Spats Restaurant and Saloon reopens under new ownership

Maya Eliahou/Staff

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After officially closing in 2009, Spats Restaurant and Saloon — a Downtown bar known for its funky, eclectic atmosphere — celebrated its reopening under new ownership at a ceremony Wednesday.

Local developers Nathan George and Mark Rhoades jointly purchased Spats, located at 1974 Shattuck Ave. for a little more than $2 million from longtime owner Philip Taw last June. The two partners originally advertised to lease the space, but after some developers expressed interest in turning the property into a sports bar, George and Rhoades decided to reopen it themselves, eager to maintain the bar’s original character.

While Spats was expected to open earlier this year, Rhoades explained that the process of renovation took longer than anticipated, because the bar required new electrical systems, plumbing, floors and appliances.

“It was a deep dive,” Rhoades said. “We thought it would take around six months, but it ended up taking more like ten.”

Although the partners had worked on several development projects together in the past and have experience with zoning laws, neither said he knew how to run a bar himself. After searching for the right company to handle operations, George and Rhoades contracted Tonic Nightlife Group, a company that manages seven bars in the San Francisco area, to operate the bar.

Ben Bleiman, co-owner of Tonic Nightlife Group, said the greatest challenge when renovating Spats was trying to balance updating the bar with preserving its traditional look and feel.

“Almost everything in there is original and restored,” Bleiman said. “We wanted to make sure we kept the character, and what better way than by literally keeping the things that were in there, right?”

In the dimly lit space, the bar’s original jungle mural remains untouched and its brick walls are still adorned with taxidermy, Victorian portraits, vintage road signs and tarnished brass instruments.

The owners also chose to preserve much of the bar’s original drink menu, including Spats’ signature Borneo Fog Cutter — a rum cocktail served on a bed of dry ice that shoots out fog through holes in a glass cup.

But the owners also wanted to give the reopened bar a new twist with a family-friendly, affordable neighborhood atmosphere.

“We want to make sure we have food that is accessible to people seven days a week and is not just a fancy night out,” Bleiman said.

Downtown Berkeley Association CEO John Caner said the bar’s reopening is particularly important because the property was one of “the largest deteriorated properties … Downtown.”

George Baylar — owner of Turkish Kitchen, located next door to Spats — said he thought the bar would positively affect his business. Baylar also said he wished the bar had reopened sooner because he disliked an abandoned property adjacent to his building.

While Berkeley Chamber of Commerce CEO Polly Armstrong voiced a general concern with the success of new businesses in Berkeley, she thinks that the bar would be popular among Berkeley locals and students.

“Berkeley is a college town,” Rhoades said. “People have come here from all over the world and the country and they’ve gone back to all over the world … and they’ve taken little bits of Spats with them.”

Contact Maya Eliahou at [email protected].