Sitting practically underneath the University Avenue bridge, right off of the interstate, and practically out of site to most is a Berkeley institution most least likely to appear in the How Berkeley Can You Be parade.
Berkeley, as many know it, is the home of raging and aging liberals (competition for us SFers), hippies and punks, Leninists, Stalinists, Trots, Moonies, Maoists, LaRouchies, Krishnas, Fascists, Anti-Fascists, Zionists, Anti-Zionists, the former base of the SLA, where Huey Newton and Bobby Seal dreamt up the Black Panther Party, People's Park, the Free Speech Movement, Chez Panisse, and everything crunchy, granola, and painfully, insufferably PC.
The real Berkeley is a company town; the company being the University of California. The product - nuclear weapons and the future global managerial class.
But before the University came to dominate Berkeley's GDP, other industries flourished. Farming was one. And of course, the building trades.
One of those builders, a man by the name of John Brennan, built the restaurant that would eventually bear his name. But before entering the restaurant business at the age of 69, Brennan was unique among business owners of the time. A man who rose out of the working class to eventually become the owner of a construction company, he never stopped advocating for the rights of workers and was instrumental in securing worker's compensation for California workers who were injured on the job.
It is fitting then that the restaurant he opened 47 years ago still serves a clientele that is, at least on my visit, predominantly working class.
Bruce and I happened to visit Brennan's on a Tuesday night around 8:30 PM. For the most part, the place was dead.
Bruce and I grabbed a tray and perused the menu on the wall above the steam tables. They were a little too fancy, well-lit, and brightly painted, as was the rest of the restaurant, for my dive tastes. This is probably due to the renovation Brennan's underwent a few years back, no doubt some hairbrained scheme to attract new customers.
Bruce, who, in the early 1980s, use to stop by Brennans late after a long night working the Greek Theater for BGP, remembers it being a lot more divier, but says that the food hasn't changed all that much. From what he remembers, the drinks and the food were always cheap and plentiful.
We both ordered the beef brisket sandwich that came on a sourdough roll. The man behind the counter sliced the rolls and dipped them in the beef jus and then proceeded to thinly slice off pieces of the brisket. He piled it high on the sandwich and then sliced the sandwich in half.
I decided to get a bowl of the pasta salad, which was just like the pasta salad you would eat at any potluck or family gathering. In other words, the same pasta salad recipe that hasn't changed since the firebombing of Dresden and Hamburg.
We sat down near one of the many large-screen televisions that was blaring some kind of sports event or another. Bruce asked to see my keys, since those are what my TV-B-Gone is attached to. Alas, my TV-B-Gone B-Not-Working. Sigh...time to order a new one.
There were a few couples, but mostly there were single diners either sitting at one of the long rows of tables or at the bar. The guys sitting at the bar looked like trucker types and probably were. I imagine they must have stopped in to get a big meal and a brew before they had to get back on the road.
There was a woman with a heavy and tired face sitting by herself, an empty plate and a coffee cup beside her, her hand propping up her forehead, staring down at the book she was three-quarters of the way finished with.
Sitting across from us was a short, older husband and wife who bickered occasionally in spanish. Talking on the payphone near the bathrooms was a guy that looked like the redneck on the television series "Lost".
Bruce and I proceeded to mack down on our sandwiches. "Excuse me, do you have any Grey Poupon?" Good, because this sandwich needed just a little.
Nevertheless, this was a great sandwich. The meat was tender and juicy (and so was the bread, with all that jus and everything!), not at all dry or tough. I think you really need a side of something here to go with your meat or sandwich. The pasta salad did the trick.
I think, in total, my meal came out to be $8.25, with the sandwich, the pasta, and a glass of water.
While the food was good, I'm not sure if I agree with the Berkeley preservationists that this place is worth saving. Of course, I sympathize with those folks who want a cheap, hot meal at all hours of the night, a cold beer, and someone to talk sports with, but...I don't know.
It seems that whatever character this place probably had was lost with the remodel and that what most preservationists seek to preserve are their memories of a happier, divier, Brennan's.