[Editor's note: Rena Ragimova plans to hit all the Albany hotspots this summer. She doesn't live in town, but our hope is that she'll bring fresh eyes and enthusiasm to places you see on a daily basis. She'll explore what makes each place an Albany institution, and will attempt to find out from regulars what even locals might be surprised to know about the city's bars.]
It's Sunday night and I just missed my movie at the Albany Twin. After scarfing down delicious tikka masala at Cafe Raj, I end up at the Ivy Room on San Pablo Avenue. I've been out in Albany before, but always in the social safety of a few friends, and always on a Friday or Saturday night. Out of my Oakland comfort zone, I scan the drink menu and settle on a lemon drop.
"So, why does Albany have so many awesome bars?" I ask, attempting to break the ice with my bartender.
"It's All-bany, not Aal-bany," he laughs, correcting my pronunciation, "It's not Albania. If you're gonna hang out here, you're gonna have to get it right."
Albany it is, with a short 'A.' By the time he pours the second round of Fernet shots ("It settles your stomach"), I've forgotten all about my ill-timed movie and we're on to gossip about Solano restaurant owners we both know. "Oh yeah [name omitted] is a bit out there. I opened that bar and then got out as soon as I could," he jokes.
Having been a resident of Oakland for the past few years, Albany is a place I go to escape the recent hipster occupation of my town. Lacking the social ills that are the repercussion of "white flight" of the 50s, Albany is also devoid of a certain snobbery that comes with "bright flight," now ascending on some areas of the East Bay. More than a few friends have commented on the number of cool little neighborhood spots like this one in Albany, and I'm intent on finding out what's behind this.
As I'm told, Berkeley laws require that bars selling alcohol must also have full-service restaurants. I was doubtful at first, but as I went over the list of my favorite spots in downtown Berkeley - Jupiter, Cesar, Triple Rock - I realized that food is their main business. So some bar owners stepped across the border into Albany to set up shop in the shape of dive bars. Thanks to them, we now have the Ivy Room, Hotsy Totsy, and Club Mallard, not to mention The Pub, 6 Degrees, and others. Over the past few years, changes in ownership followed by renovations have given some of these spots the sprucing up they needed to attract a new clientele.
The Ivy Room has been an Albany mainstay dive bar since the 1940s, and in 2006 was bought out and transformed into a sophisticated lounge by the owner of Kingman's Lucky Lounge in Oakland. The change has been so great that there are in fact two Ivy Room listings on Yelp - old and new. While loyalists haven't been happy with the changes, the new setup has been attracting crowds from all around the Bay Area. Artsy lamps grace the ceiling, and the couches insist on intimate conversation.
Tonight I share the bar with a couple locals and regulars. Ryan McIntire has lived a few blocks from the Ivy Room for the past several years and, faced with the decision to move, does not seem too happy about relocating.
"I love it here. Buses run all the time and I don't need a car," he said, "Plus, you've got the whole world's cuisine right on Solano. And places like this bar." He's right, great Indian, Italian, Thai and American are all within a couple of blocks.
And, of course, the Ivy Room. Here the lemon drops are made with Hangar 1 vodka and the bartender will show off tricks at half past 1, when only you and two other people are watching.
Stay tuned for more of my adventures in the Albany scene. Have ideas for special nights on the town in Albany to explore? E-mail me via the link next to my name at the top of the page.