Some bars you don’t write about because there’s nothing to say — because the words just won’t stick, because it’s pleasant enough but nothing special, because after two years and nearly ninety columns, you realize that sometimes a bar really is just a bar, no matter how hard you try to wrench a metaphor out of it. Other bars you don’t write about because there’s everything to say; because they’re almost too perfect; because they’re pleasant enough and something special.
Because once, three years ago, during a protest, when all hell was breaking loose in Oakland, as it does, and people were scared — windows boarded up, businesses closed — you saw Peter Van Kleef, standing outside his very-much-open bar, a trash-can fire raging roughly ten feet away from him, smoking a cigarette and looking not the least bit concerned, and you went inside for a beer and it was maybe the best thing you’ve ever had. Because another time, when a bartender saw you eyeing the old-fashioned pay phone on the wall, he told you, with an absolutely straight face, to “be careful with that phone, man — it only calls God,” and it was so manifestly the stuff of an overwrought bar column that you knew you could never use it, or at least that you’d have to save it for a special (and irony-free!) moment.
I started writing about bars two years ago as something of a joke, or at least a lark: I was 23, and drinking on the paper’s dime seemed like a dream come true. (It was, and it is.) Now, as I prepare to leave — the East Bay, the Express, the alcohol beat — choosing to write about bars feels like a remarkably, luckily prescient move. In the time I’ve been writing Last Call, at least a dozen new bars have popped up in downtown Oakland alone, with probably at least that many currently in the works. And they make for a disarmingly convenient symbol — for Oakland, circa 2013; for authenticity (or lack thereof); for urban revitalization or gentrification or whatever you want to call it; for, ugh, Brooklyn; for breathless New York Times writers and black-masked window-smashers alike.
In the ten years since Cafe Van Kleef opened the area around has become so thoroughly and so dramatically enlivened it’s almost hard to believe — but so has Oakland, so has the Bay Area booze scene at large. Van Kleef pre-dated Art Murmur and Occupy and ironic taxidermy; if, in 2003, its drinks — made with genuine care and fresh fruit, hand-squeezed on the spot — were unfathomably forward-thinking, now they’re standard. Van Kleef is the Old Oakland, but it’s also the New Oakland, or maybe it’s just Oakland, and maybe all these things aren’t as different as we think. At any rate, Van Kleef’s metaphors need no wrenching-out.
I went there on Sunday. Outside, all hell was breaking loose in Oakland, as it does, and inside, Van Kleef was quiet, warm, dark, and inviting, as it is. A bartender handed out Cheez-its and the woman next to me read her book. I drank a beer, and it was maybe the second-best I’ve ever had.