Cato’s Ale House is not, it should be noted, named after Kato Kaelin, erstwhile OJ Simpson witness and prolific reality show participant; spelling discrepancy aside, this is an all-too-common misperception, according to Mark Graham, who owns the place. Nor is it named after Cato the Elder (Roman statesman and military leader), nor Cato the Younger (similar, but younger), nor is it related to Cato the Brand (“leading specialty retailer of women’s fashion clothing & accessories,” according to its website; also the first Google result when you search for “Cato’s”), nor Cato, the Libertarian Think Tank. Cato’s Ale House is instead named for an obscure early-eighteenth-century Maryland roadhouse that was owned and operated by a former slave and apparently famed for its turtle stew; Graham saw a picture of its owner, presumably named Cato, in a book and was taken by it enough to name his alehouse after him. It should maybe come as no surprise that Graham has a PhD in English from Stanford.
“I guess I couldn’t figure out what to do. I didn’t want to teach, and I’d been brewing beer for awhile, and this made sense,” he said. Cato’s has thus been here on Piedmont Avenue since what is actually 1994 but what feels like a very, very long time. The ceilings are low and the lighting dim; the tables are well-worn and etched with initials; the walls are wood-paneled but mostly covered in old signs and tchotchkes and black-and-white photos of the original Cato’s alehouse and places like it (plus long-retired professional boxers, Martin Luther King, JFK, various pastoral scenes, a woman named Tina who handwrittenly exclaims “Cato! It’s been fun,” and many, many, many others). The effect is not unlike drinking inside an old ship, and it is excellently, authentically cozy.
“I think what I was going for is, there’s this book, The Great Good Place” — and here’s where Graham becomes the only bar owner I’ve ever known to quote canonical sociology texts in everyday conversation, accurately and without any pretension whatsoever — “and it’s all about the Third Place, which is not the home and not the workplace, the rat race, but is a place where people can come together. I think I’ve achieved that.”
I think so, too. Cato’s is the rare bar that manages to feel comfortable to a truly large swath of people without being schizoid, to be something of a catchall without feeling like one, to be a neighborhood bar that attracts people from all different neighborhoods. It’s technically an alehouse, not a bar, with a full menu and no hard liquor, which means kids are welcome, but it stays open late enough and offers a legit enough beer menu (sixteen microbrews on tap, or thereabouts) to please their parents. There’s music, but it’s all acoustic so it’s not too offensive to neighbors or patrons; there’s trivia on Monday and karaoke on Saturday (“kind of dumb, but fun, I hear,” reports Graham). The regulars are extraordinarily friendly, says Adam, a bartender, and conversation between strangers is encouraged and frequent. An inordinate number of people seem to come here to read, something Graham would probably appreciate.
Monday at 10:30 p.m. is too late for kids, but basically every other genre of human seemed to be there, happily: An older man on a laptop that appeared to be held together by duct-tape; a group of flannel-shirted twentysomethings playing some kind of game that involved loud and joyous outbursts; the requisite crew of dudes alternately fiddling on their phone and glancing up at the sports game on TV; a multigenerational group that aggressive eavesdropping revealed to be the first meeting of the families of a soon-to-be-wed couple; the final stragglers from that evening’s trivia competition, bemoaning the answers they got wrong; and, yes, a guy — magnificent beard, half-drunk beer in hand — reading a paperback. It’s about 50 percent hard-boiled detective novel and 50 percent sorcery-type stuff, he says, and it is fucking awesome.