Of all the rumors the East Bay has been tossing about for years (Hate Man is a millionaire, there’s buried treasure in Lake Merritt, Shirley Dean is really a man), only one seems likely to be true.
It’s the one that goes, “a rock club the size of the Great American Music Hall is going to open up here soon.” Some say a clubowner in San Francisco will be behind it, others seem to think that they know “a guy who works with my cousin who knows a lady who’s gonna open one up.” One thing’s for certain: it ain’t happened yet.
There is, however, real potential for such a space when Talk of the Town on International Boulevard reopens in a few weeks. Though not as big as the Great American, it gives Slim’s or the Du Nord a run for their money, space-wise. The new owner, Kim Jordan, already owns the Hush Hush in the City, a cozy little bar in the Mission that has had the dubious distinction of being voted “best dive” by the erudite Stuff magazine. Jordan’s plans for Talk of the Town are to bring in all sorts of acts in the upstairs club (everything from avant-garde jazz to punk to bluegrass) and to make the rest of the joint — a bar and restaurant — a new destination for jaded East Bay nightcrawlers.
Blonde and petite, Jordan’s a no-nonsense ball of energy, full of pluck. She is, dare we say it, perky — though hearing that description surely will make her wince. Jordan adores her new club, and she shows guests around it like a giddy newlywed describing renovations to the first wife’s house.
“Over here,” she says with her North Carolina twang, gesturing grandly at a fireplace mantle, “is a facade we found upstairs. It was painted solid white and we stripped it … isn’t it great!”
Despite her positive attitude and the renovations that are underway, Jordan has her work cut out for her. She is reopening in a spot that used to be one of the best-loved and most thriving Hispanic businesses on the Boulevard, the corner of International and 45th, former home of Taqueria Morelia Talk of the Town. To folks who grew up around the taqueria and bar, it was nothing short of a historical landmark, according to longtime Fruitvale resident and school board member Noel Gallo.
He remembers the owner, Ramiro Hernandez, as being a father figure to the community. “He was always willing to get involved.” Over the years, the place received accolades from the city for its commitment to the neighborhood. It organized Christmas toy drives, bankrolled the Cinco de Mayo parade, funded Little League teams and even two orphanages, and was very involved with the local schools. It regularly opened its big upstairs area for town meetings and fund-raisers for local political candidates. It was also one of the few businesses of its kind to offer its employees health benefits.
So Taqueria Morelia’s sudden closing in 1999 was a shock to many. Upon its demise, people from the neighborhood loudly protested out front for days, making a shrine of sorts with flowers and candles. The loss of the taqueria still remains a sore spot for many community members, who remain baffled as to the reasons for its closing. The place had been thriving, grossing millions of dollars each year. Why, then, would it fold?
The story behind the closing of the Talk of the Town is a long and sad one, and it’s one of the hurdles that Jordan will have to overcome once she opens her doors. Ramiro Hernandez owned the former restaurant with Jim Weltin, an attorney who also owns the Aloha Club, an East Oakland bar. The day-to-day money matters were handled by Hernandez’s daughter, Lisa, who was the business manager. The taqueria and bar were run like a family, complete with loans and check cashings and free meals for regulars in a bind. Lisa kept books the old-fashioned way with four columns handwritten in a notebook. But this free-and-easy back and forth of cash exposed the business to the lawsuit Weltin filed in 1999, claiming fraud and embezzlement . Weltin, who owned half the business, claimed that money was unaccounted for and pocketed.
After the two parties went into arbitration, receiver Susan Uecker was appointed by the judge to temporarily operate the business. Things were rocky from the get-go, according to Lisa, who resented having to share her family business with a stranger. Within three months, Uecker shut down the bar after concluding that the floor was “structurally unsound.” Soon after that, Uecker fired Lisa, which wasn’t a very prudent move, considering she knew all the ins and outs of the business. That, combined with the loss of vital bar revenues, hurt the business considerably, and soon thereafter Uecker shut the restaurant too, eventually selling the business. “She wanted to shut us down on Cinco de Mayo,” says Lisa. “I said, ‘You don’t want to close on our biggest day!’ She said — and you can quote this — ‘Well, I have to close this place. I’ll allow your people and you to have your little holiday, but after that I’m closing you.’ ” Uecker did not return repeated phone calls over several weeks.
The real Shakespearean element to this whole story is that, after a protracted three-year lawsuit and the total loss of their business, the Hernandezes were completely exonerated of any fraud, embezzlement, or wrongdoing in December, when a judge ruled in favor of the defense. Brian O’Dea, the Hernandezes’ defense attorney, believes that Weltin simply wanted to dissolve the partnership, and saw this as a way out. “He wanted to be bought out for more money than Ramiro wanted to pay him,” O’Dea says. By tying his partner up in the courts and bringing in a receiver — someone who is more used to working with businesses on the brink of bankruptcy than with one that is thriving — he sounded the death knell for Taqueria Morelia. Weltin also never returned repeated calls.
Jordan, the new owner, is not fully aware of the sordid history of the Talk of the Town. She bought the business after friends from an artists’ warehouse on 45th told her the old restaurant was up for sale. Once Jordan saw it, she knew it would be the perfect place to open up her nightclub and restaurant. She brought in Marcus Beckford, former manager of the Palladium and the Punch Line, to be her bar and club manager, and commenced to throw together an interesting Mexican menu for the restaurant, which she has christened Tres Perros Locos. “I hope the people love it as much as they did before,” she says. “It will be a hard act to follow.”
Replacing the beloved old club is only one of her challenges. She also has to convince people who never venture into the Fruitvale District that her new club is worth the drive. The neighborhood is actually one of the fastest-changing communities in Oakland, giving her a potential base of customers right off the bat, but convincing barrio-phobic honkies to come on out might be harder. To assuage people’s fears, there are plans to employ security guards and have a patrolled parking lot. Jordan also wants us to know that the building is structurally sound, and that city inspectors have never found any problems with it.
And due to her and her associates’ efforts over the course of the past year, the space has been completely revamped. Now it looks something like a haunted hoedown, with chandeliers, walls festooned with animal heads, and a large bar area that has been redone with reclaimed wood. The bar top is an old gymnasium floor, the baseboards are from an old barn. The restaurant is undergoing the biggest changes, with all-new booths — being hand-upholstered by Jordan herself — and a menu featuring organics and hormone-free meats. “Free-range chicken mole!” she hollers excitedly. She eventually wants to have a whole wall of tequilas to choose from. Jordan hopes to open Talk of the Town Tres Perros Locos restaurant and bar at the beginning of March, with no clear opening date yet for the upstairs club. But whether the Fruitvale community is down with vegan enchiladas remains to be seen. Lisa Hernandez, for one, thinks the place has bad karma now.
Jordan disagrees. “This place has got good vibes,” she says. “I know it has a weird history, but I feel good here.” There was one little problem though. Jordan had the place feng-shui’ed, only to find out there was a toilet in what the ancient Chinese art described as the “relationship” corner. “I’ve painted it pink,” she laughs. “And I keep the toilet lid down.”
Visit www.talkofthetown.ws for more info on the new venue.