Alcoholism Is Romantic

Oakland's hot new bar features visual splendor, live music, and Jerry Brown.

Dutch legend has it that a small boy, upon passing a dike on his way to school, noticed a slight leak where the sea had begun trickling in through a small hole. Despite realizing the punishment for being late to school, the boy poked his finger into the hole, and so stemmed the potentially disastrous flow of water. Some time later a passerby saw him and went to get help, which came in the form of other men who were able to repair the dike and seal up the leak.

This story is told to children to teach them that despite their limited strength and resources, quick thinking can still avert disasters through self-sacrifice. It also conveys a physical lesson: A small trickle of water soon becomes a stream, and the stream a torrent, and the torrent an awful flood sweeping all before it — you know, dike material, cars, and even railway tracks and bridges and whole trains.

It’s also an apt metaphor for a vaguely Dutch-themed hot new bar in Oakland: The dike is the East Bay’s lack of bitchin’ bars, the small stream is our beloved rock-star hipster quotient, and the little Dutch boy is Jerry Brown.

Actually, none of that made any sense, but Jerry Brown as a little Dutch boy is still an amusing image.

Peter Van Kleef looks like a fortysomething Brad Pitt. He also looks a bit like Benicio Del Toro, and, as one patron of his new bar pointed out, also a little like Laura Palmer’s dad in Twin Peaks. Not a bad mix. His personality, however, is all Auntie Mame. He is very animated and in love with life, entreating any poor sucker who walks by to come in and hang out.

“We are thrilled to be alive,” he shouts, throwing his hands up and gesturing around the bar. “We are thrilled to be here!”

The collective “we” he refers to is Peter and his girlfriend, along with hundreds of collectibles he has meticulously glued down, wired up, and bolted to the interior walls of what is Oakland’s best new bar, Cafe Van Kleef. The place is amazing, adorned with skulls, weird old machinery, paintings, a pair of ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz (so Peter claims), some boxing gloves that belonged to Cassius Clay (so Peter claims), statues, fabrics, and signs, all of which come together in a truly sumptuous visual banquet. This is a place to come and relax, have a drink, spark up a conversation with a total stranger, write, forget, enjoy live music, and generally experience all those things that make alcoholism romantic.

“There’s more subplots to this place than a Robert Altman film,” Peter says excitedly. “We went through so much shit to get here. People say, ‘So, Peter, this must be a labor of love!’ and I say, ‘No, no, It’s been more like a stagecoach to hell!'”

One needs to slash through a lot of red tape to open a new bar in Oakland, but having a friend in Mayor Jerry Brown helped (he’s a regular). Before it reached its current incarnation, Cafe Van Kleef was a grassroots “arts space,” of which there are a million in the East Bay. To be frank, let’s not mourn the loss of this one. We need more bars, people. Taverns. Watering holes. Beer-dot-coms. Saloons. We don’t need spoken word. We don’t need alternative theater. We need a place to go and get a drink with friends and maybe initiate some drunken sex.

And who knows more about drunken sex than a Dutchman? Peter was born in Holland, and has tried to recreate the Dutch “ploughs,” basically pubs that populate Amsterdam. (The surrounding area — the bar is at 1621 Telegraph Avenue — is actually known as “Oaksterdam,” a nod to all its medical pot clubs.) He sees a future in which Cafe Van Kleef’s front will extend out to the street, and you can actually drink at a table outside, Euro-style. The bar already has a covered area out front where you can drink and smoke.

There are some drawbacks, however, one of which is that the house beer on tap comes from Bison Brewing — not a very popular choice, though Peter does have Sierra Nevada as well. He also has a limited selection of hard alcohol, but makes a point of saying that if someone requests something he doesn’t have, he’ll order it and have it in the next time. He’s just getting started and has to be a bit conservative, you see.

So walk in, sit down, and introduce yourself to Pete. Ask him to tell you about the ghost that lives there. Ask him to tell you about Sean Penn’s visit. Ask him to make you a “Flying Dutchman.”

We will, too. See you at the bar.


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