High and Low

Elevation 66 represents a step forward for El Cerrito's drinking culture.

Elevation 66's row of brew tanks. Credits: Ellen Cushing

Elevation 66 sits on a wide, flat stretch of San Pablo Avenue, amid a veritable sea of fast-food joints, strip-mall restaurants, and big-box stores and in a city that was, as of the last Census, composed of 85.6 percent families (compared to Oakland’s 54.4 percent). Across the street, a Nation’s and a Burger King vie for hearts, minds, and cholesterol levels; elsewhere in the city, nightlife isn’t exactly the hugest draw. This is not a natural spot for a semi-upscale, boutique brewpub — or maybe, for that reason, it’s the perfect spot. At least that’s what owners David Goodstal, Kayvan Sabeghi, and Brian Kelly were banking on when they opened their nine-table, twelve-tap family-friendly bar and restaurant in September: “It’s definitely an underserved demographic,” Goodstal said. “There’s nowhere like this around here.”

Yup. According to the Internet, there are exactly three other bars within city limits — all scattered in a few-block radius around El Cerrito Plaza, all pretty divey, and none the kind of place you could bring the kids without getting cited by Child Protective Services (or find a Waygu burger or craft-brewed beer, for that matter). It’s easy to see how a place like this fills a distinct niche in the neighborhood — especially as young families continue to be priced out of Berkeley and Albany, and as the Cerrito Theater, two doors up, continues to do bang-up business as a cute little first-run theater with beer on tap and living-room-style seating.

At any rate, just three months in, business is booming: At 6 p.m. on a Sunday, the wait for a table reached about fifteen minutes, and the noise level a low din. The owners are all Pyramid Alehouse refugees. Goodstal is from the brewery side and Sabeghi and Kelly are from the front of the house. (If Sabeghi’s name rings a bell, that’s because he was one of the military vets seriously injured by police in an Occupy Oakland incident.) The Pyramid connection makes itself clear as soon as you walk into Elevation 66. It’s got the same high ceilings and semi-industrial feel; the same preponderance of young, almost exclusively white parents and adorable little children; the same pub-food-inspired menu (though this one makes a serious effort at local sourcing and squeeze-bottle-aided presentation artistry); and a similarly extensive beer selection, with a rotating list of six house-brewed beers. When I was there, two IPAs, a red ale, and two stouts were available, plus six other “guest beers,” mostly locals.

While Pyramid has always felt vast and oddly soulless to me, this place, with its refurbished-wood bar, narrow space, and art-lined walls, has a feel that might almost be homey, but for the concrete floor and six huge silver cylindrical tanks, filled with beer and lined up like toy soldiers behind the bar. (In this case, it’s apparently less an aesthetic choice than a necessity brought on by trying to brew six different beers at once in a fairly tiny space — but regardless, it looks undeniably cool, provoking enchanted stares from kids and adults alike.) The staff is youngish and pleasant, if a little frazzled, while the clientele is almost entirely either between the ages of thirty and fifty or under twelve. And as new as it is, it’s already got a neighborhoody sensibility that you can appreciate even if, like me, you prefer your drinking experiences a little more child-free.

Having just opened, the place is still very subject to the vicissitudes of a bar finding its footing. (Surely there’s an elevation joke to be made here.) Highs: the Old 66 — malty and caramely and rich, easily one of the better beers I’ve had in awhile; a curry aioli that I literally licked off my fingers; the hoppy-refreshing-delicious East Bay I.P.A.; the totally reasonable beer prices (around $5 a glass). Lows: the noise, the chaos, the sometimes unreasonable food prices, a vanilla stout that tasted like something between cold instant coffee and flat Coke (I couldn’t finish it; our waiter nicely offered to pour me something else); the fairly middling British I.P.A. This is the owners’ first bar, and I’m confident that they’ll figure it sooner or later — turn out more Old 66s and fewer Vanilla Stouts, manage the crowd without having to turn people away. But in the meantime, it doesn’t quite matter — that’s the beauty of being the only game in town.