Probably the first thing you should know about Kim’s Backyard is that Kim doesn’t want you there. Or at least that’s what she said last Sunday, when I told her I was a reviewer and asked to take a picture: That she’d opened the bar for herself, as a retirement hobby and, much like the name implies, as a place for her and a few friends (new and old) to have a couple drinks. That was twelve years ago, though — back when 24th and Telegraph was still the middle of Koreatown and “Uptown” was but a twinkle in Jerry Brown’s eye, when nobody knew what Art Murmur was, when Kim’s’ primary clientele was middle-age locals and longtime friends. It’s safe to assume that most bar owners would be glad to, suddenly and through no concerted effort of their own, be caught in the middle of a hip neighborhood and besieged by hip people, but not Kim, and this is why I adore her. She’s sick of reporters writing about her, she said, nursing a cognac and staring blankly at the Oscars post-show parading across the TV. She’s got plenty of customers. She doesn’t need more attention. No photos.
Kim Okwa Janke is about four-foot-ten and almost seventy years old and stubborn as hell and, to be honest, I’m fairly terrified of her, but we compromised on a picture of the sign outside. In lieu of inside photography, let me paint you a picture: there’s a wood-paneled front room with a single window; three TVs, generally turned up very loud; a long, curved bar stocked with all the standards; and a jukebox with an impressive collection of country and Eighties pop. Farther back, there’s a dark little backroom with yet more tables, framed Marilyn Monroe photos, and, somewhat inexplicably, a Christmas tree, and, outside on the back patio, picnic tables, at which Kim hosts free Sunday barbecues when it’s nice out or there’s a football game. Most surfaces are covered either by Raiders memorabilia of all kinds, what appear to be year-round holiday decorations, and prints of the football stars of yesterday. It’s generally cleaner, better-lit, less depressing, more credit-card friendly — and, N.B., slightly more expensive, with beers and mixed drinks hovering around the $5-$7 range — than most dive bars, though, and if they’re a couple bucks more, Kim’s mixed drinks must be among the strongest in Oakland.
On Sunday at around 10 p.m., Kim’s was quiet and largely empty: there was Kim, of course, with the cognac; a stone-faced middle-aged bartender; a larger, older man who apparently came alone and said not one word the entire time he was there; and a lovely, friendly, Mills College professor who was eager to talk Meryl Streep’s acceptance speech and public-education politics with Kim and everyone else — altogether, not too far off from what I’d imagined the place was like in the old days. Come Friday, though, it’ll be packed — Kim says the bar can top a hundred customers on a warm First Friday, which is frankly hard to imagine in such a not-huge space. Most likely, Kim will kick people out for being rowdy or too drunk or smoking weed outside or just looking at her wrong (she also has a well-documented hatred of redheads; go figure). But she’ll also give her favorites free shots and popcorn, show them photos of her kids and grandchildren, and — if they’re lucky and despite whatever she says about just wanting to be alone — join them on the dance floor for a teeming, giddy jukebox dance party. Pictures can’t show that, anyway.