef bourguignon, lasagne with house-made pasta, a classic Caesar salad, salmon with aioli, ribeye with caramelized shallots, chocolate mousse, creme brûlée, chocolate sundaes and the cookies du jour to loyal patrons that have been coming for years.
I met Giordano and her social media manager Lucina Parada on a sunny spring day just after the lunch rush. We sat at a table near the bar, alongside a bright window looking onto a brick side patio and garden. Clad in a nubby green wool sweater, Giordiano took her seat in a handsome carved wood armchair and told me the tale of the restaurant’s beginnings.
The restaurant was Tom’s idea, she said. “Tom found the place. We had no experience, none at all.” Raised on a farm in the Kentucky back hills near Appalachia, Tom managed to avoid the draft by attending university in Athens, Greece, and the rest, as they say, is history.
He learned German at the Goethe Institute and began traveling, inadvertently slipping over the Bulgarian border in 1967. Imprisoned for eight months in Sofia, he learned how to read Cyrillic and fell in love with Bulgarian folk music — a mainstay for years at the restaurant, and something Giordano plans to resume.
Giordano grew up on the peninsula, about twenty miles south of San Francisco, in the time before technology reigned and when orchards and farmland were abundant. With grandparents from Sicily and Genoa, Giordano was raised with the notion that “food is love – and care,” and the family table was blessed with farm fresh food daily.
Family is also where Giordano learned to scavenge like a pro. In fact, she boasts, it’s in her lineage. Several of her relatives were Sunset Scavengers. “The Genovese were the garbage crews in San Francisco back in the day. At that time, every ethnicity had its industry.”
Those innate skills came in handy in 1972, when the young couple – Giordano was just 23 – opened Le Bateau Ivre. “We were grassroots all the way. It was just us, me and Tom. We did it all.”
That meant furnishing the place from garage and estate sales, remodeling the kitchen with stainless steel fixtures re-purposed from San Francisco’s old Playland at the Beach, and turning the back room into a romantic reverie, complete with a secret compartment for letters and missives.
Originally built in 1940, the back room is also where Le Bateau Ivre holds concerts and private events. A striking patchwork wall of brick and stone lends the room incredible acoustics. Skylights, an inside balcony, and a fireplace up the romance quotient further. The couple painstakingly installed the new floor with planks scavenged from San Francisco’s old City of Paris department store.
A chemist for 37 years, Giordano preferred to stay in the background and let Tom hold forth front of house. But when Tom died in 2008, just six months after Giordiano retired from her scientific job, the restaurant became everything to her. “When Tom passed, I had to step up.”
Stepping up proved to be just the medicine she needed. “It provides an example for how to get on with your life after a hard loss. I made a special effort to connect, and I couldn’t believe the stories I heard. Little old ladies told me about their adventures in Russia, India, Africa. The restaurant keeps me alive and engaged. Staying connected with people is so important.”
The pandemic drove this home for her. She waxes rhapsodic as she tells the tale of a long-time patron who recently celebrated her 100th birthday at Le Bateau Ivre, where she recited the entirety of Ain’t I a Woman, by Sojourner Truth, bringing tears to Giordano’s eyes. Giordano feels deeply honored to host occasions like this one, she said.
On a recent Saturday night, a full dining room hummed with guests. A party of about ten looked like they’d been chatting and relaxing for hours in their own private dining room. Le Bateau Ivre is clearly a place people in the know come to while away the time, a place they don’t have to reserve in advance (with a credit card, mind you), only to be hurried out exactly 90 minutes later.
The atmosphere was convivial, as if the diners knew one another, and perhaps they did, at least by sight. It felt like the dining hall of a spa, lodge, or retreat, where trust, relaxation, and a kind of quiet solicitude reign. Staff tends to be equally dedicated. Giordano tells me about Doug, who waited tables at the restaurant for 32 years, and Hervé, the restaurant’s chef for over 42. “Bianca and Kitty,” she said of two others, “stayed 12 years.”
The north side of the building is the cafe, which also serves as overflow seating for dinner. When I visited, I was led to a charming round table alongside a gorgeous bay window in the cafe. A vibrant English ivy reached across the wall behind me. Giordano joined me for a spell, her hair still wet from an afternoon swim. Somewhat shy, Giordano’s demeanor can occasionally be mistaken for indifference. This may explain the somewhat divergent reviews I read on the internet. Patrons seem to either wax rhapsodic or leave in a huff.
Of course, that is part of the appeal of a place like Le Bateau Ivre. It’s the kind of place with a following. A mirror given to the restaurant by a diner graces one wall. New lace curtains from a long-time patron hang in the back dining room. The purchase of a new Diadema espresso machine was also made possible by a regular customer. “It takes a village,” Giordano said.
When asked what she wants for the restaurant going forward, Giordano doesn’t hesitate. “We want to get to 100.” They face challenges, however. The pandemic was no picnic, and like so many others, Giordano is finding it difficult to hire help. Raul Parada, Lucina Parada’s father and the restaurant’s chef for the last five years, needs a sous chef and a kitchen assistant, and the front of the house could use extra hands as well. They are definitely hiring, Giordano says, but it’s a certain kind of person that thrives at Le Bateau Ivre – someone who understands what’s special about the place and can support the quiet, convivial atmosphere.
The original Le Bateau Ivre from which all others are descended is a 100-line verse-poem written in 1871 by Arthur Rimbaud. Told from the perspective of a crew-less ship foundering at sea, it describes a series of transcendent sensory experiences. As a namesake, this is fitting. Berkeley’s Le Bateau Ivre is a lot like the first little Bateau Ivre – vulnerable, magical, and utterly unique.