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Everything Old Is Old Again 

Wednesday, Mar 29 2000
We were standing in the foyer of the restaurant waiting for an opportunity to present ourselves to the maitre d' while the addled lady in front of us proceeded with a story she had begun spinning several minutes earlier and had given no indication of concluding. Suddenly she stopped, looked around, and said, "Wait a minute. Where am I again?"

And one of the captive waiters said, deadpan, "You're still at Spenger's."

That just about sums it up. Despite a much-ballyhooed eight-month, $5 million renovation, refurbishment, and restoration, the place remains an 800-person-capacity fish house, a rambling old joint where untold generations of students, stevedores, and socialites have scarfed huge helpings of seafood on the cheap and narrow, a grandiose, ticky-tacky temple to seadog memorabilia, antique firearms, and a proudly displayed 34-carat diamond ring that once belonged to the Queen of Hawaii, a resolute throwback to the era of crabby waiters and thick sauces, an elderly enclave preserved in lime-colored aspic, the place your parents took you the night you graduated from junior high school with a 2.7 GPA. We are, indeed, still at Spenger's.

Spenger's has been Spenger's for a very long time, since the 1880s, when one Johan Spenger opened an outlet for the seafood his fishing fleet was plucking from the bay, the ocean, and Lake Merritt. Over the course of a century the restaurant evolved and grew into a place of piscatorial legend, where a million pounds of fish were served on an annual basis to the likes of Clark Gable, Errol Flynn, Spencer Tracy, and Ernest Hemingway. It was said that Spenger's sold more meals than any other American restaurant -- not a factoid to inspire confidence in culinary subtlety and attentive service, but an impressive statistic nonetheless. Meanwhile, its location -- in what was originally a stretch of waterfront-industrial no-man's-land -- evolved into a trendy hunk of Berkeley real estate, with Cafe Rouge, Ginger Island, O Chame, and Sur La Table among the its neighbors.

Last year McCormick & Schmick bought Spenger's -- highway location, retro neon, and all -- and poured several million ducats into tarting up the place, employing masons, boatwrights, and gunsmiths to restore the monolith's 22,000 square feet of accumulated memorabilia. The anchors, riggings, ship's wheels, photographs, firearms, paintings, and teakwood paneling that seem to fill every cubic centimeter give the eye plenty to consider, but the overall effect is vaguely familiar -- reminiscent of not only the Fisherman's Wharf standbys the family would troop into on a given subspecial occasion, but of the paneled wood and polished brass look endemic to the McCormick-Schmick outlets I've visited in San Francisco, Marin, and Denver, Colorado, with a whiff of gray flannel venerabilia like Trader Vic's and Ernie's thrown in. With such a large contracting bill to consider, there's no room for aesthetic irony or culinary growth in this equation; Spenger's is a last-century Midwestern dinosaur lumbering onto the shores of San Francisco Bay, right down to the piped-in Muzak.

To which a Luddite like me would usually mutter, "Thank God," but there's so much to overlook: the casual, absent-minded service, the taste-free food, the lack of energy or pizzazz, and the complete absence of any sense that three or four decades of culinary evolution, much of it accomplished in this very city, has taken place.

We began the evening in one of the establishment's two massive cocktail lounges, where, from 10 to 11 p.m. weeknights, bar snacks are available for $1.95. (A foreboding note: "All burgers are prepared medium well.") We settled for a couple of drinks and a large selection of oysters on the half shell ($20.40), two each of six different varieties. What was surprising was how absolutely tasteless the oysters (with the creamy exception of Washington's Westcott Bay Belons) turned out to be -- no seaspray, no copper, no nothing, though the good, horseradishy cocktail sauce that accompanied them was a benison.

Mollusks consumed, we followed our hostess across an acre or two to our assigned table. Surrounding it on one side was the detritus of a previous meal, including half a loaf of sourdough; most of the bread was eventually gathered up from the carpet and disposed of, but later, when our waiter inadvertently stepped on a crust or a seashell or something, emitting a loud crunch, he said "Whoops!" and ignored it. (About three-quarters of the way through the meal, he brought us our very own loaf of bread; we were pretty sure it wasn't the same one.) Either Spenger's needs more waiters or it needs scooters or rollerblades to help the waitstaff traverse those wide-open spaces.

We began with a seared ahi appetizer ($10.50) that in its delicious way was emblematic of the restaurant's downfall: The ahi was really good, like something you'd get at Aqua or Farallon or some other modern-day temple to fresh, tasty, exquisitely prepared seafood -- slender filets of rare tuna accompanied by a nice, spiky ogo-seaweed salad -- and, on a menu riddled with indifferently cooked, mass-market fish, it stood out like a sore fugu. With the sardine appetizer ($6.25), for instance, I expected something along the lines of the simply cured, silky-fresh sardines and anchovies you'd get at Rose Pistola; what I got was reminiscent of the big, meaty filets I dig out of a can when the bankroll is low. (Its accompanying tomato ragout is good and spicy, but the advertised garlic crostini has all the oven-fresh texture of Raley's cellophane.) The clam chowder ($4/bowl, $3/cup), every fish house's litmus test, is gloppy with flour and filler. And in the hands of an eccentric genius, the crab-shrimp-artichoke dip ($10.90) could've had real possibilities -- a fresh herb here, a minced root there -- but as it was its flavor could only be described as white.

Among the entrees, the sturgeon ($18.85) is as taste-free as the oysters, with no discernible fragrance or particular texture and a cursory tapenade offering only minimal culinary respite. One would think that cioppino ($17.55), with its local lineage and rustic, seafaring character, would be a highlight at a place like Spenger's, but its broth is tepid and watery and its seafood, plentiful though it is, is dry and overcooked. The bluenose seabass ($16.95) is a dried-out, jerky-like disaster. Only the Atlantic salmon ($17.80), cedar-planked in the venerable Native American tradition and served with a sweet-tart berry sauce, retains its unique flavor and a measure of moist flakiness. In an atmospheric hint of the institutional, it appears that all entrees come with the same blandly mashed potatoes and boiled broccoli.

For dessert there's a crème brûlée ($5.90) that bears more resemblance to Jello Instant Pudding than the rich, creamy temptation that usually bears its name, while a chocolate truffle pie ($4) is reminiscent of the crab dip: It tastes more brown than chocolatey. There's also an unmemorable slab of apple pie ($5.70) and a pretty good, fresh-tasting mango tart ($5.25). Spenger's wine list is fairly eclectic and not unreasonably priced, heavy on the locals with a number of French vintages, most of them in the $20-$40 range. There are also 19 wines by the glass ranging from $4 to $9.

About The Author

Matthew Stafford

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