Every truly great dive bar deserves to have a long and storied past behind it, if for no other reason than that it’s something of a litmus test. Great stories are, after all, what separate the places that are worth going to from the places that are not; the real dives from the faux-dives; the genuinely old and grimy and lovable places from the merely engineered-to-be-old-and-grimy-and-lovable.
The Kingfish, take note, is a truly great dive bar. Its story is murky — ninety years of existence will do that — but it starts in 1922, on the corner of Telegraph and Claremont. Back then, Temescal was an Italian neighborhood, and The Kingfish an actual bait shop. But at some point — nobody knows exactly when — the place began serving beer, and at some point after that, whoever was in charge realized that booze is more fun than dead worms and abandoned the whole fishing thing altogether. The name stuck, though, and the bar thrived until 2007, when — with the economy booming, the building aging, and the then-owner losing interest — it was set to be torn down and replaced with condos, despite protestations from its small army of loyal regulars. But then, the recession, or possibly fate, intervened: The economy took a dive, the condo project was put on hold, and the Kingfish would live to see another day. (Sort of: It closed its doors in early 2008, but a couple of those aforementioned regulars wisely realized that this was a place worth saving and took matters into their own hands by leasing the place themselves.)
These days, the Kingfish is still standing, mercifully more or less the same as it ever was. Outside, it’s a green-walled little bungalow with neon signage and an inexplicable (and improbably massive) sign for Seven-Up; inside, it’s got a smallish front room clogged with tables and an even smaller back room, made to feel that much tinier by virtue of the massive shuffleboard table that occupies about three-quarters of it. Bathrooms are appreciably graffitied, floors appropriately scuffed, drinks absurdly cheap. All in all, it’s about as far from shiny new condos as you can get, surely the diviest place in all of rapidly gentrifying Temescal. And like any good dive, the Kingfish has an elusive, ineffable, sort of place-that-time-forgot quality: The corner TV somehow seems to always be playing football, regardless of the season, hour, or day of the week, and the clientele always appears to be composed of the same twenty or thirty people no matter what. The recent remodel and concurrent gentrification of the neighborhood appear to have given the Kingfish a new hipster cachet and an occasionally odd mix of patrons, but everyone seems to be playing well together. And at any rate, this place is entirely attitude-free. (The last time I was there, I managed to accidentally spill the contents of my bag all over the floor and was aided by an unaccountably helpful group of bystanders; the time before that, I got wasted on ridiculously cheap whiskey, queued up a full four dollars’ worth of Miley Cyrus’ “Party in the USA” on the jukebox, and attempted to start a dance party, which, in retrospect, people were much nicer about than they should have been.) Bonus: Red Sea, the Ethiopian place across the street, delivers to the bar, making for much utensil-free fun, and while not huge, the selection is certainly cheap — we’re talking $6 beer-and-a-shot, $3 PBR tallboys, $4 beers, and the like. The jukebox, while digital, is well-stocked and relatively cheap, plus they have Buck Hunter, which may be the best video game of all time. Ceilings are head-bumpingly low; walls are covered with a truly staggering collection of ticket stubs, yellowed photographs, and other paper products; one corner is occupied by a hissing, buttery-smelling popcorn machine — altogether, almost definitely some kind of fire code violation, but there are probably worse ways to go than being engulfed in a boozy inferno surrounded by cheap liquor and happy people. Fuck condos.
The fifth annual San Francisco Cocktail Week began on Monday, and despite the name there are several events going down this side of the bay, most notably the East Bay Showdown (Thursday, September 22, 7-9 p.m., at Tessera Gallery, Oakland) and the St. George’s Spirits Bathtub Gin (!) Party (Sunday, September 25, 4-7 p.m., at the St. George’s Distillery, Alameda) look promising. Tickets for both are relatively pricey — $55-$65 and $35-$45, respectively — but still available; see SFCocktailWeek.com for details and the full schedule. … There’ll be plenty of wine-, beer-, and booze-related diversions at this weekend’s Eat Real Fest (Friday-Sunday, September 23-25, in Jack London Square, Oakland), including competitions for makers of home-brewed beer and liqueurs; a beer tent curated by Dave McLean of Magnolia and Adam Lamoreaux of Linden Street; and the evocatively-named wine barn, which will feature selections from Urban Legend, Dashe, and Periscope Cellars, among others. Also worth noting is that all wine and beer is only $5 a glass. For more details and a full schedule of events, see EatRealFest.com. … And, finally, Spats — the downtown Berkeley bar space that’s been shuttered so long you’ve probably forgotten it existed — is now back on the market. You know, just in case you have $1.75 million lying around.