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Hooray for Catos

March 6, 2008

In an age when real public houses -- by that, I mean drinking spots that are friendly, unpretentious, cozy, play music that isn't so loud that you can't have a conversation without shouting, don't charge cover fees, and serve delicious but inexpensive food and a wide selection of ales -- are dwindling, Cato's Alehouse on Piedmont Avenue in Oakland stands out as a shining example of the close-to-extinct format.

A ten-minute stroll from my house, Cato's has become a favorite haunt of mine in the afternoons and evenings when I'm not out seeing shows. It's the only drinking hole that I know of around these parts where I can sit with a pint of beer or glass of wine in front of my laptop, take advantage of the free wi-fi and work all afternoon. It's also the most diverse bar I know, attracting a clientele of many ages and races.

Yesterday's experience at the bar made me so happy that I felt the need to pay homage in writing to Cato's today.

My husband and I pitched up there in the middle of the afternoon planning to do a bit of work for a couple of hours before heading home for dinner. We bought some drinks and settled down in a dark-wooded booth.

After a while, a jazz band, Echo Beach, started setting up in a corner. We ordered more drinks and half-listened to them warming up and noodling about on their instruments as we continued to work. By the time my laptop's battery life had run out, the place had filled up. There were families with small children having dinner, sports fans propping up the bar watching skiing on TV, individuals reading quietly over a pint in the corner and everything else in between. We ordered pizza and a salad and decided to stay. Featuring a bass player, guitarist, vibes player and drummer, Echo Beach serenaded the room with low-key standards. Quiet chat swirled around the music, interrupted by applause at the end of each number. Two small boys danced with their dad nearby while a couple of little girls weaved in and out of the table playing a game of hide-and-seek.

There was a lovely buzz in the room. I can't think of a more delicious and harmonious way to spend a few hours of leisure time. In this age of gastro pubs and trendy bars big on attitude but small on love, Cato's comes as sweet relief.

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