By Lee Foster
Spenger’s Fresh Fish Grotto ranked as a landmark restaurant in the culinary history of Berkeley and California. Surprisingly, Spenger’s recently closed, after 128 years of serving seafood. The operation flourished as one of the largest and most successful dining spots in California. Spenger’s Restaurant was the oldest eatery in Berkeley.
California magazine, the UC alumni publication, chose two of my now “archival” images of the interior of the restaurant for its retrospective on Spenger’s. I’ve enjoyed eating at Spenger’s off and on from 1975 until its sudden closure on October 24, 2018.
See the article at
An Interior Vanishes
The owners of the Spenger’s building gutted the interior of this classic restaurant quickly after its demise. Consequently, my “archival” images are now a visual record of a bygone era.
Interestingly, California magazine found my two photos in an ultra-modern way. Their photo editor did a Google Search for photos of Spenger’s. This brought up my two interior images on the first page of photos. Fortunately, Google had enough info on the photos to lead the photo editor to my PhotoShelter site at http://stockphotos.fostertravel.com, where the photos reside and my contact information shows.
Ironically, this alumni magazine, from one of the great universities of our time, exists right in my own home town, Berkeley. I happened to do my graduate work at Stanford in Literature, later moving to Berkeley for reasons of romance. By chance, I never had contact before with this magazine.
The photo editor moved quickly and decisively. We negotiated a price for use of two images. She was able to download the hi-res immediately from my PhotoShelter site. I put her on my Trusted Client list, with full download-anything capacity. We settled in advance on a price for use.
In the week of decision, even before contacting me about my interior images, the photo editor needed an exterior image. She found that elsewhere. Arguably, the exterior would have looked better if sunnier, but time and resources were finite.
First, the photo editor selected my classic interior photo of the Philippine Bear room. Nautical décor included teak walls, photo and drawing graphics of ships, chinois exotic ceramics, model ships, and ship wheels. See my photo at:
Second, Spenger’s Restaurant was also famous for its lavish Sunday seafood buffet. As a result, the photo editor chose also my buffet photo:
Finally, if more detail photos had been possible, I would have recommended the smoked salmon, as in:
Recording Visually the Exterior
I wondered if the entire exterior visual appearance of Spenger’s would soon disappear. Consequently, I went back in the next days, when the sun returned. I wanted to capture for myself a photo of the exterior. I also photographed the extensive collection of large nautical artifacts that exists on the corner, 4th Street and University Avenue. The collection includes anchors, riggings, and lights. I had to go back twice because of sunlight issues and cars parked in front, which would date the image. On both occasions I saw diners arriving to enjoy a meal. They shook their heads in shocked disbelief when I told them the restaurant was gone. The assumption was that Spenger’s would live forever.
Here is a photo of the exterior of Spenger’s:
Ship wheels were a major decor element of Spenger’s, interior and exterior, as in:
Here is a photo of some artifacts from the extensive nautical collection. These details, such as propellers, crowded the inside of the restaurant. As a result, they also spilled to the outside, such as this corner of the restaurant at 4th Street and University Avenue:
My Recollections of Spenger’s
From about 1975 on, I went to Spenger’s Restaurant many times with family, friends, and journalist comrades. We went to enjoy seafood-cooking expertise. Everyone entered the restaurant by grabbing one half of a split ship’s wheel on the front door. The ship’s wheel suggested there was delicious seafood in calm waters ahead. Once seated, professional waiters with years of expertise took your order, expertly no-nonsense. Occasionally, there were a few peanut shells on the floor.
As recently as a few month’s ago, I introduced out-of-town family to California’s Tomales Bay oysters at Spenger’s during a lavish dinner. I could always count on Spenger’s to grill a fillet of fresh fish to perfection. Moreover, they had streamlined their fresh fish sourcing. One wonders how they achieved their fresh fish supply in earlier eras when logistics challenges were greater. At Spenger’s, you could eat an oyster without fear of a freshness supply-chain lapse.
History of Spenger’s
Martin Snapp, author of the article for California, interviewed many people associated with Spenger’s and makes some astute observations.
He correctly points out that the place was both a fish market and a restaurant. He reports that Spenger’s at its peak was selling about 3,500 pounds of fresh fish per day. The bar at Spenger’s was often three deep with patrons. He reports that a liquor distributor said Spenger’s “did the best bar business west of the Mississippi River.” Snapp catalogues many of the rich and famous patrons who dined at Spenger’s over the decades.
Snapp’s article presents some fascinating early historic details. He recounts how a young Bavarian immigrant, Johann Spenger, settled in Oakland and made a decent living fishing in Lake Merritt. Spenger sold locally his catch of oysters, clams, crabs, and fin fish. He later moved his family to 4th Street in Berkeley and built a house. The family lived upstairs, leaving the ground floor for a restaurant. The Spengers passed fishing/restaurant skills and a strong work ethic to future generations.
The demise of Spenger’s Restaurant amounts to a landmark moment in the culinary history of Berkeley and California.