For as long as we can remember, the colorful crisscross neon sign over the Hotsy Totsy Club has shone like a beacon for the thirsty on San Pablo Avenue in Albany. While not as old as the historic Heinold’s First and Last Chance Saloon in Oakland’s Jack London Square (which opened for business in 1883), the Hotsy Totsy Club is no new kid on the block: it’s been around since 1939, the year that Gone With the Wind and The Wizard of Oz were new releases, FDR was in the White House, and gas cost ten cents a gallon.
At the age of 75, the club is looking pretty good these days. The new owners have made a few changes (no more carpeted walls, for example), but the place still has the comfortable, lived-in, used-to-be-a-dive-bar look that continues to draw long-time regulars, while welcoming newcomers at the same time. The wood paneling on the walls and the pressed-tin ceiling squares give the place an intimate feel that bridges the old and the new-ish. Are there still hints of that historic dive bar? Yes, indeed.
In the front room of the club, you’ll find a long bar, several communal tables, shuffle board, and a working jukebox full of oldie 45s, donated for the listening pleasure of customers who appreciate tunes from the 50s through the 70s. The mostly velvet art on the walls recalls the large-eyed waif style of Walter Keane, with the occasional dog, sad clown, and pin-up glamor girl shots added into the mix. The evening we visited, Rod Serling was hosting “Night Gallery” on the TV behind the bar. The back room, with additional seating, has provocative purple walls and features similar artwork.
Our companions that evening during happy hour were mostly neighborhood regulars. One gentleman reported that he’s been sipping his beverage of choice at the club for 43 years. Traditions are valued at the Hotsy Totsy Club, but we got the sense that changes have begun to make a difference — certainly in the bar menu. While customers can always stick with their PBR on tap and their whiskey shots, more adventurous options are available now.
According to our bartender Aurora, the new owners of the club are cocktail professionals who appreciate the classics, but also like to experiment with ingredients to create cocktails that explore and expand on the current trends; they use locally sourced ingredients whenever possible and change the menu periodically to reflect the bounty of spring, summer, fall and winter in the Bay Area.
If you would like something to pair with your cocktail at the club, you actually need to go outside — to the taco truck parked next door. The Hotsy Totsy has no kitchen, so customers in search of comestibles can bring in bags of food they have purchased at the truck. The club owners carefully vetted their food truck options, and are pleased with the current take-out/bring-in situation. Several customers carried in take-out bags during our visit, and enthusiastically recommended the cuisine. We made a note to give the truck a try next time.
When it came time to choose a cocktail, we were immediately drawn to the Everett and Jones, named for the well-known East Bay barbecue restaurant. The drink features pine-smoked vermouth, something we hadn’t come across before. After Aurora provided a taste of the smoky vermouth, we gave her the go-ahead. The cocktail combines vermouth, bourbon, peach liqueur and lemon juice, with a mint leaf garnish. With its smoky flavor and hints of peach and citrus, this drink brought to mind the first delicious barbecue of summer. The surprisingly complementary flavors made for a unique cocktail experience.
Curious about what the newer clientele like on the menu, we asked Aurora about current favorites. She mentioned the Bottled Bitter Rivers (Citadelle gin, Aperol, rhubarb bitters, and grapefruit and lime juice, carbonated and bottled in-house), El Matador (Chipotle vodka, Ancho Reyes — a chili liqueur, lime juice, agave syrup and cilantro with a sriracha salt rim), and Roll in the Hay (Redemption bourbon, Antica Formula vermouth, lemon juice, rhubarb bitters and fresh strawberry). The club also serves the standard classic cocktails, including the Martinez (created in the town of Martinez in 1849, which makes it even older than Heinold’s), composed of Old Tom gin, Dolin Rouge vermouth, and maraschino and orange bitters.
The Hotsy Totsy Club, an institution in Albany since the year Glen Miller’s music topped the charts, can still get you in the mood for trying something new in a place with a lot of history.
The Crowd: The neighborhood regulars at Happy Hour; a generational blend as the evening wears on
The Sound Track: Oldies on the jukebox
The Drink: Everett and Jones
The One to Try Next Time: the Martinez
When to go: Happy Hour, or whenever you have an urge for tacos and cocktails
Where to get food: The truck next door
The Bottom Line: Our drink at Happy Hour cost $7. Regular prices for house specialties: $7-12
The Deets: The Hotsy Totsy Club, 601 San Pablo, Albany
Are you a cocktail lover? Read previous Ms. Barstool reviews of East Bay Spice Company, Bourbon & Beef, Penrose, Gather, Tribune Tavern, the Paragon, Boot & Shoe Service, Picàn, Hopscotch, Five, Revival, Flora, and Prizefighter — and check Berkeleyside Nosh’s Guide to Drinking around Berkeley.
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