Alex Popov and Chris Hoff are all smiles. Their long-awaited music venue and beer garden, Cornerstone, has finally, finally opened.
The pair, along with Popov’s wife Stephanie Dodson and Hoff’s brother Greg, started work on the Shattuck Avenue space, which used to house the pool hall bar Thalassa, in January 2015. But between permitting and construction delays, along with meticulous planning on the part of Popov and Hoff, it has taken far longer than expected to get the building’s doors open.
All of those headaches seem to be fully behind the pair — their excitement about the entire space, from beer bar to venue mezzanine, is infectious. This, despite the fact that Cornerstone is still in basically a soft opening mode offering only bar service until later this week. The kitchen will open first, along with a smaller stage inside the restaurant space.
The larger venue space will not hold music shows until next month. For now, the venue area is playing host to ping pong tables, corn hole boards and a giant collection of Jenga blocks. Popov said Cornerstone has already been a draw for such serious ping pong players that they bring in their own paddles.
Much of Cornerstone’s 50-foot main bar is dedicated to a sprawling 42-tap beer list that is divided up into easy-to-use categories: hoppy, dark, light, tart, cider and “specialty” finds. There is also a short bottle list.
The aim, both Popov and Hoff said, is to keep the beer program accessible.
“We want people who don’t know much [about beer] to be able to come here and ask questions and educate themselves if they want,” said Popov. In addition to bringing in certified cicerones (sommeliers for beer) to work at the restaurant, Popov has taught his bartenders about tasting beers and identifying off-tastes, so they’re as knowledgable as possible for his guests. He’s also planning to stock beer magazines around the bar for perusing. Many beers, much of them lower in ABV, or alcohol, are available by the pitcher.
Cornerstone does have a full liquor license and some of the drink offerings Popov is most excited about are high-end boilermakers featuring whiskey and beer pairings. There is also a craft cocktail list.
Popov added that he’s been grateful for the help he’s gotten from Michael Richard, who has worked at Øl Beercafe in Walnut Creek and currently runs a company, Liquid Curations, that helps with beer list curation. In addition to Cornerstone, Richard has developed the beer lists at Portal, Philomena Pizza and Rosamunde.
Cornerstone is pouring everything from Fieldwork IPAs and Faction pale ale to Council Beatitude tart saison and Harmonic Brewing‘s English ale made with Marasca cherries. It even offers Abita root beer on tap which is, according to Hoff, the “best root beer I’ve ever had. I even put down my beer to drink it.”
One of Popov’s “beer guys” even drove down to San Diego recently to pick up several kegs of one-offs and special beers from places like Abnormal Beer Company, which are usually harder to find in the East Bay.
His experience bringing in craft beer at his Telegraph Avenue bar, Pappy’s Grill, was also instructional. Before that, Popov didn’t know that beer bars often have to be responsible for cleaning out their own lines that bring the beer from the keg to the tap, as smaller breweries don’t have the capacity to do so when they deliver their beers. (Larger companies, like Budweiser, will often clean the lines when they deliver beers, according to Popov.)
“I learned a lot [doing this] at Pappy’s,” Popov said. “I’m happy to work with craft beer folks that know more because, unless you have that trained palate, it’s hard to do craft beer correctly. Beer is food, so it needs to taste good.”
Speaking of food, Cornerstone’s menu will be fairly simple. Popov and Hoff described it as “rustic comfort food that tastes good with beer.” Think — pot pie, ribs, meatloaf and vegetarian lasagna. It will also serve macaroni and cheese balls, which will be baked in a Turbo Chef oven instead of being fried, Paula Deen style.
Food will be available in the large dining area that includes several long, tall tables that can accommodate large parties, or on the back patio/beer garden area complete with two massive fire pits. There is also a special eight-tap bar system set up on the patio that Popov said will be perfect for tap takeovers. Breweries can basically plug-and-play at this bar without having to disrupt the main bar set-up. There’s also plenty of space to schmooze and sell swag, said Popov.
Of course, all of this is just half of the Cornerstone offerings. The other side of the space is the formal venue area, which is still in progress. Just last week, Popov and Hoff were in the space helping the sound system get set up, and work on the eight-tap venue bar is just finishing up. Once work is complete, Popov said it will host a wide range of acts, everything from reggae musicians to indie rock bands to hip hop artists. (Smaller acts can book the café stage in the restaurant.)
The venue space will fit around 500 people, and Popov and Hoff have designed it with attention to every detail. It has a separate entrance from the restaurant, on Durant Avenue, and the ticket office, coat check, and merchandising space are all right next to this entrance. Acts have their own dedicated entrance as well, with easy access to a green room, the merchandising space, and, of course, the stage. A VIP mezzanine, which will also likely have its own bar, circles the perimeter of the audience space. Two smaller, family and friends areas are directly above the 24-by-16-foot stage.
Popov said they are already planning to host several non-music events, such as Pints for Paws, in the venue space. He said they’re also talking about hosting a go-cart race with New Belgium brewing, a VR drone race and events for the Bay Area Book Festival this spring.
Key to the whole design, which was masterminded by Berkeley’s Studio KDA, is the fact that the venue and the restaurant can operate as two separate businesses, with closed heavy doors separating them, or as one single, 13,000-square foot space.
In a way, Cornerstone is a combination of many different beer bars, restaurants, and venues. “We went to lots of venues and bars and combined them all into the best place possible,” said Hoff.
“We’re offering both craft beer and craft music,” said Popov. “It’s very unique.”