The Street With the East Bay’s Best Bars

A miracle mile of watering holes on San Pablo Avenue awaits avid barhoppers.


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Illustration by Ian Ransley, Creative Commons

Some of the 510’s best-loved watering holes are clustered within easy distance of the Berkeley-Albany-El Cerrito nexus. A friendly small-town feel pervades the area along San Pablo Avenue, where there’s a mix of multi-generational natives, Cal students, and delighted transplants. These top-rate tippler taverns are diverse, offer plentiful parking, and boast access to BART. The storied establishments all present comfortable digs, affordable drinks, and accommodating bartenders, yet something cool and unique sets each apart from its neighbor. Together, it adds up to a little miracle mile ripe for East Bay barhopping and imbibing.

 

The Place to Be

A hidden gem tucked into El Cerrito Plaza, Mel-O-Dee Cocktails is well loved by locals, who find it delightfully divey. It’s the real deal and just about perfect for every notable birthday party—or even a divorce party or two. Red felt-and-gold wallpaper and Art Deco-era sconce lighting dominate the spacious bar with cushy stools in the front room. The back room is a “lounge” in the best sense of the word, a paradise of unironic kitsch. It sports an impressively tufted Naugahyde booth stretching along one wall, and the space itself is peppered with intimate tables. A small dance floor sits smack in the middle.

Mel-o-Dee is the place to be on hump day, where patrons can celebrate with free happy hour hot dogs. Karaoke also begins on Wednesday nights, and this participatory art form persists through Saturday nights. Start a conversation with the bartender or a random person sitting next to you. Everyone is at home at Mel-O-Dee. Invite your friends from San Francisco, and see how they marvel at the spaciousness and the strong, affordable drinks. Regular prices for well cocktails are $4, stiff call drinks start at $7, drafts cost $5 a pint, and for the bargain drinker, $2.50 buys a 12-ounce can of PBR, Hamm’s, or Olympia. 240 El Cerrito Plaza,

El Cerrito, 510-526-2131, MelodeeCocktails.com.

 

Keeping Albany Tipsy

The coolest neon sign in East Bay bardom belongs to the Hotsy Totsy Club, which has been “Keeping Albany Tipsy Since 1939.” Since the 2009 renovation, this neighborhood watering hole has managed to strike the right balance between a meeting spot for a crew of old-school locals during the day while attracting a hip crowd in the evening. Preserved details—including the front room’s pressed-tin ceiling, glass-topped wooden tables, an ancient shuffleboard table, and the famous Instagram-worthy and free vintage jukebox that delights patrons with variety of oldies—give the Hotsy a rich character that is authentic.

A popular taco truck visits the parking lot Thursday through Saturday nights, so hungry bar patrons and neighbors can nosh on $7 burritos and $1.50 tacos.

The  back room has been updated into a nice lounge, complete with a TV showcasing obscure ’70s flicks. A four-sided vintage banquet and folding TV tables keep the space uncluttered while providing a welcoming spot to chow down on tacos when needed. Meanwhile, the Hotsy has an extensive and complex bar menu, including a tasty, quality cocktail of the day for around $10. Bartenders handle the crowd with grace and friendly, helpful smiles. 601 San Pablo Ave., Albany, 510-526-5986, HotsyTotsyClub.com.

 

Illustration by Ian Ransley, Creative Commons

Wait, It’s a Tavern

Head to Club Mallard with friends who have never been, and a spirited debate on whether it is a legit dive bar will likely ensue. Truthfully, it is—and it isn’t.

The weekend evening crowd is young, collegiate, and hipster, but Club Mallard is also a comfortable drinking establishment for just about everyone. The spacious downstairs bar has a rustic lodge vibe, complete with a stone fireplace, hunting trophies, and groovy cocktail napkins, circa 1974. Club Mallard proudly refuses to be pigeonholed as a dive, a pub, or a lodge. It is a self-proclaimed tavern, dedicated to “making sure that you receive great service, a few laughs … and a damn good drink.” It delivers on this promise, time and again.

The selection of booze is expansive, with a variety of domestics, imports, and microbrews on tap. But don’t ask for a bar menu, unless you can deal with a side-eye from the otherwise amiable bartenders. Club Mallard is huge, so big that it never feels too crowded. Considering the lodge underpinnings, Club Mallard’s outdoor tiki patio feels oddly out of place, but just roll with it; the patio is enveloped in bamboo and lush banana trees, so the atmosphere is fun. It also sports tons of heat lamps, chairs, tables—and smokers. The crowd on Friday nights is a mix of people on first dates and casual get-togethers, girls’ night-outters, co-workers, and frat dudes. The upstairs, in fact, resembles an ancient frat house with its full bar, TV screens, three pool tables, and built-in bookcases filled with random books and games. The upper floor has ample seating: tables, sofas, intimate booths, and a cozy secondary patio offering plenty of places to canoodle. 752 San Pablo Ave., Albany, 510-524-8450, ClubMallard.com.

 

Illustration by Ian Ransley, Creative Commons

Glory Days Again

A presence at the corner of San Pablo and Solano for 70 years, today’s Ivy Room is the freshest bar in Albany. New owners Summer Gerbing and Lani Torre opened the latest incarnation in early 2016, both coming from backgrounds that run deep in the Bay Area music scene, including North Beach’s Columbus Cafe, SoMa’s 111 Minna, and the historic Fox Theater in Oakland.

 Dedicated to the glory days of the 1990s under revered owner Dottie McBeath, they look to bring Ivy Room back as one of the East Bay’s best-loved music venues and a homey neighborhood bar. Showing love to Bay Area beer and spirits, the draft selection comes exclusively from Plow Brewing Company in Santa Rosa, and Alameda’s famed St. George’s Spirits appear on the top shelf. Specialty cocktails evolve with the seasons. Recent offerings like Salty Dogs and Palomas were tasty and vibrant with their mix of fine spirits, fresh juices, and aromatics. The decor is laid-back California cool, accessible to a diverse crowd of all ages. Lofty ceilings and cool blue walls are warmed with plush leather seating, rustic wood stools, a vintage pool table, eclectic art, and high-hanging plants. Be sure to get a look at the cheeky altar to Stevie Nicks placed high above the bar.

The Ivy Room is equipped with a new sound system, upgraded stage area, and open space to get your groove on. The calendar is filled with entertainment several nights a week, including comedy nights, open mic, live bands, and DJs. Ditch the flea market on Saturday afternoons, and head to Ivy Room’s weekly “Garage Roundup,” an event that gathers a mix of local vendors, musicians, and foodies selling handmade goods, vintage fashions, and excellent eats. Ivy Room, 860 San Pablo Ave. Albany, 510-526-5888, IvyRoom.com.

 

Take Flight in Berkeley

A rare West Berkeley gem, Acme Bar and Company has an awe-inspiring collection of award-winning spirits, a delightful surprise in a low-key neighborhood watering hole. Berkeley is fraught with beer bars, and Acme is a nice change of pace with more than 300 whiskeys and 100 agave spirits.

 Don’t be intimidated by the seemingly endless menu; the staffers at Acme—led by owner Jennifer Seidman—are an approachable and knowledgeable bunch. Taking time to suggest a flight that best suits your taste is their jam. There are six revolving beers on tap and a happy hour menu available from 3 to 7 p.m. weekdays to delight classic cocktail lovers with $6 Old Fashioneds and Moscow Mules, $5 drafts, and $6 wines by the glass. Acme beckons Sunday afternoon drinkers with insane Bloody Marys, lovingly dubbed “Meatshakes.” The garnishes include steak, veggies, cheese, and other various goodies.

The long bar provides plenty of places to take a seat. It is complemented by wood tables of various sizes and a new nonsmoking outdoor patio, which is a nice spot for sipping solo or gathering a small group. While a few snacks are available behind the bar, you are encouraged to bring in outside food. Near the bustling corner of San Pablo and University avenues, delicious takeout options abound, including local favorites like Lanesplitter Pizza and Everett & Jones BBQ within a few short blocks. Feel free to bring your pooch: Acme is a dog-friendly establishment. 2115 San Pablo Ave., Berkeley, 510-484-5360, AcmeBarAndCompany.com.

 

Diving for Sport

Tierney’s Sports Bar is nestled in a corner of neighborhood entertainment stalwart, Albany Bowl. Just outside is a truly amazing saltwater aquarium filled with exotic fish. Inside, the decor is divey with stools, small tables, and TVs beaming sports, sports, sports. Some cool, conversation-worthy memorabilia from Bay Area teams hang over the bar. Tierney’s is the kind of pub where a Giants and A’s fan can share a $10 pitcher of PBR and peacefully coexist.

It isn’t just for spectators either, packing in activity-inclined buddies such as bowlers, arcade junkies, and dart aficionados. The bar is connected to the bowling alley and arcade by a long corridor, so it is a comfortable distance from the crashing sound of balls hitting pins. One wall of the pub is filled with electronic dartboards, so there are plenty of spots available for friendly games as well as tournament play (inquire at the bar if you are looking to start a team). A swinging door connects Tierney’s to a small greasy spoon that serves up diner-style goodness, from burgers and hot dogs to an impressive combo of fried bar food that is big enough to share. The wait staff will serve you right at the bar. 540 San Pablo Ave., Albany, 510-526-8818, TheAlbanyBowl.com/bar.

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