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Buddy Spenger Dies, Famed Restaurateur

Friday August 22, 2003

Berkeley lost a legend this week. Frank “Buddy” Spenger Jr. died of natural causes Sunday in the apartment in which he was raised, one flight above the seafood restaurant he helped make a Berkeley institution. He was 87. 

“It’s like the end of an era,” said local historian Stephanie Manning. “He was the last of the old school of Berkeley industrialists.” 

Buddy was the grandson of Johann Spenger, an immigrant from Germany, who settled in West Berkeley in the 1860s. Johann first made a living as a hook and line fisherman on Lake Merritt before eventually opening a clam stand at 1919 Fourth St. in 1890. 

Buddy’s father, Frank Sr., also a fisherman, welcomed the repeal of prohibition in 1933 by adding a restaurant and tavern, Spenger’s Fresh Fish Grotto, to the site. But it was Buddy who would become synonymous with the business, managing it from 1940 through 1998, when failing health and falling profits forced him to hand over control to McCormick & Schmick, a Portland, Ore. seafood restaurant chain. 

Like his father and grandfather, Buddy was drawn to the sea. As a sixteen-year-old fresh out of Berkeley High School, Buddy owned a fishing boat, the Marcella, named after his mother, and fished the Bay for halibut, striper and other fish to be sold at his father’s shop. 

By age 25, Buddy managed the restaurant, never relinquishing control until he was 82. 

“He’d work 14-16 hours a day, said his wife, Milly. “Every morning he’d get up at 6:30 a.m. to make the clam chowder.”  

Spenger’s hard work paid off. His restaurant was arguably the most famous seafood establishment in the Bay Area, attracting fish lovers from throughout the state, including celebrities such as Clark Gable, Joe DiMaggio and Marilyn Monroe. 

By the 50s Spenger’s claimed to serve roughly 3,500 pounds of fish daily, more than any restaurant west of the Mississippi. For years it paid more in taxes to Berkeley than any other restaurant. 

Though Buddy reveled in the famous faces that passed through Spenger’s, he remained a private person. “Buddy was a loner,” Millie said. The couple spent nearly all of their time together, making daily round trips to Tomales Bay where they harvested oysters, clams and mussels to be cooked at the restaurant. In his spare time, Milly said Buddy liked to fish in the waters off Tomales Bay and hunt ducks at a country estate in Colusa. 

Those who knew Buddy, remember him as a feisty, straight shooter, who above all else honored loyalty.  

Muriel Burnham, an 18-year employee at the restaurant remembered how the Spengers supported her when she needed to take two months leave to care for her ailing adult daughter. “They called me ten times to make sure everything was okay and said to stay as long as I needed.” Burnham was one of eight former employees who still work at the new Spenger’s. 

Retired Assistant Fire Chief Paul Burastero recalled Buddy taking a personal interest in members of his crew. “Whenever someone got promoted they’d have breakfast at Spenger’s and he’d show up and pat you on the back in his very direct way,” he said. 

Later Burastero got to know Buddy on a more personal level. When the restaurant closed temporarily in 1998, Burastero and other firefighters from the local station made frequent rounds to check on the Spengers out of fear that their apartment above the vacant restaurant would be prone to fires. 

It was a tough time for Buddy. He was suffering the effects of a 1995 stroke that impaired his ability to walk, his restaurant had been in steady decline for fifteen years under stiff competition from upstarts serving lighter “California cuisine” and he was witness to labor strife as his 150 union employees fought to keep their jobs under the new management. 

Still, Burastero said, Buddy remained spirited. “He was quite a feisty gentleman, very opinionated and likable. He was always coming up with opinions on politics.” 

Some of Buddy’s views, no doubt, would not jive with Berkeley progressive politics of today. But, according to family members, he remained a committed environmentalist, denouncing the pollution of the Bay, where he spent much of his youth fishing. 

He also respected Berkeley history and the history of the land where he spent most of his life. In 2000, when Spenger’s considered building a new parking structure, Manning asked that he first determine if the lot was above a shell mound, the traditional burial plot for the Ohlone Indians of the region. Manning said that Spenger could have fought paying for the study, but instead hired the most respected archeologist to do the work, which uncovered Ohlone remains.  

“He really respected his history,” Manning said. “ I think he really wanted to know what was under there.” 

Buddy Spenger is survived by his wife Millie; son Spanky Spenger; daughter June Ellen Lawal; stepson Robert Wolf; 11 grandchildren and 12 great-grandchildren. 

The family asks that any donations in his honor be made to: 

Berkeley Firefighters Association 

Attn. Deputy Chief Orth, Station #6 

2100 Martin Luther King Way, 2nd Floor 

Berkeley, CA 94703