A shrimp scatter platter of tidbits about Spenger’s Fish Grotto, the legendary Berkeley restaurant that closed its doors for good in October 2018.
Many have the impression that “Est. 1890” in its logo refers to when the restaurant was established. That’s actually when John E. Spenger, a native of Germany born Johann Spenger, purchased a lot on the east line of Fourth Street, “142.6 feet north from University Avenue” along Strawberry Creek near the original Berkeley shoreline, for $350 and built a home and fish market/grocery. Spenger had come to Berkeley in the mid-1860s.
Spenger showed sons Frank and Paul the fishing trade and the best spots on the bay to catch specific types of fish and shrimp, and they learned their craft well. By 1921, Frank Spenger was proclaimed by the Oakland Tribune as the “Shrimp King” of the Bay Area, supplying the bountiful catch during the three-month shrimping season to restaurants and markets in the East Bay and San Francisco.
“Hundreds of visitors crowd the Municipal Pier at the foot of University Avenue each Sunday to view the interesting task of catching and preparing shrimps for the market,” the Oakland Tribune reported.
Shrimp was shelled, cooked and sold fresh off the boat and the gatherings developed something of a party atmosphere. The operation had grown to include five boats and crewed by experienced fishermen, including one who had been working bay waters since the 1880s.
That same year, Paul opened a second shrimp site on the shoreline near San Quentin State Prison. At both locations, the shrimp catch from the nets was carefully sorted and other marine life was put back into the bay, according to the Tribune account.
Along with its fresh catch, the family began selling prepared shrimp cocktails on Fourth Street, as well as bait and fishing tackle. John Spenger was 82 when he died in Berkeley in January 1931.
An actual restaurant did not open until 1932 and was an addition to the thriving fish market. The restaurant was originally known as Frank Spenger Co. Brother Paul Spenger, meanwhile, opened a seafood restaurant along the shoreline in San Rafael that was housed in the SS Encinal, a former bay ferry boat. Additional fish markets were opened on San Pablo Avenue in Berkeley and Albany.
The Berkeley restaurant underwent a major expansion in 1941 that included the Nautical Room, a $5,000 addition able to host banquets and large parties, and a new $12,000 kitchen.
Plans were also announced for the future relocation of the ferry boat restaurant from San Rafael to Benicia. According to a historic assessment by architectural firm Interactive Resources in Richmond, “From 1932 to 1960 permits were taken out on an average of one every two years” at the Berkeley location.”
Along with a reputation for fresh fish, the Spengers became known for providing for their customers in other ways, particularly those who were thirsty.
During Prohibition in 1929, Frank Spenger was fined $400 for selling liquor (gin and whiskey) in addition to seafood. The restaurant had its liquor license suspended in 1934 for selling beer and wine to customers who had not purchased a meal.
In 1944, when liquor was under strict federal control and price regulations, Spenger admitted paying $15,000 above the established rate for cases of whiskey on the black market.
The Berkeley restaurant’s decor was an elaborate tribute to maritime life, featuring nautical pieces collected from around the world, including ship’s bells, life preservers, diving suits, a bartop made of rare koa wood from Hawaii, and paneling made of wood from the luxury ocean liner SS Lurline.
Frank Spenger Sr. died in 1973. By then the business was carried on by his son, Frank Spenger Jr., who lived in an apartment above the Fourth Street restaurant.
Top photo: Frank Spenger Sr. was pictured for many years on the cover of the restaurant’s menu. Worn copies of the menu were offered to customers as souvenirs. (Photo courtesy of Jon C. Stashik)