This year marks the fiftieth that Andy’s Bank Club Cafe has been sitting on the same stretch of San Pablo, but there probably won’t be a party or anything — ostentation is not really Andy’s thing, nor, it seems is much of anything that might draw too much attention to the place. Out in front, the “DY’S” has fallen off so the sign just says “An Bank Club” like some kind of cruel grammatical joke. Twin flags — American and Greek — lend the place a certain sense of ceremony that it may or may not deserve. The walls are papered with pencil drawings of Hollywood stars and framed photographs of men holding freshly caught fish and a custom sign — “Andy’s Bank Club: Helping Ugly People Get Laid Since 1962.” Behind the bar: Several trellises of plastic grapes, a small gallery of yellowing photos, a ceramic mug shaped and painted like a pair of improbably round breasts, an urn filled with a friend and former customer’s ashes (“I hope that doesn’t gross you out,” says Nick, son of Andy, as he explains this.) All the liquors have their prices marked on the bottle, written in Sharpie on a piece of masking tape (also yellowing); your best bet is, as usual, draft beer — in this case, Trumer ($3) and exactly nothing else, though there are a few others in bottles. In an adjacent room is Wally’s, a Lebanese place owned by a friend of Andy’s nephew; through the strange alchemy by which these things happen, Wally’s has become one of those hole-in-the-wall places that gets colonized by Chowhounds and hipsters and experience-hunters, exalted on Yelp and perpetually crowded. The Bank Club, suffice it to say, has not.
Andy, his wife, and Nick all live upstairs. Most nights, Andy sits at the bar, beer in hand and baseball cap on head, shooting the shit with whoever happens to be in the vicinity. Roy’s been coming here seventeen years; there’s a picture of him, beaming and huge, on the wall, back from his bodybuilding days, back when black men were still shut out of the big contests. At one end of the bar sits a man who explains he was once Andy’s father’s paperboy; at the other, two women sing along, glassy-eyed, to the Christmas carol playing on the jukebox. Everybody knows each other — “like Cheers,” a man with a West-African accent explains, unbidden.
You see where this is going. It’s tempting to make a metaphor out of the Bank Club, or at least to mythologize it a little: an oasis of old among the new; a reminder, in beer and brick and mortar, of what things might’ve been like before Bay Street’s towers loomed large and bar owners dug through flea markets to find yellowing photos instead of just allowing them to get that way on their own — one of the East Bay’s few remaining authentic black bars, made all the more so now that it’s grafted onto the kind of place where everyone puts their iPhone on the table while they eat; a celebration of un-PC dishware and willfully tacky decorations and old men with stories to tell, all placed in sharp relief against the sterility of circa-2012 Emeryville.
But the thing about bars like the Bank Club is the regulars don’t love it for any of those reasons. They love it because they love Andy, or because it’s the best place around to get a cheap beer and shoot some pool after work, or because the company’s good. They’ve been coming to the Bank Club for ten, fifteen, twenty, thirty years — since long before the condos even existed, since long before there was anything to sharply relieve it. When people come in confused and looking for Wally’s, they respectfully direct them in the right direction, and when asked about throwing some kind of fiftieth-anniversary party, Andy just shrugs. And when overeager strangers try to steer the conversation toward real estate or irony or gentrification, he responds in, really, the best way possible: with a clap on the back and calls for another round.