If your idea of hell is watching a pair of frat boys doing an ostensibly ironic, no-homo caterwaul of a Backstreet Boys song over earsplitting MIDI instrumentals as a strobe light/disco ball combo threatens seizure and the apparent mating rituals of college students throw into question the future of American society, here’s a pro tip: Don’t go to Kip’s on a Sunday or Wednesday — or, really any other — night. If, however, you can appreciate, even for just a few hours, the nostalgic thrill of a college bar; or if you’re looking for cheap beer and an unequivocally trashy-wonderful-ridiculous experience; or, more to the point, if you are a UC Berkeley undergrad, you should most definitely go to Kip’s on a Sunday or Wednesday night. It’s like backpacking, or oysters, or Cirque du Soleil: not at all a bad time if you know what you’re getting into.
What you are getting into is this: plastic furniture, neon signage, auspiciously sticky floors, gag-inducingly disgusting bathrooms, a soundsystem that renders conversation impossible, a clientele of the decidedly fraternal and sororal persuasion. But also, it should definitely be noted: $7.50 pitchers of PBR and myriad other drink specials throughout the week, generally friendly and quick bartenders, entirely respectable French fries. The first floor of Kip’s is a Chinese restaurant-ice cream parlor-performance venue hybrid, but upstairs is a cavernous, drafty bar, complete with a pool table, a full menu of fried foodstuffs, and a truly impressive liquor selection. As a place to drink, it is neither mind-blowing nor terrible, really, but to judge it like other bars would be to miss the point entirely. It doesn’t matter: This is Cal’s version of the same hormone-filled, beer-drenched prototype that exists in basically every other college town in America. It doesn’t matter how good or bad it is, because they have built it and they will come.
Here, that’s especially true, seeing as Kip’s is now basically the only game in town. Think about it: Both Blake’s and the Bear’s Lair have been recently rejiggered into watered-down, more food-oriented shadows of their former boozy selves. (Respectively: Pappy’s, which is a brand-new sports bar and grill, and Wing Fiesta, which is a dim-sum place. Just kidding, it’s a wings joint.) Raleigh’s burned down. Henry’s is a classier, more cocktail-oriented, gastropubbier affair than most college kids can afford. Down on Shattuck, Thalassa and BEC’s are still farther than most people are probably willing to walk, and Jupiter and Triple Rock close too early to appeal to this crowd. So here we are, and there we were: Sunday night — karaoke night — at Kip’s. The smallish, disco-ball-bedecked area near the karaoke machine was full by 10:30, and gained bodies steadily from there on in. Smalls of backs were touched, jokes laughed at too loudly, bio chem exams discussed and then quickly deemed “not a big deal.” I felt conspicuously old, and I’m 24.
Kip’s doesn’t employ a songbook — reportedly because people kept ripping out the pages — thereby giving it what the host describes, improbably, as the “largest karaoke selection in the world.” Jacob Rubin, a longtime attendant and occasional host on Sunday nights (also, full disclosure, an acquaintance of mine, and a thoroughly entertaining karaoke-er himself) tells me the most popular songs are invariably “Don’t Stop Believin'” and “Piano Man.” Aside from the aforementioned Backstreet Boys, we heard, among other things, some Cee-Lo Green, two undistinguishable Boyz II Men tracks, and an admirable-but-ultimately-unsuccessful attempt of that other white-boy karaoke trope, the early-Nineties gangsta rap song (in this case “Nuthin’ But a G Thang”). On several occasions, Stanford-related epithets were shoehorned into songs; at one point, a gaggle of girls with impossibly straight hair and very tall shoes attempted a mumbly, inchoate rendition of Rihanna’s “Take a Bow,” limbs flailing adorably. Altogether, it was messy and wonderful in a mercifully short-lived kind of way — not, in fact, unlike college itself.