New Berkeley Spats hopes to open by April

Mark Rhoades and Nathan George (right) are re-opening Spats. Photo: Katie Gladstein
Mark Rhoades and Nathan George (right) are re-opening Spats with San Francisco-based Tonic Nightlife Group. Photo: Katie Gladstein

It’s taken longer than expected, but the Spats team in Berkeley is aiming for a soft opening in April, with an eye toward reviving old traditions while doing a good bit of sprucing, too, its operators said Monday.

Local developer Nathan George told Berkeleyside in August that he wanted to re-open Spats, at 1974 Shattuck Ave. (near Berkeley Way), by the fall. He said this week that finding the right management group and getting the liquor license transferred took longer than he’d foreseen.

“Everybody we received offers from wanted to gut it and change the name,” said George, who explained last year that he wanted to bring back the institution, rather than launch a new business in the space where Spats had existed, at one point called Oleg’s, since the 1950s.

He said he and Mark Rhoades, under the name Berkeley Soiree Life, decided around October to run Spats themselves, with the help of Tonic Nightlife Group, which has seven bars in San Francisco.


“We’re going to bring back the Fog Cutter,” said George, of one iconic Spats drink. “It will feel like Spats, but Spats in the 21st century.”

Spats in downtown Berkeley. Photo: Emilie Raguso
Spats in downtown Berkeley will stay quirky but get a clean-up, owners say. Photo: Emilie Raguso

George said plans for Spats include adding a long bar along a brick wall spanning the north side of the property, and renovating and modernizing the main server bar as well. Spats includes several rooms and bars, and some of those will be available to rent for private parties such as graduation and other events.

He said his team has also tracked down the man who painted the original Spats sign, and hopes to get the artist to update and clean up the sign, along with the paintings on the front windows.

George said the team pulled its building permits in January to update the bathroom and kitchen, and that the yellow notice from the California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control should be posted this week.

Added Rhoades, a local planning and development consultant who ran planning efforts for the city of Berkeley for about a decade: “We are excited about reintroducing a beloved late night bar to downtown Berkeley.”

Ben Bleiman, of Tonic Nightlife Group, said Tonic has a management formula that has worked well since the company launched in 2008.

“All of our places are neighborhood taverns or neighborhood joints,” he said Monday. “Each of our places kind of reflects the neighborhood that it’s in.”

Tonic has “a proven knack for opening popular, well-run drinking establishments,” according to a cover story in the San Francisco Business Times a year ago, along with “a reputation for drawing younger, rowdier crowds late into the night.” Tonic, as well as the Future Bars — which is planning to open Tupper & Reed in the old Beckett’s property on Shattuck — both were described by the Business Times as “booze empires” in San Francisco.

(George said by email shortly after publication that he does not see Spats as a place for rowdy crowds, but one that will “welcome a large older audience nostalgic for the Spats of old,” adding, “Of course, the layout allows us to create quieter lounge spaces so the potential louder noise on the large new bar on the north side will not adversely affect those in the south room trying to have a conversation.”)

Spats in downtown Berkeley. Photo: Emilie Raguso
Nathan George said he hopes to have the Spats sign repainted by its original artist. Photo: Emilie Raguso

Bleiman said the new Spats will be funky and value-conscious, with good food and drinks served in an “antique Alameda flea market” atmosphere. Much of the quirky decor is set to remain, though some of the beer signs — which looked to be more recent additions, from the 90s or 2000s — are set to go. The interior will be cleaned up, to get rid of what has become a bit dusty and musty, but the vibe will remain the same.

“It will be quirky, fun, funky,” said Bleiman. “It will blend in. It won’t be trendy, snobby or too cool.”

He said that, though this will be Tonic’s first East Bay project, he’s very familiar with Berkeley and Oakland — where his wife lived for eight years — and that he will be spending a lot of time in the neighborhood “to get a real sense of the area.” Don’t expect sleek or pretentious: The goal will be to create a neighborhood bar that fits in with its surroundings, and with the local culture.

Asked for some examples of what that might mean, Bleiman said: “Berkeley likes value. They like fresh food that’s not prepackaged or frozen. They don’t like to overspend on things, to show off, which is the case in some places in San Francisco. It’s a funkier place with more of a laid-back atmosphere.”

On the food front, he said there will be a “big, fun menu” that will primarily feature bar food: “Almost everything will be made from scratch.”

Spats in downtown Berkeley. Photo: Emilie Raguso
The Spats block may one day have housing above the retail level. Photo: Emilie Raguso

Those curious about Tonic’s approach might check out Mission District bar Dr. Teeth & the Electric Mayhem (which has four stars on Yelp). Bleiman said, of Tonic’s endeavors, Dr. Teeth is likely the one most similar to what is planned for Spats.

He also said the management team aims to hire as many of its employees as possible from Berkeley itself, though he wasn’t sure yet how many people would be needed.

Another element he said he hopes will be in line with Berkeley values is Tonic’s “guest bartending” program, where groups that want to raise money for charity can rent out space in the bar. (For the most part, the program is limited to groups with 501(c)(3) status.) Tonic bartenders are on hand to make sure operations run smoothly, and all tips end up as donations. Bleiman said Tonic helped raise $250,000 to $300,000 for charities this way in 2014.

Nathan George said his team has signed a five-year lease, along with a five-year option, to operate the bar. George is also part of a separate group that owns the property where Spats is located, and said there could one day be housing on site as well.

“The housing option is three or more years out,” he said Monday. “We’re talking to neighboring property owners and want to figure out what’s the best solution for the whole block.”

Read more about Nathan George and see more photographs from Spats in past Berkeleyside coverage. George said he will be sure to check the comments below for ideas from the community about Spats.

Related:
New Berkeley Spats owners hope for fall opening (08.18.14)
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)

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