The Drunken Boat uses crowd funding to stay afloat

Daria Andrews/Staff

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A beloved local restaurant is rallying for community support after more than four decades of business.

Arlene Giordano and Thomas Cooper opened Le Bateau Ivre, or the Drunken Boat, as a young couple in 1972. Since then, the restaurant has watched the ebb and flow of Telegraph Avenue, where it is perched near the intersection with Carleton Street. But after Cooper’s death and the economic recession in 2008, the restaurant began facing financial hardship.

Customer Joor Baruah, a friend of Giordano’s, started the “keep our boat afloat” crowd funding page Sept. 14 after Giordano, 66, confided in him about the restaurant’s financial difficulties.

But Michael Caplan, economic development manager for the city of Berkeley, said the food sector is performing well overall.

“People in Berkeley like to eat,” Caplan said. “It’s a huge part of our culture … But some restaurants are doing better than others. Sometimes places have been around for so long they simply get forgotten.”

Giordano and Cooper met in a Berkeley coffee shop when she was 23 and he was 30. Cooper, a Kentucky native, was working on BART construction when he hurt his back.

“So he said, ‘Do you want to start a restaurant?’ ” Giordano recalled. “And I said sure, because I just wanted to be with him.”

The space was originally built as a single-family home by a Frenchman in 1898. Cooper found it 73 years later.

“We found this run-down home and crawled through the window over there,” she said, pointing to a window at her left. “It was in bad shape … When I told my father we were going to do this, first he said we were crazy. Then he said, ‘Don’t quit your day job.’ ”

She heeded her father’s advice. Giordano worked as a chemist for the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission as her husband restored the home, scavenging free building materials from an old parish building.

They opened in March of 1972 as a coffee shop. A year later, they began serving dinners and lunches. Giordano said the menu was inspired by the presence of a French community in Berkeley.

A European-style cafe, the Drunken Boat displays old photographs of the couple in a glass cabinet near the entrance and hosts live music Wednesday evenings.

Giordano is at the restaurant seven days a week, even Mondays when the restaurant is closed. She does everything from bookkeeping to taking orders to acting as manager.

“And when someone else doesn’t show up to do their job, I do it for them,” she said. “I was dishwasher last night.”

Baruah said the $60,000 fundraising goal would help Giordano pay back bills and renovate the space. Giordano dreams of making the building wheelchair accessible so that “truly everyone can enjoy the free music.”

“If she cannot catch up with the bills, she will have to close down in the next few months,” Baruah said. “It would be much easier for her to just sell the restaurant, but it’s been this unique homey place for decades. She doesn’t want that to change.”

Contact Arielle Swedback at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @aswedback.