Walking into Shattuck Avenue Spats in downtown Berkeley, it’s hard to believe it’s been out of operation since 2009. Tables and chairs are still in place, there’s liquor behind the bar. The quirky decor — complete with, among many other touches, taxidermy trophies and a Greco-Roman-styled mannequin woman — appears to be free of dust and ready to entertain once again.
It looks like all it might take is the flip of a switch to get the business running and, with a new team of owners having recently bought the building where Spats operated for decades, the bar may be poised to open again this fall.
Nathan George, a local developer who describes his approach as “Berkeley building Berkeley,” is one partner of about a dozen people who bought 1974 Shattuck Ave. with the goal of reopening Spats under its old name. The team is also exploring, longer term, the possibility of housing on the property.
George said recently that the prior owner, Philip Taw, began as a dishwasher at Spats in the early 1970s. He worked his way up until he was able to buy the place with his wife, Cynthia, and another pair, about a decade later.
“He has stories of Robin Williams playing cards here until 4 a.m.,” George said of Taw. “I heard the Grateful Dead got their start in Berkeley and would go there and drink Beck’s beer until 2 a.m. There’s so much history of the people who have come through here. All over the East Bay, people have known about it.”
[Update, 3:24 p.m. Some Berkeleyside readers have noted that Spats, in the 1970s, went by the name of Oleg’s. Said one, it had the "Same funky décor. Loved it.” Others said it may have been shut down for a time in that period as part of an investigation into an auto theft ring. Berkeleyside hopes to learn more about the restaurant’s history in the coming months.]
Fans have described Spats as “a bar with character that is quiet” and raved about its “creepy mid-Western living room decor, AWESOME drinks, surly waitstaff and funky snacks” on Yelp. Its signature Fog Cutter cocktail, made with dry ice, had many aficionados.
Wrote one admirer on Yelp, in 2009, “Please re open! I really want to patronize you, so do my friends that I will make come with me. I really want to drink the Fog Cutter. I want fruity drinks in a library setting with kitsch. I want an alternative to Triple Rock loudness.”
It’s also been criticized, however, for its drinks, high prices and that same decor, and called “seriously weird.” But, on balance, Spats seems to have more devotees than detractors. And it was a staple of the downtown Berkeley entertainment scene for longer than anyone can quite remember.
“It’s been a bar and a restaurant for a long, long time,” said Mark Rhoades, a planning consultant who is working on the Spats project. “At least into the early 60s. At least.”
According to one source, Indiana native Karen J. Murray-Sibley opened Spats in Berkeley after moving to the Bay Area as a teenager in the 1950s and entering the hospitality industry. As per her obituary, she and Spats “became famous among the city for its well-known drink the ‘Fog Cutter’. Karen spent her life in the restaurant industry enjoying a lifetime of making customers feel welcome.” She died in 2012.
(One blog credits Oakland’s Trader Vic with creating a drink called the Fog Cutter — as well as the Mai Tai — but did not include dry ice in a description of its ingredients.)
George said the investors in his group include UC Berkeley alumni — of which he himself is one, former neighbors of his from Blake Street, and people who live in the Bay Area or nearby. He describes them as “friends and family.”
George recalled taking his wife to Spats in 2007, before they became engaged. He got to know Taw, the prior owner, and they connected in part due to their faith; both are Christian. George said Taw decided to retire because “he made enough money and was happy,” and wanted to spend more time with his family. But Taw needed to find the right person for the job.
“He wanted to pass it off to somebody he trusted,” said George. “It was an emotional hand-off. It was hard for him to let go, even once he was comfortable with it.”
Spats was reportedly on the market in 2011 for $1.75 million, but Taw and his wife retained ownership until earlier this summer when George and his partners closed the deal.
(Taw could not be reached for comment despite repeated attempts since Aug. 11.)
George said he’s been in touch with several operators and would like to rent the space to someone who will run Spats under its old name. Either that, or the team could hire someone to do just that.
The business still has an active liquor license, and George said he’s spoken with several people in the area who are interested in the possibilities. He’s working on getting permits from the city to bring Spats up to code, as far as the bathrooms and also the weather-worn sign out front.
George described Spats as “a museum on the inside,” with what’s reputed to be a Louis Vuitton trunk serving as a table, as well as a 15-foot-long burgundy velvet couch that supposedly came from an old brothel on Berkeley Way. Street signs from around downtown and a variety of antiques are mixed in throughout the sprawling four-room space with alcohol-themed decorations one might find in a frat house or sports bar. There are also two gazebos, and a large back room with a tiki feel in a lively jungle motif.
George said he’d like to get Spats open “as quickly as possible,” adding, “It’s the only liquor license on the block. It could be a really nice space.”
He said Monday that fall would be the ideal time to re-open it.
The development team, 1974 Shattuck Avenue, LLC, also plans to investigate what it might take to build on the site, given its central Berkeley location and proximity to BART. George described the block as “one of the most critical corners in Berkeley as far as dense development,” and noted that Acheson Commons — a 205-unit complex on University Avenue and Shattuck — is slated for construction just across the street.
If that one day comes to pass, the idea would be to retain as much as possible of the original structure.
“We want to see what’s the best use, but also we want to preserve the site,” George said. “We don’t want to demolish the site and put up a new building. It’s a site that’s an eyesore and that the city would like to see fixed up.”
It wouldn’t be George’s first time fixing up a derelict property. In fact, he says that’s part of his vision for improving Berkeley.
“I came here as a grad student, and I didn’t really see myself doing this,” he said, as far as development. He grew up in North Carolina, the oldest of six children.
“I just want to make Berkeley beautiful. I take places nobody wants, and I try to make them the best property on the block. And I think that’s what we’ve been able to accomplish.”
George owns or shares ownership of property on Dana Street, Channing Way, Dwight Way and at Blake and Fulton streets. He’s not currently living in town, however, as his wife’s job has taken him to the East Coast for now. But he said his family wants to move back into the city, possibly by next summer.
George said one of his properties, the 137-year-old landmarked Bartlett House, at 2201 Blake St., used to be called “the haunted house” because it was in such poor condition. He rehabilitated it and said it’s now beloved by neighbors.
He said he takes pride in his properties, and doesn’t cut costs on his renovations. At the Bartlett House, for example, there was a marble fireplace that needed work; George spent $4,000 on the mantle repair alone. He spent another $9,000 refinishing the home’s woodwork, which needed extensive rehabbing.
Earlier this year, in May, he won approval from the city to construct a new mixed-use building on University, called The Overture. That project is slated to replace a dumpy, single-story building in the 1800 block of University, near Grant Street. He’s overseeing that project as manager, but said he has only a small ownership stake in it, which is similar to his position on the Spats project.
George and his partners recently rented space in the 1900 block of University Ave., in the University Rose Garden, and plan to run their business from there.
It hasn’t always been easy, however.
George struggled last year with a developer who plans to build a 77-unit complex at 2201 Dwight, offering extensive feedback throughout that process. (City Zoning Adjustments Board members, as well as members of the public, thanked him for his work on that project and said it made the final plan better.)
George faced his own challenges in July with the zoning board when he sought approval to make some changes to two of his properties, adjacent lots on Blake and Dwight Way. A slew of Berkeley residents came out and charged George with planning to create “mini-dorms,” an allegation he flatly denies. (Watch a video of that meeting here.)
Some of those residents submitted to the board advertisements, as evidence, where George appeared to be trying to entice students with the promise of maxing out the shared space to make rent more affordable. Those notices seemed to sway some of the zoning board’s members against him, and the board ultimately voted down his plans. Tenants at 2201 Blake have appealed that decision to the Berkeley City Council.
George, in his defense, said those advertisements were from several years prior, early on in his property management career, and don’t reflect either his current approach or his plans for any of his properties. He said he’s never had an official complaint, and had been frustrated and hurt by the zoning board’s decision July 10 “because I try to do nothing but good projects for Berkeley.”
Later in July, he won unanimous approval from the zoning board — after a lengthy discussion — for changes he wants to make to an eyesore property he owns with friends at 2401 Warring St. The project has reportedly been appealed to council, however.
George said he hopes, with his community-oriented approach, to avoid the bad name developers seem to have for many Berkeley residents. He noted that he grew up in modest circumstances — his parents became missionaries in 2008 after many years of working closely with the church. The family lived for a time in the Dominican Republic. At one point, George recalled, they relied on food stamps to make ends meet when his father was between jobs.
“I’m kind of getting guilt by association,” he said, of some of the criticism that’s been leveled against him, particularly in connection with his Blake and Dwight plans. “I’m not wealthy. It’s not a bunch of outside money coming in and running things. This is Berkeley building Berkeley. And that’s something people should get behind.”
Zoning board approves ‘The Overture’ on University Ave. (05.27.14)
‘The Overture’ apartments planned on University Ave. (11.19.13)
‘Innovative’ housing with rooftop farms set for southside (10.17.13)
Shop Talk: The ins and outs of Berkeley businesses (10.02.13)
Shop Talk: The ins and outs of Berkeley businesses (09.20.11)
Get the latest Berkeley news in your inbox with Berkeleyside’s free Daily Briefing. And make sure to bookmark Berkeleyside’s pages on Facebook and Twitter. You don’t need an account on those sites to view important information.