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Oakland’s Happy Hour | BY MIKE ROSEN-MOLINA

What’s turned this sleepy downtown into a budding nightlife scene? Some say the city’s revitalization plans are starting to take root.

PETER VAN KLEEF thinks Oakland is on the verge of a heart transplant. Just look at one of its main arteries.
“ Telegraph Avenue is born at Sather gate in Berkeley,” says Van Kleef, standing behind the bar of his night spot, Café Van Kleef. “And it dies here in downtown Oakland. Not only does the street end, but the bustle of life that you find at the other end of Telegraph ends.”
Starting at Sather Gate on the U.C. campus, the Berkeley end of Telegraph has long been the heart of that city’s counterculture reputation. Even today, between Bancroft and Dwight, the street is crowded at all hours with colorful hippies and punks, street artists scribbling chalk drawings across the sidewalk, vendors hawking tie-dyes from stalls, and students and locals dining in hip cafés.
In comparison to its Berkeley beginning, lower Telegraph three and a half miles away is a ghost town at night. Here, where the street merges at an oblique angle into Broadway just a stone’s throw from City Hall, snack shops, cafés, and clothing stores do brisk business during the day when the business district takes off for lunch. But it all comes to an abrupt end at 6 p.m. This is where Telegraph Avenue’s uptown district meets Broadway’s downtown, and it’s an area long known for being quiet and empty after hours.
But since 1998 Van Kleef has seen the potential for something entirely different, something vibrant and alive after hours: downtown Oakland as an entertainment district. And now it looks like it might happen.
Recently a quiet renaissance has been underway at this “dead” end of Telegraph with its own unique, hip night scene. Van Kleef’s, which opened as a café three years ago, has been joined by a flurry of recent arrivals: among others, Luka’s Taproom on West Grand and Broadway, the Uptown Bar on Telegraph, the appropriately named dance club @Seventeenth around the corner on Seventeenth Street. A few blocks away, just below Chinatown, B Restaurant at Ninth and Washington is now open for evening food and music in the once deathly quiet (at nighttime) Old Oakland neighborhood.
“ When I first moved in, it was much less lively,” says Suzanne Van Houten, who opened Topps Salon Day Spa on Washington Street two years ago. Van Houten lives in downtown Oakland and moved her business here to be within walking distance of her home. “I’ve really seen it pick up, especially in the last year, with all these new restaurants moving in. They always seem to have a lot of patrons in the evenings.”
From the doorway of her salon, Van Houten can see B Restaurant just up the tree-lined street. Cock-a-Doodle Café and Ratto’s International Market are her next-door neighbors. Since Old Oakland’s redevelopment seven years ago, brick buildings and sidewalks are elegantly refurbished. Gaslights illuminate the streets at night and an array of cafés and restaurants have joined the long-established Pacific Brewing Company on Washington Street.
“ It’s supply and demand,” she says. “When there are more people walking around, you get a sense that something’s really happening. There are more places to go now.”
It might even be a signature cocktail that lures outlanders into the downtown strip. Tim and Francesca Statler from the Laurel neighborhood of Oakland don’t usually come downtown, but tonight they’ve decided to take a chance, curious about Van Kleef’s famous greyhound, made with vodka and fresh grapefruit.
“ Something’s definitely going on,” says Francesca. “We see baby steps around here. It feels like something is about to start.”
VAN KLEEF relates an old Oakland joke: A tragically hip yet starving San Francisco artist, despairing over not being able to pay the ever-increasing rent, holds one last bash at his apartment before leaving forever. At the end of the evening, as his friends turn to leave, he embraces each one in turn, knowing that he’s about to move far, far away, and, choked with emotion, says, “See you tomorrow . . . in Oakland.”
As with most jokes, this one has a kernel of truth. With rents in San Francisco continually rising, many are forced to head east, to opportunity and more affordable rents.
“ I think of downtown Oakland kind of how Valencia Street was 15 years ago in San Francisco,” says Oakland Redevelopment Agency Project Manager Brian Kendall. “It was a blighted area that attracted new, cutting-edge businesses such as restaurants, nightclubs, clothing stores, art galleries because of lower rents.
“ There is definitely a certain type of business owner who is attracted to areas like these,” Kendall continues. “There is a shared philosophy and a common sense of adventure to go into an area that is at the brink of making a turnaround. These people have a lot of energy and commitment.”
Across the Bay, a ground-floor storefront in San Francisco can run $3 to $5 per square foot. Meanwhile, Telegraph rents at the Oakland end can be as low as $1.50 per square foot. But it isn’t all coincidence; Oakland has its hand in making its city more attractive to small business.
When Jerry Brown took office in 1999, he envisioned the 10K Project, to build housing downtown for 10,000 new residents. More people living in the downtown neighborhood will jumpstart downtown retail and nightlife and decrease crime, Brown predicted. A few years ago, convincing out-of-towners to take up residence in downtown Oakland—with its reputation for crime and urban decay—seemed like a pipe dream.
But while there is still a long way to go, much from those early revitalization initiatives have shown positive results. The city’s Labor Day weekend Art & Soul festival, now in its sixth year, drew 80,000 attendees last year, making it the fastest growing festival in the Bay Area. As for downtown housing, by the end of last year 64 new residential projects with some 7,900 housing units were in the works: 1,700 completed, 2,100 under construction, and another 4,000 approved or in the planning process.
The city also plans to widen the sidewalks, plant more trees, and make the Telegraph-Broadway area more pedestrian-friendly, says 10K Project Manager Patrick Lane. Reconfiguring bus lines downtown will decrease traffic, he says, and new street lamps and benches will draw more people in the evening.
Kendall, who directs the city’s Downtown Facade Improvement and Tenant Improvement programs, says that since 1999 his office has helped business and property owners with matching grants of up to $20,000 to fix up the storefronts, including funds specifically to get architects’ help designing awnings, creating signs, and choosing color schemes.
“ A lot of these business people are really savvy,” he says. “They know that downtown Oakland is a great deal—the rents are much lower compared with San Francisco and the location is central,” but they may not have the talent or money to make their businesses look great on the outside. “That’s where my architects and I come in.”
Under Kendall’s direction the city also subsidizes improvements on commercial rental properties, paying $10 per square foot for things like lighting, flooring, painting, new bathrooms, and electrical work. The program seems to be working. Since 2003, Kendall says, the downtown vacancy rate has dropped by more than half.
More than 50 new businesses are using city incentives to get a foothold in the area, and the new tenants aren’t all nightclubs and bars. Aardvark Engraving (on Telegraph in downtown Oakland), Topps Salon, and Breads of India (also in Old Oakland) have all taken advantage of the program. Nightclubs, restaurants, and art galleries feature prominently on the list, venues like Luka’s Taproom, the Uptown Bar, B Restaurant, and the Air Lounge, as well as art galleries like the Rock Paper Scissors Collective and the 33 Grand Gallery.
When he first started out three years ago, Kendall walked around downtown, writing down the names and numbers of leasing agents and property owners named in the depressingly common “For Lease” signs that dotted boarded-up downtown storefronts.
“ I contacted all the lease agents and property owners just to tell them what I’ve got here, what sort of funds might be available,” said Kendall. “Our goal is to get people who live in Oakland and downtown and East Bay to visit downtown. Frankly, I’m shocked to see so many nightclubs, restaurants, and art galleries opening.”
The approach sweetened the deal for Kevin Best and his partners. Seven months ago Best and co-owners Misty Rasche and Don Harbison opened B Restaurant at Ninth and Washington streets. Like many new businesses in the area, B takes advantage of the city incentive programs, although that wasn’t what originally brought them to Oakland.
“ The city has been so extremely supportive,” says Rasche. “In addition to being in such an up-and-coming neighborhood, the city sought us out to let us know what services were available to us.”
With help from Kendall’s Facade Improvement program, B was able to refinish the original ornate tile mosaics that cover the restaurant floor and install decorative metal rails outside, enclosing an outdoor café seating area for the impressive corner restaurant.
B is a mix of old and new. The large wood-fire brick oven blazes behind the counter, pots and pans dangle from the walls above the copper bar, the chandelier made of deer antlers recalls an old Swiss chalet, while square glass tables and retrofitted iron light fixtures give off a much more modern vibe.
Best lives in Oakland but divides his time between B and his San Francisco restaurant, Boxed Foods Company. “But Oakland is wonderful. It gives off a different vibe. It feels more like a neighborhood over here.
“ We did a lot of research before we opened up B,” Best continues, “and found that there was a real hole, a lack of neighborhood restaurants. There just wasn’t a place where a person can sit down and enjoy a glass of wine.”
“ The neighborhood used to just shut down at night,” confirms Joani Blank, a resident of Swan’s Market Cohousing, kitty-corner from B. “When I was growing up in New England, I remember that it was a big thing to always go out for dinner after taking in a movie. But around here, most of the restaurants shut their doors by six, so there’s nothing open by the time the movies let out. Now there are places to go.”
Besides restaurants and bars, Oakland’s only professional theater company is housed in Old Oakland. A wandering theater company since it began in 2000, TheatreFIRST found a home four months ago in the former ProArts gallery space on Ninth Street, near B Restaurant. Staging three productions a year, the nonprofit company can operate in its current space for nominal rent until the building’s owner finds a commercial tenant—unless another arrangement can be made.
On a wall inside the theater’s 85-seat space are petitions asking that TheatreFIRST be retained as managing tenant, using the space for its own productions and, when available, renting the theater to other companies. Artistic Director Clive Chafer says the space and accessible neighborhood are ideal for his company, and his professional troupe is just what downtown needs: an anchor performing arts group.
“ We are the best chance the city has for home-grown theater,” Chafer says. “We complement the existing businesses here downtown and are doing a quality of work that could rival the seven professional theater companies that have a foothold in Berkeley.”
NIGHTS ARE WARMING up downtown, since the new Oakland restaurants and clubs are open late all week. But, as with most nightspots, the weekend is when things become really lively. A typical Saturday night starts early, as bars and nightclubs begin opening for business in the mid-afternoon. Opening its doors at 4 p.m., Café Van Kleef is one of the first to start serving the happy-hour crowd.
Peter Van Kleef is a husky man with a bushy white beard and a propensity for tall tales. In a thick black turtleneck, he looks more suited to be a sea captain than a barkeep. After immigrating to the United States from Holland as a boy with his parents, he settled with his family in California. “When I first came here, the area struck me—the same way that a young person from Iowa would be struck seeing Haight-Ashbury in the ’60s for the first time,” he recalls. Since then, he’s traveled around the world—working as a deep-sea fisherman off Singapore, teaching English in Japan, and hitchhiking across Afghanistan. “But then I end up right back where I started, here in Oakland.”
Van Kleef purchased his Telegraph storefront seven years ago, but then it was dank and stinky and he used the space to store tools. Three years ago he opened Café Van Kleef as an art gallery, catering to the daytime crowd with coffee and pasta.
“ Back then, nobody stayed late,” he says. “We also closed at 6 p.m. because nobody wanted coffee after two. But people would always lean across the bar and ask me, ‘Do you have any booze?’ ”
That led him to start opening the café at 4 p.m. instead of 6 a.m. “We were the first life on a formerly dead strip,” he says. “There was a hunger for a place like this, a neighborhood gathering place. It made me think that this area had enormous potential to come to life, if only more people would open up.”
Today, his bar’s counter is covered in fresh plucked flowers. The place is stuffed to the brim with knick-knacks and gewgaws: coffeepots, boxing gloves, battered instruments like trombones and tubas and drums, a mounted wildebeest head shot by Clark Gable (according to Van Kleef), a spiked World War I German helmet once worn by Jerry Brown (according to Van Kleef), and other assorted oddities. Toward the back of the room stands a high stage where bands including the ’20s-style, bopping Tincup Serenade, the Argentinean tango group Tango #9, and the cartoon-inspired jazz combo Dr. Abacus regularly perform. “I bought a camel testicle, a hippo skin, and a giant bronze rhino,” Van Kleef says to a pair of customers. “Where else would you see all those things in the same place?”
Getting excited, he launches into a soliloquy about future plans. “If I could just get enough space, I could rig up the rhino to be a keg. Imagine that! You could get Sierra Nevada from one leg, a pale Pilsner from the wiener, and Guinness from the butt.”
“ I don’t know if I could drink some-
thing from a rhino’s butt,” says Adam
Connelly, a local artist who, together with his wife Mary, has come to explore the burgeoning nightlife.
“ Jack London Square is more of a touristy area,” says Mary Connelly. “This is a more artsy crowd here on Telegraph, more something that locals would visit. It’s the same reason why the opposite end of Telegraph [in Berkeley] is so alive.”
On the other side of the large city block, at Broadway and West Grand, Luka’s Taproom opens its doors at 5:30, although during the week it opens at noon for the lunch crowd. It’s named after a street mutt that owner Rick Mitchell and his wife adopted while thinking of a name for their new restaurant.
During the day, Luka’s serves lunch to office workers and CalTrans employees in the restaurant, a traditional bar-and-grill. Later, after the evening dinner rush, the attached dance club—Luka’s Lounge—keeps things lively well into the night, playing old-school funk, hip-hop, and reggae. In the back room stands a pool table and classic ’80s arcade games like Centipede.
Today Mitchell lives in Lakeshore. Growing up in Los Angeles, he knew almost nothing about the city that was to eventually become his home. “All I knew was that Oakland was where [the pop group] 2Short was from,” he jokes. “While I was a student at U.C. Santa Cruz, I stopped in Oakland once to get gas and noticed that everything was behind glass. That was 15 years ago. Crime was high, the infrastructure was bad. To an outsider, it seemed really uninviting. But in the last ten years, there’s been nothing but positive improvements.” Across the street, the city is building 130 new condos.
By nine, the dance club @Seventeenth, around the corner, is opening its doors. From the outside, the club looks like a gray concrete warehouse. One could easily miss it, but for the club’s logo, a simple stylized “17,” displayed next to the entrance. The club inside is a sharp contrast, with vibrant red walls and plush, purple lounge chairs, and wide-open dance floors where revelers can groove to reggae, hip-hop, and neo-soul music. But the club still retains some of its industrial chic, with high vaulted ceilings and submarine windows.
Housing two VIP lounges, a cigar parlor, and separate rooms for private parties, @Seventeenth has become downtown Oakland’s own L.A.–style nightclub.
“ The nightlife around here is definitely starting to kick up since we started,” says owner Saraatja Naef. “As a nightclub, it’s always good to be surrounded by other booming businesses.”
Nearby, the Uptown Bar across the street is also gearing up for another night. Opened in September in the historic floral depot, a blue and silver terra cotta building trimmed with ornate Aztec-style designs, the Uptown is marked by a bold neon sign in the shape of a giant guitar neck. Inside, it has the sleek, sophisticated feel of an old speakeasy: the back wall even features a recently painted art deco–style mural of flappers and jazz musicians. It’s a dark and atmospheric joint. Drinks are served at the 30-foot-long mirrored mahogany bar, inherited from the defunct Old Spaghetti Factory restaurant.
The Uptown is split in half with a bar on one side and a music stage on the other. Rock, jazz, and blues musicians play in the bar five or six nights every week.
“ For a long time, this area would go to bed by 7 p.m. but recently it feels like there’s been a real resurgence,” says co-owner Kevin Burns. “And it feels like we’re at the forefront of it.”
Before opening the Uptown, Burns and business partner Bob Fraati worked at Bill Graham Presents. Burns is also a former manager for rockers Carlos Santana and Eddie Money.
“ We noticed there weren’t any big clubs for bands to play here in the East Bay,” Burns says. “We’d like to be the premiere nightclub in Oakland.”
Like their neighbors, Fraati and Burns see downtown Oakland coming back to life.
“ We’re going to show them that Gertrude Stein was wrong,” says Fraati. “There is a ‘there’ there, and it’s right here.” l
Mike Rosen-Molina is a freelance writer who wears sunglasses at night. His work has also appeared in the East Bay Express, the Davis Enterprise, and the Sacramento News and Review.

Meet Me at the Fox
A good entertainment neighborhood needs a place that gives it focus, something that will draw people in, and make them want to stay. Many hope that for downtown Oakland, that something will be the Fox Oakland Theater.
On Saturday afternoons, the Fox Theater on Telegraph lights up the Uptown neighborhood, its bright red marquis flashing, though the theater itself is still undergoing major renovation. The building is massive, with its 3,800 seats inside and a towering vaudeville edifice with spires, turrets, and gargoyles leering from the roof.
First opened in 1928, the theater was a critical aspect of Oakland’s entertainment district for over 40 years. Now it has been closed for almost as many years as it was open.
Everything about the old theater is purposefully ostentatious. Its architecture is a Baroque hodgepodge of styles, including Indian, medieval, and Middle Eastern. Its original name (The Baghdad) seems to suit the building’s exotic look.
Working for a downtown recruiting firm, Patricia Dedekian used to drive past the moldering theater on her way to work every day, and she’d always pause to wonder why this building, with all its unique flare, was left in disrepair. Already a member of the Oakland Heritage Alliance, Dedekian eventually helped found Friends of the Oakland Fox to push for the theater’s restoration.
But the Fox’s enormous size and advanced disrepair have made this a daunting task with a hefty price tag. For years the City Council has debated whether the city can afford the project while dubious city planners pondered whether the Fox was worth saving.
But the Friends of the Fox are hopeful that next year they’ll be celebrating the grand reopening of the Fox, as a live entertainment venue. The renovated theater will have the flexibility to seat 500 in a cabaret-style arrangement, or up to 2,100 in traditional theater seating. The stage will be flanked by statues of two Hindu gods.
City funds paid to replace the roof and restore the marquee and neon sign. A variety of other sources, including the State Historic Resources Commission and the City of Oakland, will provide money to continue the renovation. Eventually, the theater and the commercial buildings that wrap around it will be renovated, with the wraparound spaces housing the Oakland School of the Arts.
Inside the theater, seats and carpets have been removed and there is much work to be done to repair water and mold damage. Once the theater is fully renovated and brought up to code, it will reopen—likely in the fall of 2007. What won’t have happened by the time doors open to the public is a full restoration of the building’s decorative elements.
Oakland developer Phil Tagami, whose firm refurbished downtown’s elegant Rotunda Building, was hired by the city to renovate the Fox.
“ I was 18 days old when the Fox closed down,” says Tagami, who is currently reviewing applications to pick an operator for the reopened theater.
“ My parents had their first date there,” he says. “As a person who’s been born and raised in Oakland, it’s a building that has a lot of meaning to me.”
Fun & Food Finder
Air Lounge, 492 Ninth Street, Oakland, (510) 444-2377;
@Seventeenth Club, 433 Seventeenth Street, Oakland, (510) 433-0577;
B Restaurant, 499 Ninth Street, Oakland, (510) 251-8770;
Café Van Kleef, 1621 Telegraph Avenue, Oakland, (510) 763-7711;
Club Anton, 428 Third Street, Oakland, (510) 463-0165;
Cock-a-Doodle Café, 719 Washington Street, Oakland, (510) 465-5400
Jesso’s Seafood, 901 Washington Street, Oakland, (510) 451-1561
Luka’s Taproom and Lounge, 2221 Broadway, Oakland, (510) 451-4677;
Pacific Coast Brewing Company, 906 Washington Street, Oakland, (510) 836-2739;
Ratto’s International Market, 827 Washington Street, Oakland, (510) 832-6503
Rock Paper Scissors Collective, 2778 Telegraph Avenue, Oakland, (510) 238-9171;
TheatreFIRST, 461 Ninth Street, Oakland, (510) 436-5085;