This St. Patrick’s Day is going to be a tough one for locals who’ve made it a tradition to head to Brennan’s for reliable hot plates of corned beef, boiled potatoes and cabbage. The 60-year-old West Berkeley hofbrau was a mainstay for generations of East Bay families — not just on March 17, but for gatherings with friends, weekend meals or just any old day of the week — before it closed last September.
Such was the case for Lex Gopnik-Lewinski, owner of Augie’s Montreal Deli in Berkeley. His family started going to Brennan’s in 1988, shortly after his family moved to the city from Toronto when he was 11 years old.
“I spent lots of Sundays there to watch football with my dad and brother. We used to live at the corner of Sacramento and Hearst, right down the street, within walking distance. We’d go there whenever we had a hankering or craving for hofbrau-style food,” he said.
In some ways, Gopnik-Lewinski came of age in the old restaurant, graduating from visits with his dad as a pre-teen to drinking Irish coffees at the bar. Over the years, he celebrated birthdays and holidays there, including every St. Patty’s Day. Brennan’s was just the place to go, if you grew up in Berkeley. Gopnik-Lewinski’s family friend, longtime Berkeleyan and R&B-jazz singer, Zoë Ellis, who now works at Augie’s also recalls many visits to Brennan’s. Ellis said she regrets her daughter Lily never got a chance to visit before Brennan’s closed.
To pay homage to the Berkeley institution, Augie’s is hosting a Brennan’s tribute event on March 17. The fast-casual Montreal-style Jewish deli just celebrated its first year in business last month.
A Jewish-Canadian deli might not sound like an obvious stand-in for an Irish hofbrau, but Gopnik-Lewinski explained it’s not that much of a stretch — Montreal has a large Irish population and St. Patrick’s Day is one of the city’s biggest holidays.
And of course, there’s the brisket.
Unlike Brennan’s or any other place in the East Bay, Augie’s specialty is Montreal smoke meat, which you could say is the Canadian cousin to pastrami and corned beef. As with corned beef, it’s made from brisket and it’s cured in spices, but as its name suggests, Augie’s beef is also smoked and slow-roasted. Taste-wise, however, it’s close in flavor to corned beef, and will make a great stand-in for the traditional Irish dish. On St. Patrick’s Day, Augie’s will serve its smoke meat as an entree with boiled red potatoes and cabbage for $17 (Brennan’s corned beef plates were $17.95). For the event, Gopnik-Lewinski told Nosh that Augie’s will tweak the preparation of its smoke meat to better replicate Brennan’s corned beef.
“We’ll slice it a little thicker, like they used to do it at Brennan’s,” he said.
If Brennan’s corned beef sandwiches were more your bag than its hot plate, Augie’s will offer the thick-sliced meat as a hot open-face sandwich with gravy on top for $14.
Gopnik-Lewinski said the idea for the tribute event came to him because he realized many Berkeleyans will be looking for a Brennan’s replacement this year. He saw St. Patrick’s Day as his opportunity to, “pay some respects to Brennan’s and give people in Berkeley an option to get some of their stuff.”
The one signature Brennan’s menu item that Gopnik-Lewinski wishes he could, but won’t be able to provide is Irish coffee. Augie’s doesn’t have the proper liquor license to serve the hot beverage made with Irish whiskey. But, he is bringing in Guinness for the day, which will be available — along with any of Augie’s draft beers — as an add-on to the brisket plate for $4.
Gopnik-Lewinski says he has not been in touch with the owners or former staff of Brennan’s, but he invites them to Augie’s on March 17. In fact, he hopes that the event attracts many of Brennan’s longtime regulars to reminisce about times past at the old stand-by.
“Hopefully the folks at Brennan’s don’t take offense to [the tribute] and see that I’m paying homage, paying respect to them. I would love to treat [the owners] to lunch and give them a chance to say hi to old customers,” he said.
If this year’s Brennan’s tribute goes well, Gopnik-Lewinski says it’ll likely become an Augie’s St. Patrick’s Day tradition.
The St. Patrick’s Day Brennan’s Tribute takes place from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., Sunday, March 17.