Bar patrons filter into The Missouri Lounge, early the afternoon of Sept. 5, 2018. (Christi Warren)
Editor's note: Welcome to KQED'S "A Bar Story" series: a new, semi-regular column where we explore the history behind the Bay Area's best neighborhood dives. First up, Berkeley's Missouri Lounge.
On a sunny Tuesday in late August, by 5 p.m., the bar at Berkeley’s Missouri Lounge is already nearly full. It’s the after-work crowd: Neighborhood folks and the people who work jobs around here. On most afternoons, they start filing into the San Pablo Avenue watering hole about 4 p.m. By the time the DJ shows up at 10 p.m.—and along with him the U.C. Berkeley coeds—most of the regulars are long gone.
But this summer day, in this golden hour when the Oakland A’s game is on the corner television and the sunlight still filters through the open front door, it feels more like a neighborhood gathering than a bar.
The Missouri Lounge has been a West Berkeley staple in one incarnation or another since the mid-20th century.
The rumored version of the bar’s origins is, like most stories told over whiskey and beer, based in a grain of truth. As the tale goes, the bar’s previous owner, Argentina “Argie” Shepherd, worked on the USS Missouri during World War II. When she came to purchase the wooden bar at 2600 San Pablo Avenue in the 1950s, she named it after the battleship.
Ask regulars about the name, and they’re quick to recite, “It’s the battleship, not the state.” But as Argie’s grandson Mike Harris will tell you, that’s not quite the truth.
Argie did work on Liberty ships during World War II, but never the battleship USS Missouri. And when she bought the bar in 1950 for about $15,000, it was already called the Missouri Cafe.A
“She was a badass,” Harris said. “She was known at the bar as, like, being everybody’s psychiatrist. She knew everybody’s dirt. She would cry with you, laugh with you, loan you money.”
Back then, the Missouri Cafe opened at 6 a.m. with breakfast and booze and closed about midnight.
“She used to tell the family members [the 6 a.m. start time] was because people would get off from work then,” Harris said, laughing. “There ain’t nobody getting off work and coming in at 6 a.m. But there were people going to work at 6 a.m.”
She always kept a stash of Certs mints on hand. The idea being, if drunk bar-goers popped half a roll of mints, cops would just give them a ride home.
And on Thursdays, Argie would cash bargoers’ paychecks, taking out a load of cash in advance from the Bank of America across the street. Sometime in the 1970s, though, word started to get out about it. Over the next decade or so, the bar was robbed at gunpoint seven times, Harris said.
It was Harris and his cousin who changed the bar’s name to its current iteration, the Missouri Lounge, when they took over after Argie’s death in 2004.
Still, her photograph graces many a dusty frame on the bar’s grey back wall.
The photos are bolted in, lest they get taken, knocked off or used as ammo in the occasional bar fight. Some of them were found tucked deep in the bar’s cabinets when the most recent generation of ownership took over in 2005, alongside decades-old, still-running bar tabs for the regulars who worked at one of the then-neighboring industrial parks.
Sitting near the end of the long wooden bar this particular Tuesday is Tim Blanchard, who lived in the studio apartment upstairs about 13 years ago. He’s here four nights a week, and figures he just about put owner Ali Eslami’s kids through college, given how much Lagunitas IPA he drinks.
Behind the bar is Mindi Marus. She’s tended bar here for 11 years, and until the DJ shows up, the music selection is up to her.
“People don’t really leave,” she said. “It’s a really good bar.”
Tonight, her playlist includes a healthy mix of honky-tonk and rock ‘n roll with some folk tossed in for good measure. The playlist of Donovan, The Pogues, Shannon and the Clams, and Glen Campbell is layered with occasional outbursts of laughter and the muted, comfortable din of blue-collar workers fresh off their job sites, talking about the A’s game.
In the second inning, Marus changes the song to one by Marty Robbins: “El Paso.” Someone slides a shot of Jameson down the bar.
Renatto “Natto” Specia has worked at the Missouri Lounge in various capacities since 2008 when he started as a bouncer. The 39-year-old grew up just around the corner, and when he was a kid, his brother and sister worked at the Bank of America on San Pablo Avenue.
“This whole area was just a super ghost town then,” he said. “The bank used to get robbed, like, once a month.”
In the late 1970s and 1980s, the neighborhood around the bar got pretty rough. Business was lackluster on San Pablo Avenue, and instead illicit commerce took over. Kids who grew up in West Berkeley were told to stick close to home, well away from the dealings that happened along the strip.
“When I first started working here, there was so much ridiculous stuff that used to happen,” Specia said.
One time, a bar manager found a woman using cleaning products to bathe inside the women’s bathroom.
“Yeah, we had hookers and drug dealers, all kinds of sh-t up here,” said Blanchard, who paid $725 to rent the bar’s upstairs studio between 2005 and 2006, just after Ali Eslami bought it from Harris.
“People who grew up in the neighborhood talk about how rundown it was,” said manager Charlie Barr, who has been working for the Missouri Lounge since 2007. “I think Ali just provided the space that it needed to find its own.”
U.C. Berkeley students started catching on to the Missouri Lounge around 2014, except for the “brave ones,” Barr said — they started filtering in a few years before that.
In more recent years, the back patio and grill have grown in popularity. What started out as a two-item experiment by Specia (steak sandwich, veggie sandwich), has grown to include burgers and pulled pork sandwiches, nachos and grilled cheeses. Bar food. Beer food.
“It's just got this great f-cking vibe, where it’s like family almost,” Blanchard said. “We trade books. I play music with some of these people. It’s like a community more than a bar. It’s a beautiful place to be in Berkeley.”