Hot plates, Irish coffees and memories: Last day at Brennan’s, one of Berkeley’s last blue-collar restaurants

Saturday, Sept. 15 was the last day for business at Brennan’s. The 60-year-old restaurant, now located at 700 University Ave. in West Berkeley, opened at 11 a.m. to serve its classic menu of “old-fashioned hot plates” served with homemade mashed potatoes, vegetables and a roll with butter.

At 10:55 a.m., though the doors were still locked, the air already smelled heavy with gravy and 32 people were lined up outside, waiting for one last hot plate.

Diana Hume was born just a few blocks over, but hadn’t started coming to Brennan’s until 1994 when her partner introduced her to the place. Since then, the two had been regulars. “Every time we have people from out of town we bring them here,” she said.

Since the closure was first announced, longtime regulars and fans had been coming in to get their last meals at Brennan’s. Over the past few days, the line had snaked from the register, around a rope divider and out the door.

Hume had come early to get turkey leg dinners for herself and her partner. “He’s so sad,” she said, “but we’ve got a couple of cards, and they’re full, so maybe we’ll get a couple of free dinners.”

She pulled two weathered customer cards covered in stamps from her wallet. “He never brought it with him when we had people over and it says ‘good for one year’ so I’ll see what they say,” she said with a laugh, noting one of the cards was dated 2015. It was worth a try. Come Sunday, the cards would only be good as souvenirs.

Longtime Brennan’s customer Diana Hume brought two stamped customer cards to redeem on the restaurant’s last day. Photo: Cirrus Wood

Just in front of Hume in line, Tobin Davis had come to Brennan’s from Martinez with his partner Deb Sampaio. Davis grew up in Berkeley and had been coming to the restaurant since 1971, when he was 6 years’ old, “so this became a regular place where my family would go,” he said. For several years, Davis worked at the nearby and now-closed Fantasy Studios.

“If I had a bad day I’d come down here and have a passel of Manhattans and then go back to work and my day would be better,” he said. “This is one of those places where you could have one of those “drink-too-much” lunches that don’t happen anymore,” he said, then added, “That I wouldn’t do anymore. This was when I was in my 20s.”

Another memory stood out. “The first year after my divorce I came down and had Thanksgiving here,” he said. “It’s better to come down here [for] Thanksgiving. You don’t have to clean up or do anything and it’s just as good.”

“I swore at the time I was going to do that every year until forever,” he said. “So today’s my last Thanksgiving dinner here.”

Tobin Davis and his partner Deb Sampaio. Davis, who grew up in Berkeley, has been a customer since he was 6. Photo: Cirrus Wood

Davis credits Brennan’s reliable hofbrau-style service as part of the reason he and others kept coming back. The menu and cafeteria setup had not much changed since founder John Brennan opened the original restaurant across the street on Jan. 16, 1959. Even after his granddaughter Margaret Wade took over the business and the restaurant relocated in October 2008 to inside the old Berkeley train station, Brennan’s restaurant kept its solidly mid-century menu that staff and regulars alike refer to as Thanksgiving and St. Patrick’s Day, served every day of business — plates of roasted meats and softened vegetables, liberally sauced in gravy.

Brennan’s standard menu included roast turkey, roast beef, corned beef and brisket with a few specials on weekdays: pasta and meatballs on Tuesdays, meatloaf on Wednesdays, prime rib on saturdays. The bar was similarly uncomplicated, offering beer, whiskey and a few basic cocktails. In a time when Bay Area watering holes try to distinguish themselves with “craft” offerings and mixology, Brennan’s was the place you could still order a highball. Though here, Irish coffee was the preferred drink.

Davis had come for dinner a half dozen times since finding out about the closure. The last few times they’d run out of turkey.

“Oh no!” said Hume.

Davis assured her that he had spoken with a staff member last time who had said they would have turkey for the last day of business. “Just get here early,” he said. Which they had.

“I’m just really grateful to Margaret for having kept it open for so many years,” said Davis. “It’s just one of those places that’s just kind of always been there for their customers. Not too many places like that,” he said. “One of the last places you can get a really filling meal for 20 bucks.”

At 11 a.m., staff opened the doors opened, clicked on the neon “Open” sign and people filed in. Behind glass, the first of the day’s roast turkeys was on the carving board, the drumsticks already cut off. Hume was quick to notice.

“There aren’t any legs!” she said.

“They cut them off and set them to the side,” Davis assured. And they had.

By 11:10 a.m., the early customers had all come inside while dozens of new ones joined the line for service until it once again stretched from the register to the door and out to the sidewalk. The bar filled quickly with Irish coffees and draft beers.

The day before, owner Margaret Wade had gone out for 13 turkeys, bought approximately six gallons of cranberry sauce and purchased an extra 76 stemmed glasses for Irish coffees. Wade had begun working at Brennan’s in 1982 at the age of 17, and the decades of experience had given her a sharp eye towards figures. She’d been in and out for much of the morning purchasing smaller items — soft drinks, sugar, half gallons of cream — hoping to have estimated well enough to both limit additional resupply runs and avoid being stuck with leftovers.

Roasted meats carved by hand and served hofbrau-style. Photo: Cirrus Wood

“I keep reminding myself that at some point, it’s OK to be out,” she said. “Because we’re not looking to last. We’re not looking to be open tomorrow.”

If the restaurant ran out of something, customers would have to make do with whatever was still left.

“We have a few oddball things that have been around here for years that I’m really hoping people will drink up,” she said, gesturing towards the bar.

By 2:15 p.m., the bar was already nearly out of Irish coffee glasses and had begun serving the drink in other vessels. The staff had kept pace cleaning used stemmed glasses as soon as they came back across the bar. The shortage was not because of lack of supply, but owing to fewer and fewer glasses being returned. Customers had been walking out the door with them. The bar was down to about 10 glasses. If Wade had known beforehand that the glasses would be such coveted mementos she would have ordered branded keepsake ones and charged $25 apiece instead of the usual $8.75.

“Live and learn,” she said. “Next time I go out of business.”

Brennan’s ran out of Irish Coffee glasses on its last day; customers were taking them home as souvenirs. Photo: Cirrus Wood

At the end of the bar, customer Pat Dempsey was drinking an Irish coffee out of a highball glass. Next to him, his wife Tina was seated. Dempsey had been coming to Brennan’s since around 1960 when his grandmother would drop him off at the old location while she went to do errands. He’d become a regular sometime in the early 1980s. Dempsey has lived his whole life in Antioch, and had a career in Lafayette, yet nonetheless in the ‘80s and ‘90s would make the trip out to Berkeley two or three times a week, “because it was Brennan’s.”

“Our first date was here,” he said, turning to put a hand on Tina’s arm. “I’ve had many a first date here. Didn’t always marry them though.”

“But I’m your last one,” said Tina.

“I figured if a woman didn’t like it at Brennan’s, well, then to hell with her,” Dempsey said with a laugh.

“When I would describe Brennan’s to people I would say, you could be sitting at the bar and on one side of you would be someone who was trying to speak to the space shuttle without a radio and on the other side would be the engineer who designed it, and everything in between,” he said. “From soup to nuts, you might say.”

“It was really a mixture of people. Probably the best cross-section of people in the world,” Dempsey said, describing the old location.

Tina and Pat Dempsey had their first date at Brennan’s. Photo: Cirrus Wood

Founder John Brennan had been a contractor before he had gone into the restaurant business, and had designed the old place along the lines of a military mess hall, capable of seating several hundred customers. Portraits of the patriarch still looked down from the walls.

Jerry Figone was at the opening of the original Brennan’s in 1959. He grew up in Berkeley and El Cerrito and his family — the Spengers and Figones — have been close with the Brennan family since the early 1900s. He worked on and off at Brennan’s throughout the years — “about four-and-a-half years out of 40 years of eligible employment,” according to Figone — and had returned to help out with the last few days. Wade refers to him as “all but a family member.” Brennan’s was the place where children from both families had grown up.

“It was a place where even if you hadn’t been here in a while, you’d always run into someone you knew. Or someone who was here had seen someone that you knew,” Figone said. “You could kind of catch up on people.”

Margaret Wade with family friend, Jerry Figone. Photo: Cirrus Wood

Because of its reasonable prices and spacious seating, the original Brennan’s had been a popular place for visiting athletic teams to grab dinner before or after a game. One day in the early 2000s, the United States Naval Academy rugby team had come to Berkeley for an invitational tournament, and the team came into Brennan’s.

“They came in, in their dress whites, to get dinner before playing Cal the next day,” said Figone. He paused and took a breath to catch himself. “And they got a standing ovation.”

“Who knows what people think about Berkeley before they get here, but here they were, these young guys in their dress whites, in the old Brennan’s,” he continued. “And the old Brennan’s was huge. There had to be 300 people in there when they walked in.”

What gets Figone in the telling of it was the common respect shown by the Berkeley community, “which we don’t see a lot of these days,” he said, his voice breaking a little. “But I was very happy with that afternoon.”

“It’s a good Berkeley story and a good Brennan’s story.”

A little before 7 p.m. the beer ran out and Julie the bartender finished up the eight hours of her shift and the 22 years of her career. Seated on the near side of the bar with the customers, she alternately downed shots with friends and dabbed at her eyes.

“I’ve just met a lot of really nice people here and it’s hard. It’s a hard day,” she said tearing up. “I’ve been here a long time. I’ve known a lot of really good people. I’ve seen them every day for 22 years and it’s just hard to have it all end.”

The final hours of Brennan’s hofbrau. Photo: Cirrus Wood

At 9:06 p.m., the 13th and final turkey was on the cutting board and was nearly down to its carcass. Margaret Wade stood as the last person in line to make sure no one else joined the queue.

“We’re just stopping food service. People can stay, but we’re not doing 1:30 a.m. last call,” she said.

At the bar, Diana Wood finished her drink. “I always felt hopeful that everything would come and go in Berkeley but this would still be here,” she said. All four of Wood’s children grew up going to Brennan’s.

“I feel so attached to this place because I feel that there’s no other place like it in any part of the Bay Area,” she said. “I feel comfortable here because it’s a blue-collar place; it’s not a yuppie place. It’s a family place.”

Wood said she felt closure could have been avoided if either the owner had spoken up, or had customers voluntarily taken initiative.

“If [Wade] had said earlier in the year ‘I’m struggling, I don’t know if I can make it, I’m trying to sell this place, I have no buyers for it’ all these people might have rallied for her defense,” said Wood. “All these people that have been coming here for weeks might have shown up.”

“I would do anything to save this place,” she said.

A neon sign at Brennan’s in Berkeley. Photo: Cirrus Wood

Wade is not convinced that community initiative would have kept Brennan’s around. Revenue was going down, and had been for years. A recent 25% rent increase wasn’t what killed the restaurant, though it was certainly a determining factor in Wade’s decision to close. What was killing Brennan’s was age.

Despite customer regard for Brennan’s as a family place, it was mainly older families who visited. Wade noted the majority of customers were over 45. She could have reinvented Brennan’s or made additions to it, but Wade had no interest in running a different business. As the third-generation owner, this was the business she had inherited, the one she’d run, and the one she felt ready to let go.

She did not regret that Brennan’s was closing or how it had come to its an end. “It’s very bittersweet but I’m so happy that a lot of my staff have really good prospects,” she said. “That this is all happening at a good time economically for people hunting for a job.”

“People ought to be snapping up the staff here because they’re all great employees who show up, are honest and hardworking.”

At 9:31 p.m., the line that had been going nonstop since 11 a.m. came to an end, and the last of the old-fashioned hot plates was served.