French Cuisine, Free Wi-FiAwait Bateau Ivre Patrons

By Becky O’Malley
Friday November 07, 2003

So you’re writing a novel. Or you wish you were writing a novel. Right away, you come up against Virginia Woolf’s famous Hard Saying: “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.” Men as well as women have read that sentence, looked around at their living space, and abandoned worthwhile writing projects. 

Now you have one less excuse for not getting down to work. 

Thomas Cooper and Arlene Giordano, proprietors since 1972 of Le Bateau Ivre on Telegraph Avenue, invite writers of all descriptions, as well as people who use laptop computers for lesser purposes, to use their exceedingly comfortable premises as a place to work. 

Not only that, they’ve recently added wireless internet access, and it’s absolutely free, one of only four free wi-fi sites in Berkeley, and the only one on the south side of campus.  

On a sunny day, perhaps you’d prefer to work outdoors. Reception is great at any one of the approximately 20 patio tables. As winter approaches, a spot by the open wood fire inside the charming 1898 cottage, now converted to a café and restaurant, might be more appealing. 

If you get hungry while you work, you can order a bowl of authentic French onion soup. And after you finish a chapter of your novel, you might enjoy an elegant French-inspired dinner, heavy on the butter and cream. 

In deference to modern California tastes, lighter Mediterranean options are also on the menu.  

Even if you’re not up to writing a novel, Le Bateau Ivre would be a good place to stop for a cappuccino after a Telegraph Avenue walking tour. It’s also open late for the after-concert trade coming from Zellerbach. 

Thomas Cooper, known to many regulars just as “Cooper,” is a former merchant seaman who lived in Europe for seven years. When he and Arlene (who is the pastry chef) first had the idea of turning the house into a French restaurant, he wanted to call it simply “Le Bateau,” “the boat.” 

A French friend suggested that it would be even better to call it “Le Bateau Ivre,” “The Drunken Boat,” after a famous French poem by Arthur Rimbaud. The choice has undoubtedly endeared the café to generations of comp-lit majors. 

He and Arlene restored the house, built by a Frenchman named Bel-Audry, when it was on the verge of being torn down in 1971, and added the home-like furnishings and decorations. The chairs, very important for computer users, are substantial used wooden office chairs for the most part, with occasional rarer models like the bentwood café chair that’s 130 years old. Potted plants, period lighting, antique prints and original watercolors by Charlotte Britten and others contribute to the pink-tablecloth ambiance. Music is classy classical, not just top hits but the serious stuff.  

If this sounds too good to be true, it’s not. Cooper doesn’t worry—yet—about freeloaders tying up all of his tables without buying anything. “We have 29 tables inside alone,” he says, and he’s willing to rely on the good manners of free wi-fi users to ensure that they buy enough food and drink to cover his costs with a bit of profit.  


Le Bateau Ivre, 2629 Telegraph in Berkeley, 510-849-1100. Opens at 11:30 a.m. Monday, Wednesday, Thursday, 9 a.m. Friday, Saturday, Sunday. Closes at about 11 p.m., sometimes a bit later. Closed Tuesdays.